FROM CARAVAGGIO TO KOREA. Marco Voena is a distinguished art historian and art dealer who works in many countries. Robilant+Voena have galleries in London, Milan, New York and Paris. Today’s art dealers have to go to fairs around the world, the most famous being Art Basel and Frieze, and Maastricht for Old Masters. Recently Voena went to South Korea for Frieze Seoul.

Marco Voena, why did you go to Seoul?

I started a relationship with Korea in 2021 when, at the suggestion of my son Edoardo and together with an investment firm, I organised the first exhibition of Lucio Fontana in the Far East, and in particular in Korea. It was a great success — we published a catalogue and we brought examples of all of Fontana’s greatest works, including paintings with holes and slashes, the famous Concetti Spaziali (Spacial Concepts), ceramics, and also photographs by Ugo Mulas that documented Fontana working in his studio.

Are they interested in European art in Korea, not only in Fontana or contemporary artists but also in Old Masters?

Yes. At Frieze Seoul we were in a section called Frieze Masters, which includes modern works as well as Old Masters. We were trying to present a history of 600 years of Western art, from the medieval period to Lucio Fontana. We are calling it “From Giotto to Fontana, we take 600 years of Italian art”. We also included famous French or English artists like Chagall, Picasso, and Damien Hirst who proved to be a real success in Korea.

Was there a particular work that was very successful?

We showed one of Hirst’s great butterfly works, one of the biggest of its kind, a massive roundel evoking the stained glass rose windows of the great Catholic cathedrals of Europe. It is really colourful and decorative, but at the same time it deals with big ideas, past and present, life and death. The butterfly is an eternal symbol of the flight of the soul and the fleeting nature of human existence on earth.

“I am Italian, and a humanist, and I respect other cultures.”

Marco Voena

Damien Hirst, Robilant+Voena, Frieze Seoul 2022.

Marco Voena, is it true that Korea is mostly a Catholic country?

Koreans are predominantly Christian and Buddhist, and the Christians there are very devout and go to church often, which is amazing. I was so impressed when a Korean visitor came to the gallery in Milan and recognized all the saints in the Old Masters we had on display. Not many Europeans or Americans can do that! I confess I don’t know a lot about their Buddhist culture. I have a lot to learn there.

Is it true that they are interested in buying Madonnas?

We sold one medieval Madonna by a famous artist called Giovanni Toscani (1372-1430), a painter very close to the famous Lorenzo Monaco (1370-1425), at the transition between gothic and renaissance in Florence. It’s a classic Madonna and child on gold ground and so amazing. At the fair one lady fell in love with it, and wanted to pray in front of it every day. It has this message that is very powerful, very nostalgic.

Will you bring more Italian Old Masters to Korea?

For sure, also because of the new generation. Many of them have been educated in Europe and America, in London and New York. Since they have lived for some time in other countries, they have introduced a real open-mindedness into their sense of culture. Christian subjects have a great appeal because Korea is a very Christian country. At the same time, Koreans are world travelers so works like views of Venice are also really appealing—everyone takes photos of famous sites when they travel, and some of the world’s most famous sites are in Italy. The view paintings are an extension of that.

In London an exhibition titled Hallyu! The Korean Wave is opening at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Why does the world talk so much about Korea and features it in major newspapers like The New York Times and the FT?

The press is very positive about Korea, about K-culture, K-Pop, K-movies, K-art — the image of Korea around the world is booming! Korea is a place with a lot of good collectors and we know one of the most important families of collectors, the Lee family, very well. We call them the Samsung family. They built a museum in Seoul designed by Rem Koolhaas, Mario Botta, and Jean Nouvel — so they have three buildings in the same place, and this design by three different architects is a great idea because it puts the three styles together. It was not until after the wars of the last century that Korea experienced a real economic upswing — until that time it had been a primarily rural country, dependent on agriculture. It had also been culturally and economically overshadowed by larger powers in the Pacific, mainly China and Japan. From this difficult past something extraordinary emerged. Today, Seoul is a leading city of economic power in the world, up there with New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong, and almost 10 million people live there. When you go to Seoul you feel almost like you are in New York — there are so many skyscrapers you could be on the Hudson River, the skyline, the modernity and the energy of it is very American in a way. Just like in a lot of Western countries, America in particular, a flourishing of culture is following a great economic success and Korean culture is really coming to the fore globally as well. In the Financial Times for the last three months there have been so many articles about K-Culture. The new exhibition at the V&A is introducing K-Culture, with a special focus on fashion, and movies, well, everybody I know watched “Parasite”!

