How does an artist achieve success, recognition and — sometimes — fame? Art dealer, discoverer of talents, exhibition designer, Philippe Boulakia is, in his own way, writing a new chapter in the unusual story of a family immersed in art. Philippe, with his gift for discovering emerging artists, has collaborated with his brother Daniel to mount a London exhibition of the work of LiFang, an artist of Chinese origin. Let's take this opportunity to get to know this learned, passionate man, contagiously enthusiastic in his search for the inexpressible.
Birth of a dynasty
Philippe Boulakia was born in Paris. His parents were passionate about French culture and moved from Tunisia to study in France. Mado, his mother, became a social worker and his father Fabien worked as a biochemical engineer and researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). Philippe describes the influence of his father's profession: "I've always been interested in the scientific method. I often approach things as a researcher, and I study different equations to find a solution". He describes growing up surrounded by "an incredible joie de vivre, in a very open cultural atmosphere. There were visits to the Louvre and to Palais de Chaillot to discover contemporary dance, and evenings with our parents' artist friends". Then a decision was made whose importance would only be revealed in the course of time, and which would impact the life of the entire family. Despite the misgivings of those close to them, Mado and Fabien decided to give up their professions and dedicate themselves to a new pursuit: art. They poured their energy into creating what would become one of the most prominent galleries in the French capital. The Boulakia gallery opened in 1971 on Rue Bonaparte in Paris. From the outset, the gallery focused on the grand masters of modern art, including Picasso, Braque and Chagall. Along with brokering and selling paintings, the Boulakias supported artists such as Agustín Cárdenas and Wilfredo Lam. Soon the family was hosting memorable dinners that brought together artists, collectors, art critics and museum curators. "It was Les Trente Glorieuses in France, and all these galleries were opening". Galerie Boulakia gradually began to host major exhibitions for artists such as Antoine Poncet, Erró and Agustín Cárdenas, borrowing and purchasing works and producing catalogues. The establishment of the International Contemporary Art Fair (FIAC) in 1974 contributed to the gallery's growing success.
Philippe Boulakia, portrait, © Xu Ke
LiFang, Traversée n°6, oil on canvas, 130 x 162 cm, 2019, © LiFang
The art of public speaking
At the time, Philippe was a student of philosophy. "I was questioning myself, and I found that this subject enabled me to ask the right questions and to answer them". He had a deep interest in philosophy, but studying at Paris Nanterre University also opened another world to him. He discovered political activism, which gave him a taste for cooperation, delegation and efficiency. As a student leader, he soon developed the ability to take the floor, to debate and to convince others. However, he found the political world extremely hierarchical, and shortly before completing his studies, he decided to distance himself from it. Indeed, destiny was calling: he was drawn back to the art world and joined the family gallery.
The kings of Pop Art
The early 1980s marked the start of a surprising and fertile period. The Japanese market was going wild for the Post-Impressionist paintings acquired from Galerie Boulakia. Fabien Boulakia asked his two sons, Philippe and Daniel – who had also joined the gallery – to select some contemporary American artists. Intuitive and discerning, they were drawn to the kings of Pop Art: Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and rising New York star Jean-Michel Basquiat. Warhol and Rauschenberg already had work in museums, but Basquiat was just starting out. Among the many paintings they acquired was an enormous 5.3 metre-long fence, one of the artist's major works. "These artists weren't very well known in France at the time. There weren't many of us showing their work, and we contributed to building their reputation. By taking the risk of giving them exhibitions and publishing legendary catalogues, we contributed to building a legend, and that's thrilling. I was lucky to meet art dealer Léo Castelli, a key figure in the discovery of these talents and of many generations of artists. Many of the people we met became friends, like Enrico Navarra, who exhibited Basquiat's work and wrote a monograph on it. I discovered Ouattara Watts, an Ivory Coast artist, who Basquiat had just invited to spend a year in New York". In 1990, Galerie Boulakia hosted unforgettable exhibitions of the work of Basquiat, Ouattara and Rauschenberg.
Art and geopolitics
The following years brought changes that forced galleries to diversify their offerings and strategies. The Gulf War in 1990 led to the bursting of the Japanese speculative art bubble. "The market was at a standstill. French collectors were relying on safe investments such as modern art". Galerie Boulakia shifted its focus to the United States, participating in the major New York and Miami art fairs over the course of the next decade. "We were meeting cultured collectors looking for the kind of specialised works that we enjoy seeking out, by artists like Dubuffet, Klein, Picasso, Braque or Miró". Then came September 11 2001. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center put an end to visits from American collectors. In 2005, the gallery moved to a space on Avenue Matignon that was suited to large retrospective exhibitions of classic artists such as Dubuffet, Chagall and Picasso. For a time, Philippe was still able to continue supporting emerging artists. However, although he realised the importance of taking a closer interest in contemporary artists, he had to devote himself to brokerage activities. When Fabien Boulakia retired in 2019, the gallery closed its doors in Paris and moved to London, with Daniel as director. The pandemic then plunged the world into a period of inactivity…
LiFang, portraits exhibition, Lyon, 2015
What is beauty?
