interview with SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA
by OLIVIER ZAHM and KATERINA JEBB
photography by KATERINA JEBB
the grand chalet of rossinière — the largest in the alps — is known as the last residence of the painter balthus (balthasar klossowski de rola). before becoming his home and studio, this spectacular 18th-century chalet was an exclusive hotel, with 60 rooms on six floors and 113 windows, visited by artists and poets from all over europe. balthus discovered the chalet in 1976 and fell in love with the place. his wife, the artist setsuko klossowska de rola, tells the story.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Setsuko, can you tell us the story of the Grand Chalet? You’ve been living there for the past 40 or 50 years now, right?
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — I don’t know — sometimes, it feels like 100 years because I’ve lived there for more than half my life. Then again, I still marvel at things every day, as if I am seeing the place for the first time. Balthus and I discovered the Grand Chalet thanks to a friend from Gstaad, who said, “Let’s have tea at the Grand Chalet.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was it a hotel at the time?
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — Yes. We decided to go there for tea, and we remained until … forever. It was a nice, cozy place, and when you entered, with this narrow corridor leading to a salon, there was a feeling of being embraced by the Grand Chalet. I turned to Balthus, and I said, “I would like to live here.” The atmosphere inside was pure Agatha Christie. One could easily imagine Miss Marple knitting in the corner. It was large and old-fashioned, with wonderful big pine trees in the garden, and all the wood reminded me of a traditional Japanese house. During the visit, Antoine Devenish, the former owner, came over to us and said, “Would you like to visit the salon of Victor Hugo?” Victor Hugo had stayed for a long period of time when it was a hotel, which enchanted us, along with all of the charming details, from the ceiling to the woodwork. Antoine said, “I’ve tried to sell this hotel, but nobody is interested.” And Balthus replied, “I’m interested.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was this before or after tea? [Laughs]
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — After.
KATERINA JEBB — Which room was Victor Hugo’s?
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — It was where the dining room is now. When Balthus said that he was interested, the owner almost fainted. He couldn’t believe it. He had health problems and had been trying to sell it for years. The hotel had only one bathroom on the ground floor — can you imagine? I inherited 40 chamber pots.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, for you, the Grand Chalet has a Japanese feeling?
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — Yes, it feels very Japanese because it’s a house constructed entirely of wood, which makes for a warm atmosphere.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But it’s so vast. Whatever made you want to buy such a massive place for just you and Balthus?
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — And our daughter.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, that’s three people.
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — And the nanny.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a totally eccentric idea.
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — Not for Balthus. We had been living in Italy at the Villa Medici, where Balthus was the director for 16 years.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The Villa Medici is pretty big, already.
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — Yes, the walls at the Villa were six-and-a-half feet thick. When I first arrived at the Grand Chalet, it seemed very small to me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are the rooms small?
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — Yes. And the ceiling is quite low. You don’t feel like you’re in a big house.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I read that it’s the biggest chalet in Switzerland.
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — In Switzerland, everything is small.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Like in Japan.
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — Yes.
KATERINA JEBB — When you took over the Grand Chalet, was Balthus’s gallerist Pierre Matisse involved?
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — Yes. So, to go on with the story, Balthus said he was interested, but he didn’t have the money to buy the property. One painting could sometimes take him 10 years to complete. The research for the perfect composition, the search for beauty… He didn’t care about the time it took. He did only that.
KATERINA JEBB — Which painting took 10 years?
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — I don’t know. Several. One of the longest, he changed after 50 years, I believe. It was a small portrait of Antoinette, who was Balthus’s first wife. He kept it in his studio for at least 40 years, as he was not satisfied with the image of the face. He finished it in the ’80s. So, Pierre Matisse bought the house for Balthus, who was almost 70 then, and the idea was that Balthus would pay him back with paintings.
KATERINA JEBB — Did they have a written or verbal agreement?
