Elena Palumbo-Mosca

Elena Palumbo-Mosca

Apartamento Magazine - Elena Palumbo-Mosca

Elena Palumbo-Mosca is one of the enigmatic naked blue bodies that painted Yves Klein’s canvases at the Galerie Rive Droite, Paris, in 1960 for the making of the revolutionary Anthropométries series. Now 87, Turin-born Elena has lived a rich and fascinating life, drawing on her astute skills of observation to interpret the ideas of those she’s found herself close to. Elena first encountered Yves while working in Nice as an au pair for the artist couple Arman and Éliane Radigue (a painter and a musique concrète composer respectively), and after receiving a classical education in the mountains of Mont Blanc and training as a professional diver, she shared with him a love of discipline combined with movement—Klein himself became a master of judo at age 25. Fluent in Italian, French, English, and Spanish, Elena has worked as a political interpreter for over 30 years, and more recently has translated poetry by her friend Ángeles Mora. She has a love for language and communication that extends further than words.

Elena makes for enhancing company, as I come to find out over the course of our interview. We begin in her elegant blue town house in the northern part of Brussels, where, between graceful sculptures that she posed for, she cooks me an omelette with oil ground from her olive trees in Italy. We talk about her life, of a kind of pre-war Paris at the Hôtel La Louisiane with Miles Davis and the Black Panthers, and her work and friendship with Klein. Refuting the ‘human paintbrush’ term usually ascribed to her, Elena explains the collaborative nature of the works, the precision necessary to execute the performance. Based on their own respective training, the two had a desire to leap into ‘the void’, a concept central to Yves’ work. His was a prolific and short career that stormed the European art scene before his untimely death at the age of 34, and a revolutionary practice that aimed to translate the artwork of ‘feeling’ by using natural elements, like fire, water, and the human body, as mediums to trace the communication between the artist and the world. At the end of our lunch, Elena invites me into her walled garden where she keeps the camembert, surrounded by English roses in full bloom. Noticing me, she asks if she can teach me something, telling me that I must absolutely correct my posture and focus on alignment, and that she can give me lessons. One month later, I decide to take her up on the offer and spend a transformative few days in the beautiful ruin that she reconstructed with her hands in front of the sea and olive groves, strengthening my spine in more ways than one.

Apartamento Magazine - Elena Palumbo-Mosca

This poetry book that you’ve finished translating, Fictions for an Autobiography, can you tell me about it? How did you meet the writer Ángeles Mora?

I went to Spain as an interpreter as Spain was entering the European Union. I’d enrolled as a free student at the University of Grenada—and also because I was tired of reading Borges in the translation. I said, ‘I want to read the original’.

A good reason to learn Spanish. Were you already working as an interpreter?

Yes. They sent some interpreters to practise in Spain. Most of my colleagues enrolled at political sciences faculties. But I’m also passionate about flamenco. So I went to Grenada, where the people who sing and dance flamenco live. My professor there was exceptional; he taught me how to read Borges with sensibility. And his wife, Ángeles, is the poet that I was privileged enough to translate, for the first time, into Italian.

That was how you met one another? Can you tell me about the poetry?

Yes, and we’ve been friends ever since. I’d already translated one of her previous poetry collections, and would like to revise that work now because it also offers some really extraordinary poetry. She speaks of nature, of the body, of the deep reality of existence with pleasure and pain—of ethics, too. I think it’s very interesting to see how women write now, because in the past very few had the freedom to write about these subjects, which might have been considered a man’s territory. Ángeles is able to be explicit about the pain in her childhood. Before, women were perhaps too busy in the kitchen to write.

Or they were just not publishing.

Unless they belonged to the aristocracy. So what does a woman write today? This is interesting. How do you become a person who thinks like this and who writes like this? If they bring you up nicely, working with a needle and making pretty things and everything is always quiet for you, I don’t know if you can reach this sort of sensibility and awareness.

Apartamento Magazine - Elena Palumbo-Mosca
Elena washing saucepans with equisetum (horsetail) by the mountain stream with her mother, younger brother, nanny, and cook on a sunny day in Entreves.

Tell me about your mother. How did she bring you up? 

