Life & Culture

Art dealer to the stars

Jean-David Malat is the proud owner of a new gallery in Mayfair


I am sitting on a damson velvet sofa in a Mayfair art gallery. To my left is Jean-David Malat, dubbed “art curator to the stars”. To my right sits his mother, Anne and kneeling beside us is Rihanna. Not the real one, sadly, but a silicone, fibreglass and acrylic sculpture, wearing nothing but an American helmet and Basquiat-inspired body paint. The piece is by Edgar Askelovic and was created for the singer’s 30th birthday.

“Edgar makes everything himself, from the resin to the silicone,” says Malat of the hyperrealist sculptor, who is also known for his half-David Bowie-half-dog and his Kate Moss-crossed-with-Venus-de-Milo. “Rihanna is coming in July in the gallery to look, then we ship it.”

Malat, a 43-year-old Parisian former model, an awe-inspiring 6ft 3in when standing, is said to be “the most well-connected man in London”. After more than a decade in the art world, with clients such as Bono, Gordon Ramsay and Dolce and Gabbana, at last he has his own gallery, in London’s Davies Street, a few steps away from Claridge’s.

Like something out of Tatler, the gallery’s launch saw names such as Tallia Storm, Natalie Imbruglia and Nancy dell’Olio on the guest list, but when I arrive the following morning, all is tranquil, a vast space with white pillars, white grand piano and expanses of grey stone floor. And of course, the art which, in the main room is Metanoia, a series of moody, Francis-Baconseque oil paintings, laden with impasto, by Henrik Uldalen, a Korean-Norwegian with a huge following on Instagram. His following is important, because Malat’s venture is in fact fabulously subversive, discovering young artists on social media and bringing them to exhibit in an area of London traditionally closed to all but older, established creators.

Malat had moved to London as part of his fashion career when he discovered an aptitude for art dealing, by connecting with “friends of friends”. “I jump from fashion to the art world. I really like it and I really feel it was for me,” he says, in such a richly French accent that, had he been a British actor playing the role of a Frenchman, the director might have asked him to tone it down a bit. I suspect this makes him more approachable for young artists than cut-glass Queen’s English might have done.

“From an early age Jean-David has shown a huge passion for art,” says Anne, “and I am delighted this has now manifested in the form of his very own gallery. His ambition and dedication to the subject will be of huge benefit to exhibiting artists at his Mayfair gallery. I couldn’t be more proud.”

“I never thought I will open a gallery,” Jean-David muses, naming MarcChagall as one of his favourite artists, for his “dreamy atmosphere, very beautiful, very pure” and for the Jewish resonance. He speaks sadly about Jewish life in his native country. “In France, if you are Jewish or religious, I think it is dangerous. If you show it in a city like Paris, compared to London. There is a lot of anger.”

His late grandfather, a furrier, helped many Jews during the Second World War. “He hid a lot of people. He lost a lot of my family in the camps. After the war they became very discreet about religion.”

This discreet Judaism has been passed down to Malat. “Sometimes I go to Marble Arch synagogue. We do Shabbat but very small, like a family moment.”

Today Malat is anxious about his new son, Davi, four months. Davi is teething and throughout our interview his father continually checks if Davi is OK, firing off questions to his entourage in rapid French (I am relieved to understand enough to be sure he’s not saying “how soon can I politely get rid of this tiresome journalist?”). Davi has one brother, Joshua, who is seven.

Malat’s initial encounter with celebrity clientele was awe-inspiring. “When I started working in the art world, my first client was Pierce Brosnan,” he says. “It was really like something from a movie. It was Saturday, London, raining. Pierce Brosnan walks in with his umbrella it was a James Bond moment.”

One could never ask him what Lily Allen or Gordon Ramsay are “like in real life”, though, because to him, mixing with celebrities is real life. “It’s mainly because I am social and go to parties, in Cannes, or New York,” he says, in the tone of someone explaining that they pop next door to talk to their neighbours.

He feels it is only natural that celebrities should express their creativity by appreciating the creativity of others and he is protective of these clients “They buy what they feel and they need good advice.”

He was once so captivated by the work of an Icelandic artist that he flew to Rekjavik and then drove seven hours to his village in the mountains, to see his work. “We were in the middle of nowhere,” recalls Malat “in the mountains, with the horses.” What did he see in the artworks? “It’s emotion, he gave me emotion and when I met him, more emotion.”

I do not have to go to such lengths to meet Icelandic artist Katrin Fridriks, who happens to be in the gallery. “I throw the paint,” she says, indicating a silver canvas with colourful ellipses of paint. “My grandfather was a discus thrower in the Olympics in 1952. Where I throw the paint depends on the angle and speed, so the painting captures the speed. It happens in seconds.”

Nothing is wasted. “The pieces of paint that fall on the floor, I call them little waste.” She photographs them and invites others to philosophise over them, seeing them as a reminder to be mindful about how we use our precious resources.

As we emerge upstairs again, Malat surveys his own new precious resource once more.

“I love this space,” he says, with a sense of wonder. “To have a gallery with a wall this size in Mayfair it’s impossible.”


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