Paris – Situated in the city of Rueil-Malmaison, about 15 kilometers west of Paris’ city center, the picturesque Chateau de Malmaison was once home to one of France’s most famous couples: Josephine de Beauharnais and Napoleon Bonaparte.
Although the historic estate changed hands over the years, it is now a national museum dedicated to the memory of the emperor and his wife, and to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death, Japanese artist Setsuko Klossowska de Rola, who goes by just her first name, was asked to create a collection of tableware inspired by the couple. Her exhibition, “Regardes de Setsuko” (“Through the Eyes of Setsuko”), ran from Oct. 26 until Nov. 15.
Five years before Napoleon became the emperor of France in 1804, de Beauharnais purchased the chateau and put great effort into transforming the rundown manor and surrounding 150 acres of meadows and trees into what she later described in a letter as “the most beautiful and curious garden in Europe, a model of good cultivation.”
That is why Isabelle Tamisier-Vetois, Chateau de Malmaison’s head of heritage conservation, knew that the estate’s verdant beauty had to play a key role in the anniversary celebrations. She realized that Setsuko, known for her sculptures and paintings, was the perfect artist to work with after seeing her 2018 show at Paris’ Gagosian gallery, “Into the Trees,” which featured glazed terracotta trees alongside her bronze works.
“Setsuko’s hollow trees, where life is reborn, invited us to hide and daydream,” Tamisier-Vetois says. “We were then seduced by the patinated bronze candle holders and immediately imagined collaborating with her for the museum.”
Setsuko’s past works also captivated Thierry Boutemy, a French florist known for the arrangements he created for Sofia Coppola’s 2006 drama, “Marie Antoinette.” Boutemy discovered Setsuko’s art during a trip to Switzerland, where he visited the Balthus Chapel near Setsuko’s current home and watched documentaries on the Japanese artist and her family.
“She came to Europe as a young woman and mastered an idea of beauty that transcends cultural boundaries,” says Boutemy, who traveled from his base in Belgium to offer his floral arrangements for her exhibition at Chateau de Malmaison. “You can definitely see the refinement of the two cultures in her works, but she does not enforce Japanese ideologies in an obvious way.”
On the exhibition’s opening day, a ceramic olive tree crafted by Setsuko greeted the guests at the chateau’s entrance. In the adjacent dining room, French ceramic brand Astier de Villatte, a longtime collaborator of Setsuko’s, presented dishes on a wooden dining table to complement her tableware depicting deer as a reference to de Beauharnais’ farm at the chateau and the Butard Pavillion hunting lodge in Versailles. The empress had ordered the latter to be depicted on her 1808 dining ware titled “Wild Deer Hunting in the Butard Woods.”
“Another work I created for this occasion is a decorated bowl held by the hands of Josephine,” Setsuko says. “I asked Tamisier to show me the wedding band Josephine was given by Napoleon, and it was a very modestly designed gold band, not like the big diamond rings we see today. I found that very inspiring.”
“The attraction to nature that Josephine had, her passion for botany, is easily found in Setsuko’s artworks,” Tamisier-Vetois adds.
The artist agrees that nature is an integral part of her creations. “I am constantly working with nature. I sculpt using terracotta, I paint with natural pigments and I need fire for my bronze works,” Setsuko says. “When I was studying ikebana as a young girl, I learned that it is about taking the responsibility of a flower’s life. Along with the shared shibui (subtle) or wabi-sabi (transient/imperfect) values of Japan and France, it’s the respect for nature I carry with me that attracts various audiences to my works.”
Her connection with the former French rulers, however, goes beyond a shared affinity for nature. In 1967, the artist and her husband, the Polish-French modern artist Balthasar Klossowski de Rola (better known as Balthus), were sent to Italy by France’s minister of cultural affairs. The pair moved to the Villa Medici, a grand residence previously owned by the Medicis that was turned into an art academy by Napoleon in 1803.
“(Villa Medici) was a French territory within Rome that was created to accommodate France’s prized painters,” Setsuko says. “My first home in Europe was this artists’ villa established by Napoleon.”
As director of the French Academy in Rome, Balthus restored the estate by dismantling its lavish 19th-century decorations and stripping down the golden walls to reveal the original handmade textures beneath. During this time, Setsuko realized that the concept of appreciating imperfection and transience existed outside of Japan as she watched Balthus strip away modern decorations to reveal the passage of time. “That’s where I learned about the global appreciation for wabi-sabi. We all find beauty in the nostalgia triggered by imperfection,” she says.
Setsuko crossed paths with Napoleon’s legacy once again many years later.
“Pierre Carron was a dear student of Balthus at Villa Medici and I’d watch Pierre’s baby, Benoit Astier de Villatte, play in the garden,” she says. “Decades later, I heard of a magnificent ceramic store called Astier de Villatte and I remembered the baby Benoit! From there, Benoit and his partner, Ivan Pericoli, took me to their rustic boutique near the Louvre, which used to be a goldsmith workshop for Napoleon’s crowns.”
Setsuko soon began working with Astier de Villatte and Pericoli, opening her ceramic studio in their Paris factory. “Their handmade ceramics are extremely fragile and are like delicate watercolor paintings,” she says.
Astier de Villatte also understands that “Japan’s concept of wabi-sabi transcends time and cultural boundaries,” Setsuko adds, noting that Japan and France share a deep bond stemming from an appreciation for the same artistic values that goes back centuries.
“It is a bond of kinship born of the same love of beauty from Japan to France that has never stopped since the Meiji Era (1868-1912),” says Setsuko, referring to Japonisme, an art movement that swept through France and influenced many Western European artists in the latter half of the 1800s.
Her recent exhibition is also a demonstration of that kinship. “The exhibition’s opening was postponed several times due to the pandemic, but the genesis of the show was to create a bridge between the past and today, and France and the world,” Tamisier-Vetois says.
With her deep understanding of the connection that Japan and France share, Setsuko has indeed created such a bridge and brought the artistic legacies of Napoleon and de Beauharnais to life.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.