Balthus and Beyond
The widow of Balthus talks of life with the artist and her own creative work
or the first time in two decades, work by the late Polish-french painter Balthus, known for a distinctive style that blends modern and classical influences, is being exhibited in Hong Kong. Gagosian Gallery’s show, which runs until August 15, includes paintings, drawings and photographs spanning the reclusive artist’s career. Balthus’ widow, Japanese-born Countess Setsuko Klossowska de Rola, visited Hong Kong for the opening. De Rola herself is an artist, with an impressive collection of paintings, ceramics, kimono designs and written works. She and Balthus spent years working together at the French Academy in Rome, housed in the historic Villa Medici, before settling in Switzerland. Appointed a Unesco Artist for Peace in 2005, De Rola is honorary president of the Balthus Foundation, which she founded with her husband in 1998 to ensure his legacy lives on. The foundation operates out of their former home, The Grand Chalet in Rossinière, Switzerland. gagosian.com
How does it feel being in Hong Kong?
My first time visiting Hong Kong was in 1962. I was a student at Sophia University in Tokyo, and they organised a cultural exchange with the countries that were under French control— Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam. Twelve of us, boys and girls, travelled by boat, and the first stop was Hong Kong. Later that year, I met Balthus for the first time. Hong Kong was a sort of first step in leaving Japan.
What was it like to meet Balthus?
I didn’t know he was famous when I first met him. Because, at Villa Medici, there weren’t any of his paintings on the wall. And he didn’t want to talk about himself. He’s very discreet. He even called himself a painter and an artisan— not an artist.
You were sometimes Balthus’ subject. Are any pieces particularly significant?
Once Balthus began to work on his painting, he didn’t want to move. We didn’t travel except for rare occasions. I would think it was a pity that we couldn’t. But then he made La Chambre Turque (The Turkish Room), a huge nude photograph of me, into a stamp, a tiny stamp. So I said, it’s alright, instead of travelling around, my stamp can travel all over the world. In a way, I’ve been to places that I’ve never known.
What led you to making art?
I’ve loved drawing since my childhood but I never thought to become a painter. I met Balthus when I was very young—20 years old—and he was the director of the French Academy in Rome. I was surrounded by artists, so if we went to the countryside, everybody took their sketchbooks. It was so normal, so I took one too. I became a painter naturally.
That’s a beautiful kimono you’re wearing.
I design kimonos. They are very different from European fashion. In European fashion, you change the form. Miniskirts, long skirts, big sleeves. In Japan, the form of kimono doesn’t change. It came from China, our mother culture, and became instilled with our own creativity. But the principal cut has been the same from the beginning; it hasn’t changed for centuries. That’s the reason why there’s such an extraordinary variety in all the weaving and decorations—because the form never changed.
Are more exhibitions planned?
There will be a big Balthus exhibition in Rome this autumn, and early next spring in Vienna. And I have an exhibition in Japan this autumn. I will show paintings, ceramics, table settings, kimonos and other handiwork.
artist and muse From top: Countess Setsuko Klossowska de Rola at Gagosian Gallery; Olivier, a ceramic sculpture created by De Rola