DAUGHTER OF THE KING OF CATS. Harumi Klossowska de Rola is an artist and designer who creates powerful sculptural works and delicately crafted luxury jewellery inspired by the flora and fauna of the natural world. Her animals are totemic entities, capable of creating a bridge between nature and man, the visible and the invisible, the spirit and the earth. Harumi is the daughter of the painter Balthus and the Japanese artist Setsuko Klossowska de Rola.

Harumi Klossowska de Rola, as a child you lived at Villa Medici, the French Academy in Rome where your father Balthus was Director. Can you tell me about your early life?

I was lucky to grow up from age 5 to 10 at Villa Medici and one of my obsessions was to go in the big gardens and collect all kind of colours of small stones. Sometimes it was just a fragment of probably mosaic – because I loved the blue colour – and I was obsessed with all kinds of shapes. Even if it looked completely common I just loved stones. And then, since I was a child, I was also obsessed with animals. I would remember all the guests that we had at home because of their animals.

The animals they visited with?

Yes. If they came with a dog, or if we would go and visit people and they had a cat; I would remember them through the domestic animals. I started giving Christmas gifts to my family by trying to do small arrangements with stones. I would do a hedgehog or a bird by putting the stones together. Most of the time I found them in the trash; of course nobody kept them. Only my dad kept preciously all my glued together sculptures. I was very moved that he did that.

Your family then moved to the Grand Chalet in Rossinière village, near Gstaad in the Swiss Alps, where you still live. Was your father your teacher?  

No, he would go to his studio and come back at five, and then we would watch cartoons together. He would read me stories. He was obsessed with Tintin. I grew up with Tintin.

“He actually considered himself as a king of cats.”

Harumi Klossowska de Rola

Harumi Klossowska de Rola, was your father Balthus severe?

He was not strict at all, he had his childish part. I had him when he was quite old, so it’s probably very different than my two brothers who met him when he was much younger. He was more like a grandfather with me. He would read the horrible books that I used to read, like Barbara Cartland.

He was reading Barbara Cartland to you?  

No, I was reading it so he was then reading it so we could speak about it together. He was not really approving, but he wanted so much to connect with me. He would sometimes complain and say, “You should read Dumas, Les Trois Mousquetaires.”  He was very French but also had a lot of interest in the Asian cultures, especially Japanese or Chinese culture.

Your mother is Japanese. How was she?

My mother was very strict. If I wanted something, I would ask my dad, who would always say yes; and then my mother was furious.

Do you speak Japanese?

I do but I forgot a little bit. I had a calligraphy lesson every Sunday with her. She lost a lot of patience with me because I was not very concentrated, always a bit dreamy. But calligraphy helped me a lot in drawing. I understood the importance of it much later.

How was it to have a mother dressed in a kimono when you went to school?

In Rome it was fine, but when I started school in the small village in Switzerland it was not really appreciated. Everybody was looking at me in a very strange way because she was dressed in a kimono and my father looked like my grandfather. I heard that my mum was a very modern girl when she met my father, that he’s the one who told her that it would be nice to be dressed in a kimono. 

Did you go to Japan with your parents?

Yes, I did. I met my grandfather, who was almost the same age as my father, and had a wonderful time in Japan. I loved Japan and was well received. At the time I was mainly speaking Japanese or Italian – those two were my first languages – but much later in my life I noticed that for Japanese people in general I still would be a foreigner in my manners.

Do you still have contact with Japan?

I have good friends who are Japanese and who live there, and my two children speak Japanese because we had Japanese nannies for a while. Well, my daughter completely forgot – but my son, who’s 14 years old now, speaks Japanese.

Your father was a great artist. Did you admire him when you were young?

No. I didn’t understand his work. I asked him about one of the paintings Les Joueurs de Carte – why the heads of the main characters were flat on top. He was just laughing, no explanation. After, when I looked at pre-Renaissance painting, I understood the work of my father much better.