Will Seoul take the place of Hong Kong?

Frieze Seoul is trying to take a place on the Asian stage, to become a hub for art in the Far East. Hong Kong is an amazing place with amazing people, a real crossroads for the different cultures of the Far East, but today under Chinese law the feeling there has changed. The Far East needs a new centre for art and the candidates this time are Tokyo, Singapore and Seoul. For geographic and economic reasons it can only be Tokyo and Seoul, because Singapore is really a city rather than a country. Seoul is probably the best candidate. Korea has declared investment in culture is a state responsibility and this is very important. They have invested a lot in building spaces for exhibitions, and some international dealers like Perrotin and Pace have already opened gallery spaces there. Frieze Seoul is run by one of the most important art fair companies in the world, started in London and supported by Deutsche Bank. By contrast Art Basel, which is supported by UBS Bank, is very successful in Switzerland and in Miami, and it was also in Hong Kong.

Did you feel the close presence of North Korea in Seoul?  

When you are there, you don’t really feel it. Also, for all that Korea is really vibrant and modern it still has a very traditional quality; people are so polite, they operate with strong codes of respect. You don’t see one piece of paper on the ground, ever, in the whole city of 10 million people. Such a big metropolis and everything is clean. Everything is so well done. When you meet people at the fair, the ladies are always well dressed. So many people came to see the fair. So many young people too, in their twenties and thirties and forties, occasionally some also more mature. It was amazing. I have never seen my booth so packed with people. 100 square metres so packed with people I couldn’t breathe. So many people interested in Picasso, in Damien Hirst. So many photos taken. It was like a pilgrimage for them, to come and see the works of Western art. I was very impressed. Something like this has never happened in my life. 

“I want to continue looking for really interesting Korean modern and contemporary art and introducing it to new audiences.”

Marco Voena, are art fairs now more important than galleries?

They are a place to move a crowd. In a way, art fairs are the modern-day circus, moving from town to town and showing the people there something new and exciting from a faraway land. In a way, the fairs are not about culture. They are a place to meet other people, to develop new relationships, to see different things, to comment.

But they don’t buy, they just go?

Some buy! I sold to some people who are 35, 40 years old. They for me are young people, collectors at 30 years old. One of the most famous Korean collectors gave an interview in The New York Times. He’s called RM and he is a pop singer who has 30 million followers. He is trying to bring K-culture to the West and to bring art into Korea. He was at a table with the director of Art Basel. He is very famous — and very young.

How about the Koreans’ modern and contemporary art culture?  

There are some Korean artists from the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s who are very important — one of the most famous is Park Seo-bo, who is a bit like the Cy Twombly of Korea, because of the style, the texture, of his work. There is a good museum of modern and contemporary art in Seoul that tries to organise exhibitions about these artists, who today are 70 or 80 years old. The Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul is one of the most important collections in the world for modern art, and focuses entirely on Korea. Europeans and Americans also bought a lot of Korean art, starting about eight or ten years ago. Frieze Seoul is a new great step, bringing the West to the East in a truly global art market. The market follows the culture and the culture follows the market, in a way, so there is an exchange or dialogue between market and culture, it is not one-sided at all.

In the western world there is more and more interest in other cultures, Far Eastern Culture, Black Culture Club. Is the world of art now opening to a much wider world? 