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — Verbal. It was like that, in those days. Today, there would be a contract and lawyers. But in that period, when we said something, we did it.
KATERINA JEBB — A gentleman’s agreement.
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — Yes. And Pierre Matisse knew what he was doing — that he would have to wait several years.
KATERINA JEBB — Do you think that Balthus was aware that he had to paint and work in the studio as soon as he arrived in the house?
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — Yes. Do you know his painting La Chambre Turque, at the Centre Pompidou? When he had finished this painting, he called Pierre Matisse in New York. Matisse was already on the plane, and Balthus said: “No, it’s no good. I have to move the girl one centimeter to the right.” The whole composition, including the Turkish ceramic tiles, had to be redone. So, when Matisse arrived from New York and entered the studio in Rome, there was nothing to see. Pierre Matisse was the son of Henri Matisse, and he simply said, “All right,” and took a plane straight back.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did Balthus eventually make enough paintings to buy the place?
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — Yes, he did.
OLIVIER ZAHM — To come back to the beginning of your life at the Grand Chalet: you immediately felt at home there?
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — Yes, because it was a hotel, and all the minimum comfort was already in place. The heating is very good. There was a huge kitchen… Balthus’s studio is across the road, in the former garage of the hotel.
KATERINA JEBB — After this coup de foudre, how long was it before you lived there?
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — I think it was one year. Very little needed doing. The walls were covered in oil-based paint.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What color?
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — A sort of greenish-beige. We decorated with curtains, and so forth. Balthus liked that. We always did it together. We’d choose objects and materials that would be interesting subject matter for our paintings.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, what was a typical day at the Grand Chalet like?
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — What was very important for Balthus was breakfast. His studio was always filled with natural light, never electric light. With electric light, you think that you can judge certain colors well, but mauve or yellow… The strength and the waves of the colors are different. Breakfast was important to Balthus, as often he would not return for lunch during the day because daylight was so precious. Finally, at the end of the day, he would return home for tea.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In the winter, it gets dark at 5 o’clock. What did you do? Would you have long nights of conversation? Because there was no Netflix at the time…
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — Balthus read a lot. He was always learning. He used to look at Renaissance paintings, especially early Renaissance, like Piero della Francesca, Masaccio, Masolino… Those were his masters.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The very beginning of perspective. So, nighttime was a time for reading at the Grand Chalet.
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — He also liked films very much. In the ’70s, he was the director of the Villa Medici, the French Academy in Rome, during the golden age of Italian cinema.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti, Pasolini…
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — Everybody came to the Villa Medici, and we’d often visit Cinecittà Studios. It was a beautiful moment because Cinecittà was one of the most creative places in the world.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Another island.
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — The period we spent at the Villa Medici, in the ’60s and ’70s, was an island of adventure, an island of dreams, an island of love, really.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was life at the Villa Medici more social?
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — All of Hollywood was in Italy at the time. I met Balthus in 1962, and I was able to touch European culture through the window of the Villa Medici.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I had no idea you and Balthus were so connected to cinema.
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — Very. Balthus was a great friend of Henri-Georges Clouzot and was often asked to be a judge at the Cannes Film Festival.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Really?
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — He was too busy with the Villa Medici restorations and only accepted when Antonioni was the director of the Venice Film Festival. Balthus was shocking because when he saw something, he would say: “How stupid! How can you possibly watch that?” And Antonioni would tell Balthus: “You’re a judge! You don’t share your private opinion.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, what was your social life like at the Grand Chalet? Did you invite people to come and visit you? Or were you quite isolated?
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — There were a lot of requests to visit, but all Balthus was interested in was painting. He was a painter. Since we are near Gstaad, that gave us access to an international social life.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did Balthus die at the Grand Chalet?
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — Yes, he died at home. I collected him from the hospital the day before. In the years leading up to his death, I had decided to become a Catholic. Until then, I didn’t have any deep convictions around Christianity. To me, all religions are the same. For me, it’s all about light and absolute love and which ship you take to go to that island of light.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Only a boat.