Your father used cats a lot in his work. Were you influenced by that?

He actually considered himself as a king of cats.

He considered himself a cat?

Yes. When I was a child we would draw cats together. He was showing me how he would draw it and then I would continue the drawing, and we had certain times when we were both of us doing a drawing together.

“My whole approach has been how to reconnect people with our old soul.”

Harumi Klossowska de Rola, your own career started with drawing jewellery?  

Yes, I never thought about painting. When I went to the famous private school called Le Rosey in Rolle at the age of 11 I was very close to the first wife of my father, Antoinette de Watteville, the mother of my two half-brothers.  Her house Fleur d’Eau was close to the school in Rolle and on Wednesday afternoons and weekends I would go to her house. I really loved her a lot and I was fascinated because she was a huge collector of Diego Giacometti.

Who else was a big influence for you?

My sister-in-law Lulu de la Falaise was a huge influence about jewellery. She was doing jewellery and accessories for Saint Laurent and every Christmas she would come, always dressed in such an elegant way, covered with jewellery. I was fascinated about this and the way she was, moving, explaining things, and all the jewellery was just like a dream for me.

When you were about 17 you started working as a PR for John Galliano. Was he at Dior then?

No, not yet. When I came back for the weekends I opened a drawer in a cupboard of my mum and saw that she had a huge collection of handmade silk Chinese buttons. They had two or three colours mixed together; all kind of different colours, like old pink mixed with some blue or brown, very past colours, not bright. I mix them with semi-precious stones and that’s how I started the jewellery.

You worked for the jewellers Boucheron and Chopard?  

For the 150th anniversary of Boucheron I proposed a snake and they loved it, so I did a big necklace for them, and an arm bracelet, and that was the beginning. Then I started working with Chopard, which gave me enough finance to start my own collection, for which I used horn or wood that I mixed with gold. I like the mixture between different materials.

Most of your jewellery is animals; butterflies as earrings, or snakes, and the rings are sometimes heads of wolves or cats or tigers. Is it true that you have a wolf in your house?

Yes, it is. My main inspiration is about wild animals, or plants or trees, they’re not domesticated in my work. I look through my mother’s eyes, through animism. Nowadays more and more people are disconnected from the environment, from nature, and therefore from animals. I started questioning if it is monotheism that has separated us so much that we as humans consider ourselves more superior, more in control, than the rest of the animal or the plant world, choosing which animals are evil or which animals are angel-like. I started reading a lot about Native Americans, African tribes or Japanese animist cultures; back then there was a huge respect of everything that surrounded us. A wolf would be a very strong spirit that one should respect, almost like a divinity. If you killed an animal you would do a whole celebration in order to be forgiven. My whole approach has been how to reconnect people with our old soul.

Are you part of the very important movement to protect nature and care about climate change? 

I’m trying as much as I can to be part of it. I still pollute, but I’m trying to have much less impact. I don’t know if it’s possible nowadays, but I really believe for our future generations one of the most important things would be to protect nature, the habitat where we live, because without it I don’t see that we could survive.

Here in London at Robilant+Voena you’re showing large sculptures – wolves, wild cats, crocodiles – mainly in bronze, with some gold. What made you change dimension and explore bronze?

I was very frustrated that in jewellery I didn’t have a proper knowledge to really master how to put the stones into the gold. For example, one of my rings, the eagle ring, is done in fossilized wood but has a lot of diamonds. The beak is with gold and black diamonds and I’m not able to do that, I have to ask someone else, while with the bronze I could follow up the structure, do the works myself and then give it to the foundry. Of course, there’s a moment where I can’t do it, but until the casting I know the steps so I feel more involved.

There are not that many women in the history of sculpture; Camille Claudel, Louise Bourgeois and Claude Lalanne…. Does your inspiration come from Lalanne?