I began to work in the middle of the 1980s. In the last 20 years, in the new millennium, we began to realise the potential of the internet. The world became so much more open, because the internet exponentially expanded the possibilities for relationships between people, revolutionizing economies, making individuals and entire countries richer. Africa, the Middle East and the Far East all grew up, and their cultures came to the forefront of global consciousness as never before. I am Italian, and a humanist, and I respect other cultures.

You not only have your own galleries but your extensive travels include the Arab countries where they also built in Dubai and Qatar new museums and collections. Is there a difference between that world and the Korean world?

Korea is a country that grew up in the post-war period into something resembling a western country. The Middle East is a different thing, because it was a great idea to build a city called Dubai which now has three and a half million people in it, but it is an invention in the desert, a sort of Las Vegas for high culture. The ruling families in Oman, Qatar and Abu Dhabi — the Abu Dhabi Louvre was their idea—built these incredible museums, and these great temples for art became magnets for tourists, and the cities grew up around them. In Korea, the opposite was the case — the cities were already there and the museums were founded to enrich their existing populations. But the museums in the Middle East are still fantastic. I sold pieces to Abu Dhabi Louvre. One of their most important works of art came from us.

Which one?

It’s called the Tavolino di Gioie, and it is a masterpiece in pietra dura. It was commissioned in 1568 by Francesco I de’ Medici, heir to the Grand Dukedom of Tuscany, and was designed for him by Giorgio Vasari. It was sold by the Italian state in 1870. It is a long story, but it is an amazing piece with such important history, and it is now in the Abu Dhabi Louvre.

They also use architects like Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry and Renzo Piano to build museums or cultural centres. What is the difference of taste?

It is not about taste. Korea is a country with a distinctive culture, just like Italy or France or the UK — you feel this in all aspects of society. The museums are a natural addition to the cultural fabric of the place. When you go to Abu Dhabi or Dubai you feel that somebody in charge arranged it for the people. That’s it.

Maybe the fair was particularly important because it was after COVID when they couldn’t really travel much?  

To some extent yes. The success of this fair was the public. As I said we have never seen so many people at a fair, and maybe people had been traveling less because of restrictions. When I went to Korea one year ago it was very complicated, and I needed all sorts of permissions. This year there are still a lot of restrictions, we have to do tests, everybody with a mask. And everybody has the mask up. I never saw one Korean with a mask down or below the nose. No one. No one. There is great discipline. People are very, very precise.

Are you going to show Korean art in your galleries?

I already have! In 2018/19 we had an exhibition in St Moritz of Minjun Kim, an accomplished woman artist who works mainly on paper, and in Paris in 2022 we showed works by Ik-Joong Kang. I want to continue looking for really interesting Korean modern and contemporary art and introducing it to new audiences.

Marco Voena

Coex Convention & Exhibition Center, the building where Frieze Seoul 2022 was held.

Marco Voena

Chagall and Bonnard, Robilant+Voena, Frieze Seoul 2022.

Marco Voena

Picasso, Robilant & Voena, Frieze Seoul 2022.

Marco Voena

Picasso, Robilant+Voena, Frieze Seoul 2022

Marco Voena

Caravaggio – Ecce Homo

Marco Voena

Lucio Fontana and Madonna by Giovanni Toscani, Robilant+Voena, Frieze Seoul 2022.

“Art has to be seen, you have to stand in front of it.”

Marco Voena, you seem to be very much in love with Korea, maybe because it’s new for you, but you have experience of America and many countries, the Middle East, Europe and you’re based in London. What is your situation today?

America remains the first country for collecting. The museums and private collectors are the best, people are very straightforward and very interested — European culture underpins theirs, so there is a natural connection. We always have a great response in the United States. Europe follows because it is our country, our continent. Everything is going well in what we are already doing, but I also feel it’s important to open a new door, in particular to open a new door in a democratic country. I don’t like places that are not democratic, like China.

Have museums changed what they are looking for recently? 

There is a lot of focus on acquiring works by women artists and people of colour, or works that depict people of colour in a dignified way. Now we actively look for more works to satisfy this need. Art history has become very concerned with bringing what has until now been marginal to the centre. Just as contemporary art is now a global phenomenon, curators who study and care for Western art collections are now trying to take a more global perspective.

