It all began during the summer of 2007 in Paris when locals began witnessing snaking queues around a nondescript building at Place de la Madeleine, where crowds waited for admittance to a Roy Lichtenstein exhibition.
Fast-forward a few years and sell-out temporary exhibitions headlined by art royalty such as Jackson Pollock, Van Gogh, Maurice Utrillo and Edvard Munch have sealed the Pinacothèque de Paris's repute in a scene dominated by institutional giants such as the Musée d'Orsay, Centre Pompidou and the Louvre.
By 2010, the young museum even recorded visitor numbers that trumped the Louvre, with the Pinacothèque's The Dutch Golden Age receiving 700,000 visitors, compared to the 410,000 turn-out for the Louvre's Rivals in Renaissance Venice. Not bad for a tiny 2,000-sq-m museum (in contrast to 60,600sq m at the Louvre) that relies solely on private funding and has no permanent collection to call its own.
Today, the Pinacothèque is easily Paris's most successful private museum and the feat has spawned its first overseas branch — Singapore Pinacothèque de Paris at Fort Canning Arts Centre. The man behind it all? Art historian and Modigliani scholar Marc Restellini, who was spurred by the need to “transmit my love for art”.
A strapping 49-year-old with a shock of grey-flecked hair and prone to laidback candour, he tells us he was drawn to Singapore for his latest venture as it has an “irresistible arts community”, as compared to Asian rival Hong Kong, “a pure market place”.
The concept of the Singapore outpost will mirror that of France: A fine art museum known for its highly acclaimed exhibitions that celebrate transversality — the creative (if not brazen) juxtaposition of art from across eras.
“In the museum world, art classification is very encyclopaedic and academic, period-by-period,” he explains. Instead, Restellini identifies themes in works, regardless of time period or artistic style, to create dialogue.
This approach to curating has previously seen him pair contemporary Pollocks with ancient African tribal artefacts, a bizarre idea until one considers that “Pollock was very influenced by African shamanism”, he shares. For another exhibit, he might audaciously display a 16th-century renaissance painting by Tintoretto side-by-side with a 19th-century baroque piece by Van Dyck, as he did in the The Art of Collecting, Masterpieces from the Pinacothèque de Paris pop-up held in Singapore two years ago.
“Whether the artist is French, German or Japanese, from the eighth or 21st century, their spirit and inspiration to create will still stem from the same subjects: Love, God, sex, beauty, nature and death. I put paintings together to show that.”
At the heart of it all, Restellini wants to share fine art with the world in an accessible and fun way. So the exhibition space is also easily navigable, with artworks hung lower (at eye-level for better viewing, he insists) and individually lit.
Besides his curatorial talent, Restellini is clearly gifted in the art of persuasion — evident from the masterpieces he displays on loan from their owners. These are mostly private collectors such as oil trading and real estate mogul George Kremer who has lent him several very rare Rembrandts.
“The problem with most curators is that they are so formal when viewing art. Where is the love? They never go ‘wow!' like collectors do. But I speak the same language as them, in that we have an emotional approach towards art,” he shares.
“Art is really a pure transmission of what the artist has inside him or her own self. It is never one-dimensional, nor is it merely decorative play.”
Of all the prominent art collectors Restellini has triumphantly coaxed, it is a certain Dr Rau that has left the deepest impression. They met in 1990 and he describes the wealthy German-born man as very secretive (“He was like a ghost, nobody really knew him,” he recalls) and who would travel twice yearly to New York and London auctions to purchase art.
“Dr Rau showed me some Renoir and Grégoire paintings at his house. When I saw them, I was shocked, almost crying,” he reminisces with a grin.
But for all the museum's accolades, Restellini's road to success was not without its bumps. Considered brash and outspoken, he faced fierce opposition at the start from the Parisian state cultural bureaucracy for his unorthodox methods; and was shunned by curators for not taking the official examination for museum curators, but there he was, attracting the best works, such as the Chinese terracotta warriors of Xi'an, which the Louvre apparently had bidded for to no avail.
Relations with the establishment have since improved. “We are very cordial. They do not try to destroy me anymore,” he says, in reference to that infamous interview he gave to The Independent in 2010, in which he described his rivals as having tried to “torpedo” and “destroy” him.
“But the Parisian museum industry is still not good. There is no spirit of collaboration within the museums. It's a terrible, yet funny and strange thing,” he opines.
“Perhaps things may change. Who knows? Just be patient and things will come in their own time,” he adds, citing his artist grandfather Isaac Antcher, whose love for art influenced him from a young age and whose connections (one close friend was famed art dealer Léopold Zborowski, who had clientele the likes of Modigliani and Soutine) arguably helped paved the way for Restellini to come into his own.
Today, the dream to make art accessible is still what drives the museum director, who declines to reveal what is next in store for the Pinacothèque. But he does assure us that he will always continue to do what he does best: “Get a space, raise money, and organise the exhibition. I have never stopped and will not stop doing that.”