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — Yes, only a boat, a different boat. So, I said that I love Balthus, and I’d like to be with him. I’d like to take the same boat.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Okay. You took the Christian boat.
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — The Christian boat. That was my only motivation.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, to be with him.
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — I remember, I was at the Sophia University in Tokyo, and I had a Jesuit professor. I had a basic notion of Christianity, and one of the most extraordinary things, I found, is that Christianity has such a rich legacy of art, music, and architecture. I was thinking about that for quite a long time, and I finally decided to become a Catholic when Balthus and I visited Poland for the first time. We went to a cathedral and met with an extraordinary cardinal who resembled a character from a Fellini film. In front of the cathedral, there was a pagan statue, and the cardinal said, “Touch it — it will bring you joy.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — Balthus was of Polish origin, right? It was like going back to his roots.
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — Yes. For the first time in his life. And I said: “I can ask the cardinal to baptize us. There’s only one person who can because, in my soul, the Shinto faith and Buddhism are the way of my ancestors, but I’d like to be Christian.” So, I said, “I want to be Christian.” The cardinal asked, “Have you read the catechism book?” “No, I haven’t. I studied a little bit when I was in university, but I was kidnapped by Balthus so I didn’t finish my studies.” When we returned, the cardinal sent me a book on catechism. I read one page and immediately nodded off. Maybe two… But it was a start. So, when Balthus died, I asked the cardinal if he could come and lead the funeral mass, and he agreed. So, he arrived at the Grand Chalet, and, in the corridor, he took my arm and he asked, “Do you still want to become Catholic?” And I said, “Yes.” He said, “Have you read…”
OLIVIER ZAHM — The book.
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — I said, “No.” “But your soul is ready?” “Yes, my soul is ready.” At the very moment, I received the lighted candle from him. It illuminated my shattered heart.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you were baptized at the Grand Chalet.
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — Yes, in the library.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Beautiful. So, the Grand Chalet is a very peaceful place, a place where you’ve always felt protected?
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — Very protected, and there’s a sort of joie de vivre in the way of life there.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s the wood, maybe?
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — Yes, but also something beyond that. There’s a special energy to the place.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Apparently, in the old days, in the countryside, when choosing a site for a house, people would let animals loose in the field and observe where they slept.
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — I think human beings used to have that capacity, but all the technology has killed our instinctive sensibilities, no? Before, we looked at the sky or the stars, and we knew the hour or the direction. For paintings or drawings, we didn’t have cameras, so you had to look, to observe. I spend a lot of time observing nature. Technology is taking away our faculty for observation.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, the Grand Chalet is a studio, a house, and still a hotel, in a way, because you regularly invite people to stay?
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — Yes, although not since Covid-19. It’s a very interesting period — this not inviting people and not going out, right?
OLIVIER ZAHM — Things will hopefully soon go back to normal. Do you see the Grand Chalet as a small, artistic utopia of sorts?
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — I prefer the idea of an island. A land of love. In Japanese, ai means love. So, ai-land. I’ve always thought of the Grand Chalet as… How can I explain it? It’s the island where my spirit grew up.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s also a place that requires a lot of love because you have to maintain it. It’s huge. How do you see the future of the Grand Chalet? Will it stay in the family? Do you have a vision for it?
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — Not particularly. I think the house will decide. I was chosen by the house, I am a guest of the house, and I trust in the future. I’ve had the pleasure to share it with my family. My daughter’s family and Thadée, the son of Balthus’s first wife, live there now, so I’m very happy that this house brings them pleasure.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Would you say the Grand Chalet has had a strong influence on your own work as a painter?
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — On everything.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did Balthus encourage you to work? Did he support you?
SETSUKO KLOSSOWSKA DE ROLA — Yes. When he was sick and bedridden, he used to say: “Please go and work. At least one person paints in this house.” Because, for him, painting was work.
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