Even if there are crowds of people who go to museums, isn’t art and its curation still an elite subject?

I agree and I disagree. Even when you’re talking 10 million visitors in the Louvre, I understand that some are going only to walk around, only going to stay for a short time. I was in the Louvre recently and I see them go to the coffee shops and restaurant, to the loo. I see some also are only walking through, but they are walking in art and that is a positive. Even if everything people do, they do in a superficial way, only to be able to say I was in the Louvre, I was in the Uffizi, I was in the Vatican Museums, I was in the Metropolitan, it is still something because the images around you stay with you, and that is especially true of children and many younger people.

Is that why museums are so important?

They are the best of human creativity and culture. When you enter the Metropolitan Museum and see all the cultures mixed together you get a great sense about the whole of civilization. The Abu Dhabi Louvre today is an interesting example because they put three cultures together: Islamic, Christian and Buddhist. They present them with equal prominence, and side by side. The Bible, the Koran and Buddhist scriptures are shown together. You see them together. That is most interesting, showing them on equal footing, at peace, with culture as the leader.

Old Masters were not so appealing to young people in the last 10-20 years. Is there a coming back?

Contemporary art is popular in part because it only requires an understanding of the now. With Old Masters, you have to understand a lot about history, art, and so on. In Europe you grow up surrounded by this cultural context, you study it. And because America is a country of immigrants its culture initially had European foundations, and so Americans have a natural affinity for European art. Once someone becomes interested in art, even contemporary art, that curiosity can grow, and turn to the art of the past. Korea has its own distinct culture, apart from the Western tradition, but Western art, even old western art, can have a strong appeal through shared human values. It’s up to us to find and discuss those points of connections with people who are new to Western art.

What do you think about the approach of many museums of showing Old Masters and contemporary art side by side, as you do in your galleries and stands?

I did this some time ago. In 1999 I did an exhibition that juxtaposed Gothic gold-ground paintings with Lucio Fontana gold paintings. After this it became fashionable with museums. The idea, though, is to try to understand that everything came from something — all European art obviously relates back to antiquities, to Greek and Roman art. For 2000 years humans have remained the same. They continue to think about the same ideas but use different styles and visual languages to express it. Presentations of old and new were often trying to entice young people to visit a museum. You always have to try to find a cultural bridge. Many writers and artists have expressed the idea that all great art is always contemporary.

You flew immediately to Madrid when they discovered a Caravaggio a couple of years ago. Do you love a discovery? 

To discover something new, or old that has been lost to time, is like an archaeologist, and a detective — you identify something you have a sense is important and then you work to reconstruct its story and bring it back into the light. You help a work to find its place in the mosaic of the history of art — you put the piece back in its place. With the painting in Spain the first thing we did was go and see it. You have to look in person — you can’t decide anything from photographs. Art has to be seen, you have to stand in front of it.  I disagree in a way sometimes about the internet, about Instagram, WhatsApp — art needs to be seen for real, in person, and that goes for every kind of art, Old Master and contemporary. It’s like when you meet a person. It needs to be a physical meeting to be complete.

Korea is a discovery in another way?

Yes, it’s a discovery of this kind of enthusiasm. Again I say I’ve never seen a big interest like that, not even in other places in the Far East. In Hong Kong you don’t see this kind of level of interest. I was seeing lot of people but not such big interest.

Do you recommend a visit the Victoria and Albert to see Hallyu! The Korean Wave?

I recommend it for sure. The exhibition at the V&A museum will give you a good general idea of what Korean culture is today. It’s more about a contemporary world but the history is there as well.

When countries recognize the importance of culture is that ultimately what you like?

While our economies are about manufacturing, industry, finance, on the other hand what remains through the centuries, our legacy to the world, is our art, the culture, the books, the writers, the musicians, the painters, who celebrated the best of what it is to be human. These people are the key to the present and the future.

Thank you very much.

Photo of Marco Voena by Wayne Maser.