My mother was very much an intellectual. I can show you her letters, beautiful letters full of humour and wit and elegant prose. After the war, we became poor, so she started to do the housework but never asked me to help. She wasn’t brought up cooking or cleaning, so she would make us an omelette once in a while—simple, healthy things.

Was it a religious household?

Not at all. We weren’t baptised. In a way, I was brought up like a little pagan girl by a mother who just told me not to destroy flowers and plants.

Perhaps one of the most important teachings. Do you feel your mother initiated a physical focus within you?

My mother was a very sporty woman. She was a skiing champion and she was a very good swimmer too. So she encouraged me to swim. But also, up in the mountains in front of Mont Blanc, skiing was the only way to move around in winter. We went to school on skis.

Do you think deepening a practice, whether it be judo, dance, or diving, can help us to become free through discipline and then to gain liberation from it? 

I chose diving, and I see more clearly now that that too was a desire to jump into the void, something I shared with Yves. I think she did a really great thing, my mother. She taught me never to be submissive—not in so many words, but we were always equal. I wonder if it was from a place of purity too. I’ll be forever grateful to her for this.

Was your mother proud of you?

I’m not sure she was proud, but she sure had a good sense of humour. I remember when a well-known Italian newspaper published a huge photograph of me on the front page, swimming naked with Yves’ blue paint on my body over a large cardboard surface. Her comment was simply, ‘Don’t you think you might be slightly overdoing it in Paris?’ In Turin we have an expression that is specific to that part of Italy, ‘esagerum nen’, or ‘let’s not exaggerate’.

And why did you decide to become an au pair? Was it curiosity?

Well, in my day, when you had no money it was the only way to get out of the country. And yes, I was curious. I managed to get a little money to buy myself a one-way ticket, the equivalent of 50 euros. And I never went back. First I went to London with a girlfriend from Aosta. We found an employment agency and they allocated us to a family. I was quite lucky; mine was a very kind, Jewish family. I had to learn the rituals, the way to cook, to set the table. It was complicated because you couldn’t use the same chinaware or silverware for products containing milk and meat. I was about 20, more or less. I stayed with them for a year, and then I found another family, a very upper-class, intellectual family in South Kensington.

What was your role at the house?

The cooking was done by the lady of the house, but all the rest was me. It started early in the morning because they wanted tea in bed at 5am. I learnt to do all those housekeeping tasks that my mother had done without me ever realising. She was determined to give us the freedom to study and explore. Thinking of it now, I’m ashamed I was unaware of how much she had done for us.

Do you think it was important to work in a variety of jobs like this while you were young, to have a role where you were both accepted into a family and left to your own devices? You must be open to adapting to your environment.

I was just working there, learning and living with other human beings, in a different culture, with radically different habits. I peeled potatoes, I learnt to cook, to clean toilets, to light fires in the chimney places in the early morning, and to get the coal from the garden. In winter, it was covered with snow; that’s why my hands are a bit destroyed now. In fact, I have a problem with my hands because I lost sensitivity. I’ve worked a lot with my hands in life. Yves’ wife, Rotraut, has a similar problem. Sometimes we look at each other’s hands and laugh, ‘Yes, we really did work hard’. We’re great friends; she lives in Phoenix, but with WhatsApp we can communicate.

Apartamento Magazine - Elena Palumbo-Mosca

Can you tell me about Rotraut’s work as a sculptor? Was she already making art when you met?

I was happy at Arman and Éliane’s place, but after a while I wanted to be in Paris. So they called a new girl from Germany, and it was Rotraut. She came and replaced me, and we would drive around, to the coast, to Italy, on my motorbike. She’s a great artist. I really love her work.

How did they choose you both as au pairs for their children? Do you believe in chance?

I chose; I found Arman and Éliane through an ad in the newspaper. I wasn’t interested in going to a bourgeois family or into an aristocratic environment because I’d get bored there. But when I saw these artists, I said, ‘That’s where I belong’. So, that was that. People think things happen just by chance, but they don’t. My life is a result of my choices. Because it’s true that I’ve lived most of my life with artists. I could never fall in love with a businessman.

When I was an au pair, if posed with a difficult decision, I would ask the opinion of the little eight-year-old girl. I felt that she was able to give me sensitive, emotionally intelligent advice.