Yes, although Lalanne it was both him and her. For me it was not about being a woman; it’s just that since I was a child I loved the solidity of bronze. I was in love also with Egyptian sculptures. With bronze there’s something that always reminds me of a stone, because the patina of some of the sculptures that I do almost looks like a stone, like granite. I like it when it’s sober, when it doesn’t have too much gold; the solidity, the presence.

The artist Giuseppe Penone with whom I have just published the book 474 Risposte (Bompiani, 2022) says he likes to use bronze because bronze can age and endure while many other things disappear. Is this need for permanence also in you?

Yes, there is this, and there is also the concept. I’m very moved by the Japanese aesthetic wabi-sabi, which is the imperfection in the beauty and the time which passes that gives the patina a life as well. A bronze patina will change in the long term. It will evolve; it will keep on evolving.

Harumi Klossowska de Rola

Harumi Klossowska de Rola is exhibiting her sculpture and jewellery at Robilant+Voena’s 38 Dover Street Gallery, London, from 6 October to 20 November 2022.

Harumi Klossowska de Rola

Harumi Klossowska de Rola: Wolf

Harumi Klossowska de Rola

Harumi Klossowska de Rola: Juvenile Stephanoeatus Coronatus

Harumi Klossowska de Rola

Harumi Klossowska de Rola: Butterflies

Harumi Klossowska de Rola

Harumi Klossowska de Rola: Monkey

Harumi Klossowska de Rola

Harumi Klossowska de Rola: Serval Cat

“I have a garden which is attached to the studio where my wild animals are, so they can come in the studio.”

Harumi Klossowska de Rola, you also do sculptures of plants such as papyrus.  Are your sculptures meant to stay indoors or can they go outside?  

It depends on the patina that I choose. A cold patina, a patina froid, cannot go really well outside because of the pigments, but in an example of the wolf or the very simple patina that is a chaud, a warm patina, those ones can go outside and will get aged and be transformed over time. If a warm patina papyrus is put outside it will also evolve in a certain way. It depends on how much the person wants to control it. If they want that it stays like this, or if they agree that maybe in five or ten years it’s going to evolve.

You still do your jewellery, and you also make a box for each piece and paint it?  

The jewellery in itself is like a small, sculptural work; a unique piece. I created those boxes because the jewellery should have a life by itself. Even if the person is not wearing the ring it should live by itself in the box made by me.

Each jewellery piece is unique; instead the bronze sculptural pieces can be small editions of three or four?  

Yes, but even if it’s three or five times I always try to change something a little bit, some details like the patina; but of course the base will be the same.

You live in the huge chalet in Rossinière that was your parents’ home. Do you work in your father’s studio?  

No, I have my own studio, which is three seconds away from my house, so it’s not really far away! Then I have a garden which is attached to the studio where my wild animals are, so they can come in the studio. At night my serval wild cat sleeps in the kitchen with the other dog, and my wolf sleeps in my bedroom. My husband decided he would prefer to live in the garden house! The children sleep next to me, not far away in their own room.

Why do you feel this need to have wild animals?

This is a very interesting question. Everybody from my husband to myself are still trying to figure it out. I have my serval since he’s small. He’s very domesticated and loves to go on a walk with me.

Are people who come to visit you scared?

Some people love it and some people are scared. If they’re scared the animals are not coming in the studio. They can choose to come in or not. I can close the door and then no wild animal is there.

You think you will have more than two?  

No. The wolf is behaving mostly like a dog. I do also have a female dog, and she raised the serval cat and the wolf, so they both respect her as almost like a mother.

Isn’t this a little bit perverse?

Yes, in one way it is perverse, but at the same time, when you think about it, all the dogs that people have right now come from the wolf. The first animal that was domesticated in the ancient times was a wolf, when humans started hunting with wolves. The perverted part would be to keep it in an enclosure, which means that he can’t be free and choose to go and come. We humans have already perverted a lot, all dogs are completely manmade.

