It may come as no surprise to the former French Prime Minister that Dominique de Villepin lives in a lavishly furnished apartment on a smart street near the Place de l’Etoile in Paris. He recently moved here, but the walls are already covered with his considerable art collection. In the hallway and the living room there are works by Anselm Kiefer, and in his bedroom there is a large white landscape by the Spaniard Miquel Barceló, who lives in Paris. On another wall, an epic explosion of red: a reproduction of Goya’s “Third of May” by Chinese artist Yan Pei-Ming. On the bookshelves of his living room, masks and tribes from several continents have been carefully placed. Large windows overlook a generous strip of gardens, where de Villepin – 69, fit and tanned – begins his early morning jog.
De Villepin has had a long career in diplomacy and then in politics, but never at the expense of his passions for art and literature. “These are the things that allow me to breathe,” he says. Literature is also active in his collection: he owns ink cartridges used by Stéphane Mallarmé and Rainer Maria Rilke, and has portraits of Baudelaire by both Fantin-Latour and the Beninese artist Roméo Mivekannin. So vocal were his obsessions during his political career (foreign minister and then interior minister, before being made prime minister under Jacques Chirac from 2005 to 2007), they were mocked in a comic called Quai d’Orsay (home of the French Foreign Office).
His biography has spoken of finding him in the Prime Minister’s office in Matignon during a time of crisis, deep in conversation with a Chilean poet. De Villepin himself has composed books of poetry; published an account of Napoleon’s 100 days a few years before he was appointed prime minister (when he promised, perhaps hastily, to reform the country’s industrial structure); and even managed to write a book while in Matignon. “It’s called The Insomnia Hotel. It’s about literature and painting,” he says.
Although de Villepin is still traveling the world, distributing strategic advice to governments, foundations and private companies, he is digging deeper into the world he loves so much. In 2020, he founded a gallery in Hong Kong with his son Arthur, which he describes as “by collectors, for collectors”. It is housed over three floors and has the decor of an elegant French home. There, Arthur, who has lived in Hong Kong for 10 years, is introducing Asian collectors to painters, including the American George Condo and the late Hans Hartung. “It opened in March,” says de Villepin, “just as Covid hit. But it’s been an interesting time for us. We offer a customized service, so it doesn’t stop. And now Hong Kong is reopening, there is a new enthusiasm and optimism. The current show is a work by Marie de Villepin, his daughter, who also sings and acts; she presents rhythmic abstract paintings inspired by the movements of birds.
De Villepin readily admits that he felt constrained by political life. “If you want to do this as well as possible, you need discipline, you need a very tight schedule. Which gives you a very strong desire to break.” He tells me about a trip to Mexico City, where he slipped into the Museum of Anthropology in the afternoon. (“It’s my oxygen.”) His mutual antipathy for the rather technocratic Nicolas Sarkozy was well documented, although de Villepin says his rival discovered a cultural life. “He’s watched movies and read books,” he says. Emmanuel Macron “was full of ideas and projects at the beginning, but culture has not been a point of reference for the last five years”.
When he was in government, de Villepin instead sought out the companies of painters Pierre Soulages and Zao Wou-Ki. Both were part of the Paris School, a group of mostly immigrant artists that emerged after World War II. “Artists show the way, they challenge the certainties we have. They ask the right questions,” says de Villepin. “They show directions that humanity can take.” He started collecting Zao in the 1980s – “a small watercolor painting” – and in the 1990s they became friends.
They went on holiday together in the South of France and painted but plein air. “I would be next to him, making horrible things but trying to understand how he reacted to what he was looking at,” says de Villepin, who has many of his own works – figurative works in oils, watercolors and pastels – hidden away. In 2006, when Zao had hit a motivational wall, then-prime minister de Villepin invited him to La Lanterne, a hunting lodge in Versailles owned by the French presidency. “I told him to bring his brushes and as soon as he arrived he started working. A watercolor of pink roses, which hangs in de Villepin’s living room, is the first work he produced there.
Now Kiefer is a great friend, too, he says, as we take a closer look at “La Couronne Noire,” a huge canvas from 2005 that depicts a snow-covered plowed field in which sits a chair propped with a bundle of kindling. Paul Celan’s lyrics are written over the dark gray sky. “We have a common interest in Rimbaud and Celan. We both believe in the importance of history and memory.” As foreign minister, de Villepin commissioned Kiefer to do a major work in the basement of the Quai d’Orsay. “But I moved to the Home Office two months later, so it never happened.
De Villepin’s collection is driven by research and knowledge. “The key players are the artists and I like to get to know them,” he says. “That’s what I tell new collectors: Don’t leave the responsibility for your choices to the market. A real collector will always find time for something he is really looking for, even when he is very rich, with big companies, has a lot of responsibility. And people who store work, that’s different.” For him, painting has a sacred dimension that has nothing to do with the consumer world.
Exhibitions at the Villepin Gallery in Hong Kong have included The art of hope, with those artists of the Paris School who turned their war-driven flight from persecution and deprivation into inspiration and ambition in the French capital. And war is also the focus of a lecture that de Villepin travels around the world. “It’s on Napoleon, I’ve given it many times,” he says. “In Russia, in Asia. And everyone likes it very much, but they never follow the lesson: that war is not the answer. Not really. Art is.