Collector interview: Yonfan offers a tribute to the Princess of Wales from Hong Kong to Paris

Photographer and film director Yonfan has given eight Chinese paintings to the Musée Guimet in Paris



The Musée Guimet, closed for a complete overhaul until 1999, has been given eight exceptional Chinese paintings, one of them in memory of the Princess of Wales. These date from the Song Dynasty to the present day and were much coveted by US museums. Two of the scrolls are the first modern Chinese paintings to find a place in France’s leading museum of Asian art; like its counterparts, the Guimet is enlarging its historical range.

The donor is an artist from Hong Kong, Yonfan, who has already given paintings to the Sackler Gallery in Washington. This eminent polymath is a famous fashion photographer and portraitist who has also made eight films. After a series of romantic feature films, his latest, “Bugis Street”, transports the spectator into the transvestite area of Singapore. The next one is to be about gigolos in Hong Kong, and, after that, lesbians in Taiwan.

Fifty-one years old, smoking Gitanes without a filter, he explained how he built up his collection and why he chose France as the recipient of this latest donation. Then he was off to the Elysée to receive the Légion d’Honneur from President Chirac.

When did you begin forming your collection?

When I was twenty-one. Like everyone else I began by buying Chinese paintings that were easy on the eye. Later, when I was studying in Great Britain and France, I was fortunate enough to meet artists like Henry Moore, David Hockney, Erté. They produced work for me; I keep these as souvenirs.

But when I returned to Hong Kong in 1974 I felt much more strongly attracted to my own culture and little by little my taste began to assert itself. I began to collect Chinese painting seriously. At the age of twenty-five I sold some paintings in order to buy something else; I exchanged them.

Now I have a small collection comprising eighty or ninety pieces, antique and modern. I love meeting artists and finding out about their lifestyles, even when it’s a painter of the Ming Dynasty, like Wen Zhengming. I started a personal relationship with him when I bought a scroll by him. I studied his work and found out in what circumstances and in what manner he produced it: it took him ten years! When he could have completed it in ten days.

So you moved from contemporary western art to traditional Chinese painting?

Yes, and I know other collectors who have gone through the same process. When I started re-orientating my collection, antique paintings were less expensive than contemporary art; authentication is a headache though. One expert certifies a painting as authentic, another claims that it is only “attributed to” or “in the style of”. This has always been a problem for antique art, particularly for Chinese art. Even when a piece is catalogued quite securely, another expert will come along and produce a different opinion. So you can’t collect Chinese painting as you do ordinary painting; you really have to love it.

Your collection was heavily influenced by the painter Zhang Daijian (1899-1983).

I admired him deeply. Not only was he a twentieth-century master who had assimilated all the schools of Chinese art, he was also a great collector of old paintings. He was sometimes termed a “super-dealer” because he bought paintings, studied them, copied them and then sold them again... I was fortunate enough to know him and I built my collection around his life. I bought from him, and acquired some more from his widow after his death, in the salerooms. I bought work by his mentors.

Does your collection inspire you in your work as film director or photographer?

Not directly, but it influences my way of thinking and my behaviour. A lot of people think that if you collect ancient art you are out of date. That’s a mistake; I consider myself very modern.

A Western collector lives surrounded by his paintings on the walls. A different relationship must build up with Chinese art since you deal with scrolls that cannot be permanently on show.

It’s true. That is what makes Chinese art so different. If you meet someone you deeply admire and you think that that person would genuinely appreciate a work of art in your possession, after a cup of tea or several glasses of wine you unfurl the scroll and hang it up. It has nothing in common with a drawing room where as many paintings as possible are hung on the wall. Chinese art is much more subtle, more intimate. You know that you possess something that provides spiritual solace, but you do not hang it up simply to justify having spent several million dollars. You only share it with people who can appreciate it.

Is it important for you to possess a work of art?

Possession is not necessarily the best position to be in. At first I longed to possess; now I want to share because I realise that life has treated me very generously—hence this donation. When I acquired “The lady of the Xiang River” I told myself that I could always sell it again for a good price if I suddenly needed money. But I always hoped it would end up in a museum. So when I heard of the tragic death of Princess Di I thought it was the right moment to present the painting in memory of her, even though I never met her.

Why did you choose France?

Friends suggested Chinese museums, but I thought it was important that the paintings should be outside China so that they could be exposed to different ways of seeing. The object of all art is to open eyes, to make thought processes develop. What’s more, my work has been strongly influenced by French culture. It may be that the time was ripe for me to thank you for what your culture gave me.

How it happened

One day in Hong Kong, Philippe Koutouzis, who acts as agent for artists working in Asia, told Jean-Paul Desroches, a curator at the Musée Guimet, that he knew a collector, Yonfan, who wanted to make a donation and that this might be an opportunity for the museum in Paris. Philippe Koutouzis brought photographs of the collection to Paris. When they saw them Jean-François Jarrige, director of the Musée Guimet, and Jacques Giès, the curator and specialist in Chinese painting, realised how important the collection was. In July they made a trip to Hong Kong. They spent an afternoon with Yonfan and he showed them about forty paintings. “He allowed us to choose and did not try to influence our choice”, says Jacques Giès. “It was an incredibly generous gesture. We chose four paintings and praised three others highly. He proposed the other three to us as well. Then, after Princess Diana’s death, he added ‘The lady of the Xiang River’, one of Zhang Daijan’s most celebrated works. These pictures represent the taste of a collector in Hong Kong and will bring a real breath of fresh air to the museum.”

The collection comprises five landscapes, among them an anonymous painting of the Song Dynasty, and three rare Ming paintings (a magnificent Wen Zhengming which demonstrates the artist’s “luminism”, a Chen Chung and a very complex painting by Tang Yin.) The Guimet is also to receive a calligraphic work by Wen Zhengming, of exceptional lightness and power, and another modern work by Zhang Daijan, “Lotus”, in ink on paper. A gallery in the Guimet will be dedicated to Chinese painting and will named after Yonfan Man-shih.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A tribute to the Princess of Wales from Hong Kong to Paris'