View of “Setsuko,” 2022. Photo: Matteo D’Eletto.

View of “Setsuko,” 2022. Photo: Matteo D’Eletto.


Rome holds a special place in the heart of Japanese artist Setsuko Klossowska de Rola, better known as Setsuko. She spent much of her twenties and thirties living in the lush splendor of Villa Medici, home to the French Academy in Rome, where her late husband, the painter Balthus, served as director until the couple moved to Switzerland in 1977. It was in Rome that Setsuko began to dedicate herself to art—mostly painting—and also where she met ceramicist Benoît Astier de Villatte, who would spur her work in clay decades later. The intimate exhibition “Into the Trees II” marked the octogenarian’s return to the city with a group of sculptures and paintings that radiated warmth and fostered a sense of peaceful contentedness. Nature was the protagonist here in still-life compositions in watercolor and gouache in plain wooden frames, as well as in exquisite terra-cotta, bronze, and wood sculptures depicting trees, plants, and animals.

The walls of the gallery’s antechamber were painted buttercup yellow, giving the impression of early-morning sunshine, when everything feels sleepy but full of possibility. Walking into the main room was like stepping into a miniature forest populated with fantastic spirit trees that tapered upward like long, chunky legs. Placed on raw-spruce four-legged tables, these enameled terra-cotta trunks in shades of white sprouted branches laden with all manner of fruit and leaves: lemons (Citronnier I), grapes (Raisin II and IV), figs (Figuier III), and pomegranates (Grenadier I), all 2022. Grooves in the trunk of the last sculpture give way to small branches with delicate leaves and pomegranates bursting with seeds. A small bird perches on top of the branches, feasting on one of the fruits, in an idyllic scene of bounty. The intricacies in this charming scene made evident the artist’s dexterity with a material she only recently started using. Bronze candelabra laden with leaves and ripe fruits offered another take on treelike forms, as in Chandelier (La vigne) (Candelabra [The Vine]), 2021, with its golden grapes dangling from oxidized green limbs, while Renaissance de lOlivier (Rebirth of the Olive Tree), 2019, a striking painted oak sculpture, portrayed an ancient olive-tree trunk. Though the width of its deeply grooved and gnarled trunk implied a state of maturity, the trunk sprouted fine leaves and flowers representing renewal.

Setsuko points to Shinto—a traditional animist Japanese religion, according to which the soul is present everywhere in nature, and in trees especially—as an influence on her work. She also draws upon her own surroundings, as she has lived for nearly fifty years in the small woodland village of Rossinière, Switzerland. The town’s mayor moonlights as a carpenter and made the spruce pedestals. The artist lives with her daughter and two grandchildren, who are the only human protagonists in her paintings on display here, in the former eighteenth-century chalet hotel that she and Balthus made their home. These three watercolor and gouache paintings done during the lockdown stand in contrast to her still lifes both in subject matter and palette, binding them more closely to the sculptures. In tones of brown, black, and white in a dreamlike scene, Mei et Sen (Mei and Sen), 2020, depicts the artist’s grandchildren leaning against a tree while reading.

A friend of mine who recently trained in forest therapy (its roots lie in shinrin-yoku, meaning “forest bathing” in Japanese) has been expounding enthusiastically on the therapeutic benefits of walking in the woods. “Into the Trees II” produced a similar sense of wonder at nature and at this woman who, at eighty, continues not only to paint but to reinvent her practice.