Actually, once when I visited my mother’s house, I found some very clever texts in my childhood bedroom. I wondered who had written them, and it turned out that it was me when I was much younger. When you are 16 or 17, you are very receptive. And I had the chance of doing classical studies.

Apartamento Magazine - Elena Palumbo-Mosca
Apartamento Magazine - Elena Palumbo-Mosca

When you lived with Arman and Éliane, did you feel that the artistic community you were part of nurtured this direction?

Yes. I believe that artists are almost like prophets; they can sense long before what’s going to happen. Living near them certainly helped me to develop a better sensibility. Their minds and hearts were open and subtle, we were speaking of ideas, the world, and beauty. I was living with them, so naturally you assimilate things. But I think I’ve always been so far from the average way of thinking and being, perhaps because of my mother’s influence. In the ‘60s in Paris, I went into show business to pay for my studies. It was the time of the Black Panthers, I loved jazz, so I was near them because of my love for their art, and when you know the people, you know that they’re oppressed. And so I’m always on the side of our friends. Of course I’d be on that side of the barrier.

Do you think you enjoyed being antagonistic when you were young?

Yes, of course. But I also had to work to survive.

Apartamento Magazine - Elena Palumbo-Mosca

So you became a conference interpreter. Did you find it difficult to translate the words of politicians whose views you disagreed with so profoundly?

It’s very frustrating. But I had to make money; I was fed up with being poor. So I learnt to stay cool. I always said, ‘This is what the speaker said’ at the end of any sentence I found unpleasant, as a way to disassociate myself. What I wanted to do was film directing, but I didn’t have enough money. The only thing I could afford to do was the interpreter school, which I enjoyed very much anyhow. I had a diploma and I liked languages and spoke French and English already. But, by the end of my career, I really couldn’t stand it anymore, having to be directly transferring the thoughts and decisions that arose from some of these politicians’ minds—sometimes so full of aggression or dishonesty.

Do you feel you understand this mindset? Having worked to translate their ideas for 30 years.

Of course. They don’t fool me. They have to be for or against one or the other, like a football game. But it’s not a football game. We could have a nuclear war, which means the end of the planet. I know what it would mean in the case of a nuclear war; it would destroy everything if it gets out of hand, and it could. When I see this, in a way I’m happy that I don’t have any children. I don’t know. I never had the courage to make a child.

I understand the decision not to have children, but do you think it’s courage?

Yes, it must be very painful. I worked in a hospital when I was young, and I could hear all these women screaming when they were giving birth. I didn’t want to go through that. So, yes, I hated being in the middle of these politicians. It’s like something wrecking your brain somehow, if you believe in the things I believe in. When I worked for people I liked I was never paid, because they had no money.

Yes, that tends to be the way. You have to find a compromise.

That’s what I did, yes. And I’m not sure that everybody understands this.

The ability to consciously dissociate yourself from the things you were expressing?

Yes, or to be within the void.

Apartamento Magazine - Elena Palumbo-Mosca

Do you remember your first impression of Yves when he came by the house in Nice?

He was certainly a good-looking man, with class, humour, and the typical refined French manners. The Frenchmen of that time had a very graceful way. Yves came from a very good family, so did Arman. So there was style.

He was handsome. And do you remember the first meeting between Yves and Rotraut?

I was about 23 by then, so Rotraut must have been 18. I actually introduced Yves to her. They fell in love immediately, but it was to be expected because they shared the same intuition and connection with the earth and elements. They became great collaborators too. I loved Yves, we had much mutual respect and understanding between us. But, in a way, he was closed within his culture, his sensitivity mostly went into colour. I was different; I loved jazz, flamenco, and warmer temperaments. Still, we would listen to Mozart together; I come from a family of classical musicians. Yves wasn’t really interested in other cultures. Japan was an exception. He found his own concept of the void there.

Yves became a master of judo by the age of 25, earning himself a prestigious fourth-degree black belt. Would you say that his creative concepts did not really have to be explained in Japan, where the void, in a way, formed the basis of religion? What was it that inspired him in Japan the most? Discipline?

