Ask me what the most surprising thing I’ve ever seen in Paris is, and I can answer without batting an eyelash: The Pagoda. It stands on the corner of rue Rembrandt and rue de Courcelles in the 8th arrondissement, adjacent to Parc Monceau, and believe me, it is hard to miss. One can only guess how this red-lacquered pagoda, with its Chinese gargoyles and jade tiles, ended up here, surrounded by Haussmanian buildings. Was it a former Chinese Embassy? Was it the house of a wealthy Chinese diplomat?
The answer is neither. It belonged to the Chinese art dealer Mr. Ching Tsai Loo, a Chinese immigrant and student in Paris at the end of the 19th century, who by the age of 22 had already set up a business of oriental antiques which proved successful with his privileged Chinese connections. Mr. Loo then assumed the important role of introducing Chinese and Asian art to the Western world, giving collectors and museum curators access to these objets d’art.
He purchased the private manor on Rue de Courcelles in 1925, originally a Louis-Philippe style hotel particulier, and turned it into what it is today – a pagoda in the heart of Paris – with the help of the French architect Franà§ois Bloch. It served as Mr. Loo’s family residence and as his gallery, Galerie C.T. Loo & Cie., filled with paintings, art objects, furniture, and porcelain for over 50 years. The difficulty of importing antiques and the passing of Mr. Loo in 1957, however, slowed down the business, and his remaining family put the building up for sale.
Its doors are once more open to the public after being acquired by a private investor in 2010. Restored to its former glory and under the direction of Jacqueline Baroness von Hammerstein-Loxten, the reopening of the Pagoda kicked off with an inaugural exhibit, L’Asie en Vogue, running from October to December 2012. In the 5-storey building are the works of eight pan-Asian artists of the contemporary art world, revolving around the theme of textiles and costumes.
The old merges with the new in this exhibit, as oil paintings and collages (Jagannath Panda, India), ceramic sculptural couture (Li Xiaofeng, China) or a dress sculpted from metal threads of steel and brass (Man Fung Yi, Hong Kong) are exhibited side by side with traditional robes and Lotus shoes. The stunning hide-and-seek portraits of Paris-based Japanese artist Kimiko Yoshida is a sumptous addition to the collection; the intricate details of Korea’s Ran Hwang’s buttons pinned on wood to form intertwined branches stand out beautifully against the bright walls, commanding our attention. Also on exhibit are Chan Dany’s (Cambodia) pencil shavings, the delicate and meticulous literati paintings of Peng Wei (China), and the textiles of Lavanya Mani (India), who uses the traditional dyeing process to create that which is visually modern. Each canvas, textile and installation explores the perspectives and depth of the artist’s aesthetic and background, making for an unforgettable stroll through 800m2 of Asian culture, an eclectic mix of artistic prowess.
Bright reds against 16th and 17th-century wood panels, Chinese character-laden art deco glass ceilings, a wood elevator, carved dragon figurines crouched on staircase banisters makes the interior as astounding, if not more, than the Pagoda’s facade. Moving through rooms and floor levels offers entry into vastly different places, worlds within worlds. Themed rooms like the Salle Indienne, the Salle Cavaliers and the Petit Salon Porcelaine are a feast to the eyes. Its elements of wood, Shanxi lacquer panels and exotic furniture displace you from the current era, until you look out the lattice windows and are jerked back to reality upon seeing the Parisian landscape below.
And so, with the dedication of those as passionate and determined as Mr. Loo was in bringing a taste of Eastern art into the Western world, his legacy continues. As an Asian living in Europe, I feel strangely at home in this building so defiantly different from its surroundings. If this exhibition is a preview of what the gallery has in store for us in the future, then I cannot wait to see what comes next.
The Pagoda Paris
48 rue de Courcelles, 75008
Metro: line 2 (Courcelles)
L’Asie en Vogue
From October 12 until the December 21, 2012
Wed-Sat, 11:30am – 6:30pm
The library of Mr. Loo can be accessed for research purposes. It contains over 2,000 books and 3,000 catalogues on Asian art, photographs and correspondence. To make an appointment, contact the Pagoda Paris.