First your mother wore a kimono and now you want to shock the village people with your wild animals?

They’re not shocked so much; they’re used to me now. The wild cat comes from the Egyptian time when they used to have wild cats domesticated against the mouse and the rats and other pests. They were domesticated a long time ago.

How many cats did you have as a child?  

I don’t remember having any animals at Villa Medici. When we went to the chalet I was not allowed any animals until I was seven when we started having two or three cats. At the end I had four. In a few years I’ll probably go back to regular cats because wild animals take a lot of time. You need to be in good shape to manage them.

They’re difficult to manage?  

It’s not that they are difficult, but they require a lot of education at the beginning. I’m not walking around the village with my wolf because he’s too stressed about people. He feels very comfortable in his garden, in his environment. You need to interact a lot with them. Most of the time in zoos, or places like this, wild animals don’t interact with humans, they just get bored, so they start pacing. If I have them in my garden they are not pacing. They’re very happy because they can spend time with me, they can play with me; they have something to do.

Do they play with the children?

My daughter yes. They are scared of my son. They run away and choose not to see anything. They hide behind trees or anything.

Is it by watching your animals that you had the inspiration to do your jewellery and sculpture?

Yes. Well, mainly. For the wolf and for the serval cats; but I don’t think I’ll have a lion or a lioness.

Are your animal sculptures made from your imagination?  

For the lioness or the lions I go to zoos, I study them, I do drawings, I look at pictures. I don’t think I ever wanted to own a tiger or go that crazy. For the wolf I read many things. Barry Lopez, who died this year, wrote this amazing book called Horizon, but he also wrote a book called Of Men and Wolves. One particular moment that I thought very moving was when he goes to have an interview with Native Americans. Occidental world biologists were wondering how come wolves were sometimes attacking or sometimes they would just pass by without attacking. The Native Americans observe that there’s always a death conversation between the wolf and the deer, a moment where they look at each other, and if the deer is ready to die they have this exchange in the eyes for a few seconds. It’s a decisive moment where the wolf understands that the deer is ready to die, and that’s when the chase begins. They say that because the cows and sheep are too much domesticated they lost the ability to have this death conversation; they just panic and the wolf just attacks.

There are a lot of cows in Switzerland! Do you think your wolf could suddenly attack a cow?

Mine? No, he’s alone. You have to have a pack. It’s a very well organised way. One alone, sometimes they do it, but mine is completely useless in that sense.

Is it good for you to live in this isolated world?

Yes, I really like to live in the middle of trees and nature. I like time to adapt when I come to the city. I love the country. I love England, actually. I love London.

Would you consider moving to London?  

No, I think I’m very well in Switzerland. My jewellery used to be in Les Trois Pommes, a shop in Zurich, and they helped me a lot because they did my first exhibition about ten years ago.  Because of them I had my first clients for my objects and then I had Dover Street Market for the jewellery, but then I decided to not to do it anymore because I don’t do a lot of pieces.

How many pieces per year?

In jewellery it’s about five; sometimes five pieces that stay for two years until I’m ready to sell them or to show them or anything. I’m not that keen.

You work slowly like your father?  

I work very slowly. I’m too slow sometimes, but I don’t want to do a lot of pieces. I prefer to take a long time on one piece and do one piece at a time, and then it’s just for you. I work every day from the morning until five, and from five I concentrate on my children.

Do you read them Tintin and stories like your father did for you?

Yes, I do. Well, my son is a bit too old for this, he is 14. But my daughter yes, I do. It’s not completely like my father because I have lunch with them when they come back from school.

Do you dialogue with your mother, herself a famous artist represented by Gagosian Gallery?  

Yes, we do. I like her ceramics; there are a lot of things I really like from her. I didn’t like the portrait that she did of my father, but that’s me personally. She’s an amazing animal painter, and her trees are absolutely beautiful. It’s very much in the Japanese tradition.

Thank you very much for this interview.