“Her art was always hanging in my family’s homes,” says Arthur, who last year opened a gallery in Hong Kong with his father, former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin. “And in 2010, when I was leaving home to move to Hong Kong, my parents said to me, ‘What do you want to take?’ I chose three African masks and a small Myonghi drawing. It has some gold in it—in certain light it sparkles.”
Arthur still owns that drawing, which he now keeps in his bedroom next to another painting by Kang. Downstairs, a large canvas dominated by vivid splashes of green hangs above his dining table. Every morning, he admires it while he eats breakfast. Across the world, in Paris, a painting by Kang is one of the first things his father Dominique sees when he wakes up. Dominique has two other paintings by Kang hanging in his living room.
“Myonghi’s paintings are a big part of my life,” says Dominique. “They are not decorative—they have meaning, and every time I look at them, I see something different.”
After years living with Kang’s works, the De Villepins are now sharing them with others: from this month until October, they are hosting a solo exhibition of her paintings in their three-storey gallery in Hong Kong’s Central district, and they are already looking further afield. “We are also speaking to a museum in northern China about an exhibition and hopefully in the next few years we will bring her work to the US and to Europe,” says Arthur. “A small group of collectors have followed her and been very faithful in the way they’ve collected her art, but I really want to share her work with a wider community.”
Kang is something of an enigma. Her moody, meditative paintings have been exhibited at leading museums around the world, including the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the National Museum of China in Beijing, but her work has never appeared at auction at Christie’s or Sotheby’s and she has never been consistently represented by a major gallery. “She is not interested in the art market,” says Arthur. “She makes her work without compromise. She has built bridges with the past, with nature, with people, with light, with shadows, but not with the market—she doesn’t want to get into that, it’s my role to help with that.”
Kang was born in 1947 in Daegu, South Korea, where she grew up during the Korean War, the daughter of a single mother who was a civil servant and encouraged Kang’s interest in art by reading books to her on European masters. As the country was torn apart, the young Kang found solace in the paintings of Courbet and Cézanne that she saw in their pages, as well as in the natural world. “Looking at nature was a way to avoid looking at war,” says Kang, speaking over the phone in a rare interview from her studio on Jeju Island.