When two friends, Shanghai-based venture capitalist Laurette Hartigan and Santa Barbara-based author Beverly Johnson (who collects Chinese antiques), both suggested I go to an opening at Hong Merchant, a Chinese and French-influenced antiques and art gallery, I knew it was a must.
I had enjoyed the inviting atmosphere at Hong Merchant previously, when friends bought some antiquities there. When they later had the items appraised at home in the U.S., the gallery turned out to be spot-on regarding authenticity and pricing.
THE ARCHEOLOGIST COLLECTOR
I was greeted by one of the former partners, French-born Anne-Cécile Noïque, now an independent art consultant. She is opening a new space to show contemporary Chinese artists and foreign artists-in-residence in China—another item on the must-see list for my next visit to Shanghai.
Anne-Cecile introduced me to Pia Pierre, the Danish gallery founder. A renowned archaeologist and art historian specializing in Southeast Asian antiquities, Pia lives in Thailand and Shanghai, and travels widely in China.
In the 30 years Pia has been collecting wares, Hong Merchant has become well known for its carefully selected antique Chinese furniture and decorative pieces, which are displayed alongside China-inspired contemporary art.
ARTIST WENSEN QI
Hong Merchant Gallery’s specialty is the mingling of European and Asian art. Painter Wensen Qi, a native of Toulouse, is one of many French artists whose work it shows.
Born Vincent Cazeneuve, he was dubbed Wensen (a phonetic translation of his French name) by his Chinese lacquer master, and he’s gone by this name since establishing his workshop in Chongqing. Qi is the Chinese character for “lacquer.”
Wensen originally studied and mastered wood cabinet making, marquetry, and gilding. Fascinated by lacquer, he opened his own atelier specializing in restoration of Asian and Western lacquer ware.
Since the 1990s, the artist has specialized in lacquer painting, an ancient art of China and Japan that has been practiced for thousands of years.
An abstract artist, Wensen incorporates many natural materials into his paintings, among them mud, linen, silver, gold, tin, lead, shells, stone, and wood. These create different textures and give a tactile quality to his paintings.
HONG MERCHANT BY DAY
Anne-Cécile invited me back to Hong Merchant Gallery for coffee the next morning. By daylight, the wonderful garden and the details of the shop and the objects were even more enjoyable.
CHRISTIAN DE LAUBADERE LOFT STUDIO
After coffee, we grabbed a cab and headed to the atelier of artist Christian de Laubadère, a native of the Gascony region of southwest France who has lived and worked in Shanghai since 2001.
Minutes later, we were knocking on the door to his studio, a loft-like space designed by the artist himself. This is what’s special about Shanghai—there is always another surprise.
DE LAUBADERE’S “NECKS” SERIES
We viewed pieces from Christian’s “Necks” series. These exquisite paintings depict the back of women’s heads, their hair arranged into intricate, traditional Chinese hairstyles, jewelry in their coifs or fastened at their ears, and rich fabrics draped at their shoulders.
Christian considers the neck (in particular the nape) and hands to be the most beautiful parts of the female body. A combination of French and Chinese styles, Christian’s distinctive work is immediately recognizable.
HAN FENG AT SHANGHAI EXHIBITION CENTER – CHINESE FURNITURE
One Sunday afternoon, I was sipping a cappuccino with my Italian friend Adrianna Mannering, who has lived in China for the last 15 years, when our mutual friend, fashion and graphic designer Han Feng, telephoned.
Han Feng had just returned from New York City, where she collaborated on the branding for Chris Burch’s latest high-concept retail shop, C. Wonder.
She was at the Shanghai Exhibition Center, where a Luxury Market Fair was on display. (I saw my first Fair of this type at the Millionaire’s Ball several years ago, and now it seems there’s one every week!)
Han Feng was excited for us to meet her dear friend Da Dong Ma, who was there representing Nanmu Studio. The atelier builds intricate, Ming-style furniture from an ancient evergreen wood called nanmu, known for its shimmering quality referred to as “Golden Thread.”
We learned that some of the pieces were made from nanmu wood that was thousands of years old. No one knew the wood’s name in English, but a little research clarified that it’s a product of the Phoebe sheareri tree. Nanmu wood is extremely durable and succumbs to very little decay or warping.
The trees were commonly used for construction projects in third-century B.C.E. China. But it takes at least 500 years for them to grow large enough to be used for furniture, and by the late Han Dynasty (202 B.C.E. to 9 C.E.) they had been over-forested. Thus, the Phoebe sheareri wood used for this furniture is sourced from old buildings.
Amazingly, the wood still possessed its natural smell. We thought it might be camphor, but weren’t sure; someone else suggested sandalwood. Interestingly, the smell changes with the seasons.
The furniture is carved according to Ming Dynasty tradition and takes a long time to complete, so it’s quite expensive. One of the tables, for example, took six months to finish and was priced at $2 million.
Photographs by Jeanne Lawrence.
*Urbanite Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in San Francisco, Shanghai, and New York, and wherever else she finds a good story.