Exactly, there’s a lot of discipline. I think quite a few of his theories are the result of his life in Japan. For Japanese people, the void is the beginning and the end of everything, and this is the central concept in all of Yves’ work. I think until now, the importance of Shinto religion and Japanese aesthetics in Yves’ work has been underestimated. I think Yves was very influenced by Japanese minimalism, but it hasn’t been sufficiently underlined yet in the West. But it is true that apart from Japan, Yves was very strongly linked to his own French culture—whereas I’m very curious. I felt much closer, almost like a sister, with Arman. I think Arman and Yves were very complementary: Arman created a space full of objects, while Yves created the void. They practised judo together. But as far as I am concerned, judo is not a sport.

Apartamento Magazine - Elena Palumbo-Mosca
Apartamento Magazine - Elena Palumbo-Mosca


It’s a completely different thing. In fact, all of these techniques and practices that are called martial arts in the West are called budo in Japan: budo isn’t a sport, it’s a way to perfection.

So you went to Japan regularly, almost every year from 1998 until 2006?

More or less, yes, and I would certainly like to spend more time there and learn the language. But I couldn’t live in Japan, or anywhere else, for a long amount of time. There’s nothing you can do in Japan that isn’t subject to some strict rule. If I give you something, it has to be like this. Most of the time when I hurt myself, I’m doing something absentmindedly. And how would you like your eggs?

I like eggs all ways.

They’re supposed to be good eggs, laid by happy chickens and so on. I really think that I’m political because I was born with the war and lived through the war. Every action is political. My mother was in the Resistance because we had to flee from the fascists. So I have a tendency to think about what I’m doing, even if I’m buying a cucumber. I try not to finance capitalism, not to torture animals. 

Tell me about your work in Paris at Yves’ studio. For the Anthropometries, how did you feel when you were performing?

It was very precise what we had to do, to do the right thing in the right way and not miss anything. I think the three of us were quite good.

Did you improvise?

No. We rehearsed the day before. We were used to strict discipline and performing on stage, to doing things with precision. I worked as dancer in various Pigalle striptease clubs.

Apartamento Magazine - Elena Palumbo-Mosca
Yves Klein realising an Anthropometry with Elena in his studio, 14 rue Campagne-Première, Paris, February 27, 1960.
Shunk-Kender © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2014.R.20)
Apartamento Magazine - Elena Palumbo-Mosca
Yves Klein realising an Anthropometry with Elena in his studio, 14 rue Campagne-Première, Paris, February 27, 1960.
Shunk-Kender © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2014.R.20)
Apartamento Magazine - Elena Palumbo-Mosca
Yves Klein realising an Anthropometry with Elena in his studio, 14 rue Campagne-Première, Paris, February 27, 1960.
Shunk-Kender © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2014.R.20)
Apartamento Magazine - Elena Palumbo-Mosca
Yves Klein realising an Anthropometry with Elena in his studio, 14 rue Campagne-Première, Paris, February 27, 1960.
Shunk-Kender © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2014.R.20)
Apartamento Magazine - Elena Palumbo-Mosca
Yves Klein realising an Anthropometry with Elena in his studio, 14 rue Campagne-Première, Paris, February 27, 1960.
Shunk-Kender © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2014.R.20)

Wow! How was that?

It was funny. It wasn’t too risqué, as they say. In fact, it’s more emotional for me to read a poem in public than to take my clothes off. And anyway, when I took my glasses off I didn’t see anything. I didn’t see the public. I was in some sort of cloud all by myself. I think that made things very simple for me. I felt as if I was alone, in fact. Do you like jazz?

I love jazz.

Do you know Dexter Gordon? Dexter was one of the greatest saxophone players.

I don’t. Should we listen to a song by Dexter Gordon?

Yes. Lets listen to ‘I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Up to Dry’. He was a brilliant man, musician, and friend. So this was my stripping song. In those days, the girls would take a cassette to dance to. I never expected him to come and watch me perform. But then one night, there he was. He had no idea I’d be dancing to one of his songs! So I think he was quite surprised. He was such a brilliant man. I loved this time of my life, it was the time of Miles Davis, James Baldwin, Bud Powell, and Eric Dolphy, and they were all coming to Paris in those days, running away from the States.

Apartamento Magazine - Elena Palumbo-Mosca
Elena improvising dance and movement to inner music for sculptor friend Aline Bienfait, in her atelier and garden at Cirey sur Blaise, France.

Why do you think you all found one another in Paris at this time?

