Harumi Klossowska de Rola could easily be the name of a heroine from a novel, with its poetic, dreamlike air… Just like the creations by this artist. As daughter of the painter Balthus and Japanese artist Setsuko Ikeda, Harumi has inherited talent while carving out a path for herself in the universe of jewellery and art objects.
She spent her early years in Rome, in no less than the Villa Médicis, occupying its famous Turkish bedroom, when her father was director of the prestigious institution, from 1961 to 1967. Later, the family left Italy for Switzerland. And from there, she’d go onto London, Los Angeles, with increasingly frequent returns to Switzerland where she ended up settling, immersed in the heart of nature. Indeed, nature is what drives her and underlies her universe that draws inspiration from various sources: antiquity, mythology, feline creatures. Harumi Klossowska de Rola received us in her work smock in a studio close to Paris, where she is preparing her next round of works.
What was your childhood like, with such famous parents?
My father directed the Villa Médicis in Rome, where I was lucky enough to grow up. Very early on, I was surrounded by sculptures. The majestic lions that stand around the villa’s entrance left a deep impression on me, for example. I loved stone so much when I was little that I’d go off for hours to look for small pieces, as well as mosaic elements, in the gardens. Turquoise-coloured ones were big finds in my eyes, treasures… I also remember – but this was much later – conversations between my parents, my father coming back from his studio and talking about colours, shades, Renaissance painters like Masaccio. Much later I understood the influence that this had on me. I was also raised in Japanese culture and the importance of wabi-sabi, beauty in imperfection. The Japanese aesthetic touches me. My mother would force me to do Japanese calligraphy every Sunday. It was difficult but it trained me in rigour and a form of detachment. I remember tracing the figure “1” hundreds of times. It is a very precise gesture. This practice is a type of meditation in the end.
Have you been greatly influenced by the cities in which you’ve lived and your travels?
Indeed… When I was in Kyoto, I was struck by the presence of gold leaf, which can be found in my work, as in the “butterfly and lion” folding screen (editorial note: visible at the artist’s exhibition held at the École Van Cleef & Arpels last February).
Can it be said that the relationship between nature and the city is a key common denominator between the different places where you’ve lived?
Yes, that’s true. For example, I really liked living in Los Angeles. This city is a perfect compromise, artificial of course, between the city and the desert, beach and hills. I didn’t drive, so I’d often go to meet people by foot. Sometimes this could take me an hour. I knew all the routes, they’d give off an orange-flower scent. But coming to live in the countryside today was a turning point: it’s reinforced my link with animals, that I’ve always loved. Incidentally, when I was small I’d remember people who visited us solely in terms of the animals that came with them. I remember my father’s gallerist, Pierre Matisse, who’d always come with his dog.
How did you start to create jewels and objects?
I started off with John Galliano, then I became a press assistant, but I gave this up to return to Switzerland to be close to my father who was becoming quite elderly. There, I discovered in one of my mother’s drawers, many Chinese trimmings and buttons. They were entirely handmade and the colours really reminded me of Renaissance paintings, with very surprising tones, browns, pinks… I thought that matching them with semi-precious stones could be very beautiful. I developed the project with a partner until 2008. In the same year, I discovered the Boucheron jewellery house, which was preparing an exhibition to commemorate its 150th birthday. They asked me to create a piece. I started thinking in jewellery terms, creating models, etc. So I designed and created a snake-bracelet in response to the theme of danger that I’d chosen for this event. Next, my collaborations with Chopard enabled me to continue this jewellery-making work. At that time, I was also fascinated by skeletons. Not for what they represent, but for their admirable alliance of strength and fragility. So I made my first golden skull for Thomas Erber’s curiosity cabinet. This piece launched the start of my work on jewellery-objects.
How would you describe your universe?