During a visit to the permanent collection at Centre Pompidou, Philippe was asked by his daughter Talia, then a teenager, "Dad, what is beauty?" Unable to answer her question, he decided to take her to see all the collections of the Louvre and Musée d'Orsay over the course of a year. "Introducing her to what has been passed down since the beginning of time to our own era seemed to me a good definition of beauty". This experience recalled his own childhood and early encounters with art. "I must have been 16 years old when I discovered Bauhaus art in an exhibition at Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris. I found it incredible. Next, I explored the Russian photographers and Constructivism through Rodchenko, and Suprematism through Malevich. These discoveries are still a fundamental part of who I am". Philippe also associates beauty with other experiences, like exploring nature at his family's country home, and meeting new friends. "I have some extraordinary memories. They taught me about birdwatching, and to experience the scents around me... it's infinitely rich".
Étienne Assenat, portrait © Étienne Assenat
Art in Paris
"This is an exceptional time for Paris. After Brexit, some of the major international galleries — Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner — decided to move here. Artists like Marlène Dumas, Peter Doig and Claire Tabouret are attracting collectors. The Perrotin, Kamel Mennour and Thaddaeus Ropac galleries have locations worldwide and are developing a different business model from the one we've known". However, the balance could be upset by the recent announcement of a VAT increase on the import and sales of artworks. Nevertheless, it's essential to have an international outlook, to establish exchanges with foreign galleries, to organise memorable events, to communicate and to advise. "The war in Ukraine is pushing collectors towards safe investments or impulse buys, to which our artists are eminently suited. It's important to build bridges with the private foundations being created and to form relationships with the museums buying the work of emerging artists".
Étienne Assenat, Le pas de deux, oil on canvas,
150 x 130 cm, 2010, © Étienne Assenat
Étienne Assenat, Montlevon, oil on canvas,
150 x 130 cm, 2023, © Étienne Assenat
An art explorer with an eye for talent
Philippe is embarking on a new adventure sparked by a meeting with LiFang, an artist of Chinese origin, at the Art Paris fair. The encounter has inspired him to build a new team of artists. "I love fairs, where it's all about chance meetings and unexpected opportunities". Philippe was captivated by LiFang's work. Based in Paris since 2001, with a growing reputation in France and work exhibited at Musée Cernuschi, LiFang keeps company with well-known figures in the Parisian Chinese art avant-garde, including Yan Pei-Ming, Wang Keping and Ma Desheng. It was both an aesthetic and intellectual meeting of the minds. Philippe immediately recognised LiFang's artistic talent, while LiFang appreciated Philippe's experienced eye and his deep understanding of her work. "Sometimes you're hit by artistic lightning. Now and then you have an epiphany, and you understand that a particular artist is expressing something very important that may produce a great effect. When I meet artists, if I perceive an unbreakable core in their work, they interest me greatly. I sense this core in the work of both LiFang and Étienne Assenat. They allow me to see through their eyes. The eyes of an artist are precious: they see things that we don't. And I offer them another perspective on their work through my ability to project it into the future, to create opportunities for exhibitions and meetings with collectors and new audiences". Today, Philippe accompanies LiFang and Étienne Assenat and will soon add others to this group, including a well-known Spanish photographer and an Austrian artist…
The art of meeting and seeing
If Philippe Boulakia had followed a different career path, what would he have chosen? Without a doubt, the cinema; or perhaps the science of optics. He's experienced many extraordinary moments in his life, but still feels a capacity for wonder. "I love meeting people. There are people I admire and would like to meet". Among them, writers such as Michel Houellebecq and Muriel Barbery. "I have a passion for words, for the French language and for history". And among those he'd like to meet again: "Filmmaker Jacques Audiard, who was a friend in high school, and art critic Olivier Cena". Through his artistic choices, he seeks to contribute to the creation of work that expresses values and a style that "embody something that feels right to me". An insatiably curious lover of forms, Philippe Boulakia trains his unique and sensitive eye on the artists he invites us to discover. Sometimes, a meeting or a look is all it takes to produce the unique alchemy that will propel an artist into the spotlight. The story continues to unfold with a verve that has lost none of its intensity!
traduction Julie Windebank
30 March – 4 May 2023
Galerie Boulakia London
41 Dover Street
London W1S 4NS
Monday to Friday 10am – 6pm
Saturday by appointment
To contact Philippe Boulakia
LiFang, Plage n°17, oil on canvas, 81 x 100 cm, © LiFang