Because I think that I belonged. You’re in the place where you belong. We lived in a small hotel on Rue de Seine, called La Louisiane. I wasn’t somebody who looked for money and glory or whatever, so I met and stayed with people who liked the same things I liked.

I was going to ask, when you see the artwork, the Anthropométries or the fire and water works, do you feel that part of you is within that work forever? What would you like to leave behind?

Well, everything will last as long as there isn’t a nuclear war. We’re just shadows passing by. I was under bombs as a child; every night when the sirens started ringing, we had to jump out of bed to hide in the cellar. I was maybe eight years old. So even now, even before this war story, if there’s a plane flying over at night, I wake up.


Oh, yes, the trauma is deep. It’s terrible to have to say this as an older human being to a young one, but at the moment I’m quite afraid that these people are criminal enough—the human being is so territorial. They can’t accept standing beside somebody who cooks and speaks in a different way, instead of saying, ‘Great, let’s cook together’. This is what’s happening everywhere. We’re going to destroy the planet if we’re not careful. So, I don’t know. I don’t know how Yves would react to this. He was an optimistic man. Did you know that he was planning a city of the future where everybody would be happy and full of love and the houses would have no walls, just coloured air to get your privacy when you need it, and transparency when you don’t. Public baths for everybody. This is part of Yves’ work that not many people know. There was this very—how do you call it? Thinking about the future.

A utopia.

It’s an important part of Yves’ work, this idea of having a future.

And of hope? A call for collectiveness in post-war times?

Of hope and peace and living without too many machines, where everything would happen naturally. We would have some passing air which would dance and move and change from warm or cold, according to our needs. The Anthropométries, which are mostly made by female bodies, represent a better humanity of the future.

I’ve had some discussions with different feminists who’ve said that they felt Yves was exploiting women during the making of the Anthropemétries. It makes no sense. If there was a man who really respected women, that was Yves Klein. His mother was a great painter and a great woman too. With me, he was always absolutely respectful. And of course, he was the same with his wife, Rotraut. He was helping her to develop her own art. These discussions, they bring the conversations about Yves to such a low level.

Apartamento Magazine - Elena Palumbo-Mosca

Did you receive criticism?

Oh, quite a while ago at the Tate in London, a journalist, with a slick look on his face, took me to one side after the interview and asked, ‘So, tell me, did you sleep with Yves?’ This made me so frustrated. We were working together. Can’t I have a male friend without sleeping with him? Or can’t I sleep with a man without being in love with him? What does my sexual life have to do with Yves Klein’s art?

Do you ever think you would’ve preferred to focus on one profession throughout your life, to be an artist yourself?

People who do things perfectly are people who do just one thing, because they can concentrate all their energy into that. I like to be a gardener, I like to look after cats. My Japanese master gave me a surname that means I’m the one who establishes links between others. He told me that was my role in life.

Do you think there is a link between your profession as an interpreter and the act of interpreting and conveying the artist’s view, or is it a personal vocation to help realise other people’s vision?

I think more than being an artist myself, I’m somebody who brings it to others. You need everything in society. So I’m thinking about you and what I could give you, just one simple teaching about your posture. You could imagine that your pelvis is a flowerpot and that your spine is the stem of a flower. If the pot is tilted, the plant can’t grow properly. I taught functional movement, that’s why I noticed.

Tell me about my posture. Tell me what I should do.

Your head—you have to correct it absolutely. It’s because of your form. I know because of Dexter; he was very tall, so he walked around with a stoop. We were all smaller, so he had to look down on us. And it’s nice that out of an awareness of the fact that other people are smaller, you tend to hold yourself like this.

If I align my body, will everything work better?

Yes, so you must think about aligning it. You must always be sure that if you’re sitting, you must be on your sex, practically. 

Do you have advice for younger people? Any piece of advice?

Well, for those who are able and want to think—it depends on what they were taught when they were children, unfortunately. There’s a lot of rubbish. Just be yourself, I think. Optimism is a bit silly these days. If you want to be happy, go out and smoke a joint. I was lucky that they left me alone, letting me find my own way between cows and cats and chickens. And this is the advice: nature is the master. So we need to respect it, and with this, respect life.

Apartamento Magazine - Elena Palumbo-Mosca
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