There’s the jewellery-object that has to be stunning on the body, but that also exists by itself, when you put it on a table, alone. Otherwise, I try to breathe life into my follies and obsessions, in both jewellery and objects. More widely, I like to blend cultures, as in the gold-leaf folding screen that I made for one client. There are Asian-style butterflies on it, and I also introduced a lion, a more Western image. Animal representation is also omnipresent in my work. I’m obsessed with felines. This must come from my father because he loved cats. We had many cats, and I still have cats today. I have a Savannah, a species that resembles a mini-leopard, and his name is Kofi Annan!
Does this bestiary have a mystical resonance, in the ancient sense of the term?
Quite often clients buy my works because they’re attracted by their totemic appearance and sometimes their protective aspect. But I’d say that they belong to another register, with references to antiquity. In the end, what inspires me is the relationship with nature, which operates primarily through animals. Today, we’re losing this link and it’s important that I try to recreate it in my own way. We need to respect the beauty of animals and the Earth.
Which artists and jewellers inspire you in particular?
I have great admiration for Diego Giacometti. His work enchants me. In some way, I grew up with it. In my father’s studio, there was a photo of Diego, they were friends. And my father’s first wife, Antoinette de Watteville, with whom we stayed very close, lived in a villa in Switzerland surrounded by the artist’s furniture. Already as a girl, I was subjugated by so much poetry. There were also the Lalannes. I went to their exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, and emerged from it with a desire to create objects. As for jewellers, I really like JAR, Joël Arthur Rosenthal. The unexpected combination of materials and colours is quite exceptional.
Could you describe for us how a piece of yours is born?
Let’s take this mask, a box in the shape of a feline’s head. I recently saw a mask, perhaps Chinese or Thai, which was slightly oxidised. A simple thing like that urged me to design an object in oxidised brass, covered in gold leaf with lapis-lazuli incrustations. I produced the model, and it was then created in cast-off metal by an artisan. Very few people know how to carry out this process. It’s important for me to see the artisans’ trace, which confers small defects that become part of my creations. I’m very attached to European savoir-faire, especially French and Italian. In short, I start off with an idea and often it evolves, it’s rarely rigid. If I see in the course of the process that something doesn’t correspond with what I was aiming for, I may change colours or materials. I ask myself questions, sometimes obsessively. I also exchange with my artisans. On the other hand, I visualised the leopard-banquette from the outset, and the design didn’t budge.
What’s your relationship with the art market?
My relationship with the art market is difficult to describe. The same goes for the way people see me. I’m just starting to work with gallerists, for example. I have no pretentions of being an artist. I’m quite close to my father’s thoughts on this matter; he found the word “artist” a little pretentious. I don’t feel that I can say about myself: “I’m an artist.” I now have a better understanding of how my father saw his work. In the end, I’m an artisan who’s still learning. And at the same time, many people consider my objects and jewels as works of art.
Let’s go back to your exhibition at the École Van Cleef & Arpels. How was it organised?
They first contacted me to organise a visit of my father’s studio and house. This was how I met the company’s president, Nicolas Bos, and Marie Vallanet-Delhom, its director. They saw my work at the time. Then, a few months later, the school’s director suggested that I become the first jeweller-artist to show work in their new space. And I accepted the offer.
Scenography seems to have played a big role there…
The scenography was very delicate and precise. It was designed by my sister-in-law, Claire Peverelli, on the theme of expedition. The idea was to place objects on raw-wood boxes with Japanese inscriptions. This project enthralled me and VCA loved it.
And the texts?
My half-brother, who’s a poet, wrote a text on this occasion. Literature is very important for me; I’m particularly passionate about Russian literature. But also Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which was long my bedside-table book, or else Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars.
What are you currently up to?
I’m preparing objects for Goosens. I was introduced to them by Chanel, which owns the house. I’m very proud of this collaboration with Patrick Goossens. I’m particularly touched because Robert Goossens, the founder, and my sister-in-law, Loulou de la Falaise, worked a great deal together.