ARTISTS YOU MUST KNOW: YVES KLEIN

Written by Abbas Manai

Londres je t'aime written on tiles

Blue is not a colour. Or so thought artist Yves Klein, who saw it as “…beyond dimensions, whereas the other colours are not”. For him, it was the colour of ideas, glowing out of the vivid ultramarine he created, conjuring up images of limitless sea and sky. Back here on earth, we agree. His colour inspires our raison d’être, which is to help people see better, clearer, further.

“The imagination is the vehicle of sensibility. Transported by the imagination, we attain life, life itself, which is absolute art.”
— Yves Klein

During his rather brief career as an artist, Yves Klein produced a wide-ranging collection of artworks, including paintings, sculptures and large-scale installations. But he’s best known for the development of his own unique pigment, International Klein Blue, which served as a sort of symbolic key to unlocking the “infinite” and “sublime” through pure colour in many of his iconic works.

As one of the most influential artists of his generation, who inspired movements in minimalism and conceptual as well as performance art, Yves Klein was (and still is) considered a true force of nature.

AN ARTIST WITH NO FORMAL ARTISTIC TRAINING

Born to artist parents in Nice, France, Yves Klein was the most controversial and prominent French painter to enter the art scene in the 1950s. Curiously, art wasn’t his first career choice. Long before he took to the brush, Yves dabbled in the occult and studied esoteric literature and Eastern religions. Around that time, he also discovered his lifelong passion – the martial art of judo – which would remain a prime interest throughout his life. Although he grew up in a very creative household and was exposed to various forms of art, Klein had no formal training as an artist. But that didn’t stop him from imprinting his name in the chronicles of art history.

Portrait of Yves Klein

Yves Klein is credited with championing the development of performance art and pushing the envelope on minimal and pop art. However, he’s most famous for his International Klein Blue (IKB) – a particular kind of blue colour that he developed with the help of a chemist. Klein registered this distinctive ultramarine blue as his trademark hue in 1957 and continued to weave it into most of his creative artworks and performances. Klein considered IKB to be the perfect representation of immaterial values that go beyond what can be seen or touched.

Although Klein had a short-lived career, passing away aged only 34, his legacy colour continues to feed inspiration into the world. At Bloobloom, we’ve taken to IKB like bees to nectar, embracing Klein’s hue of ideas and unboundedness as a colour that inspires our own raison d’être – to help people see better, clearer, further.

FROM NICE TO LONDON: A NEW CHAPTER BEGINS

Klein began creating his iconic monochromes in 1947, considering them a perfect way to free the viewer from all imposed ideas and let the mind soar. His pursuit of creative freedom would remain a key motif behind his life’s work, while the monochromes would prove a cornerstone for minimalism.

Between 1948 and 1952, Klein travelled the world, making stops in Italy, the UK, Spain and Japan. During his time in London in 1949, he worked as an apprentice in a frame shop. This seemingly insignificant role gave Klein intimate knowledge of materials that would later make up the foundation of his oeuvre – including pastel, pure pigment, gold leaf and gesso.

Portrait of Yves Klein

Despite the significance of the apprenticeship later in his life, it didn’t turn him into a prominent artist overnight. In fact, Klein took a detour from his newly discovered artistic experiments and followed another passion altogether – judo.

In 1952, Klein moved to Japan to study judo and became a fourth dan black belt at the Kodokan Institute. On his return to Paris in 1952, Klein opened a judo school and even published a book to document the fundamental moves of the martial art.

ÉPOQUE BLEUE: A FASCINATION WITH THE COLOUR BLUE

In 1957, Klein entered what would later become known as his époque bleue, or blue period, which he marked with his Aerostatic Sculpture – a release of 1,001 blue balloons into the Parisian sky.

In the same year, he also registered his own blend of ultramarine blue (International Klein Blue) as a trademark colour. Klein said he was inspired to develop a new shade of blue because he couldn’t find a hue that would unlock the endless void of space and help him erase the division of earth and sky.

Blue balloons inflated with helium, in front of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés church

“Blue…is beyond dimensions, whereas the other colours are not,” Klein said. “All colours arouse specific ideas, while blue suggests at most the sea and the sky; and they, after all, are in actual, visible nature what is most abstract.”

His one-man exhibition that announced IKB was held at the Galleria Apollinaire, Milan, in 1957. By that time, he had mastered new ways to maximise the impact and the incandescence of his iconic blue. His unique technique allowed him to create a “hover effect” above the surface of the painting, producing an unusual appearance of depth and a rich, velvety texture.

KLEIN’S EXPERIMENTATIONS: FROM SPONGES TO “HUMAN PAINT BRUSHES”

Klein was a spiritual, even mystical person. He was influenced by Rosicrucianism, a secret philosophical society of mystics claiming to possess esoteric wisdom handed down from ancient times. Its teachings combine ideas from Hermeticism, Jewish mysticism and Christian Gnosticism and allude to having devised a secret order in the universe.

Many of his works could be interpreted as having been inspired by his deep interest in mysticism. In fact, in response to some of his performances (such as selling invisible paintings), his critics even called him a charlatan.

Yves Klein experimented with a variety of tools and materials in his work – from sponges and rollers to “human paintbrushes”. These “living brushes” were, in fact, nude female models coated in blue paint. Klein pressed and dragged their bodies across paper and canvas in front of a live audience to create unique body imprints that represented “gestural impressions and the physical energy of the body”. The works are known as the Anthropometries.

THE ETERNAL PROVOCATEUR

Klein was known as an eternal provocateur.

Challenging the traditional concept of an art object and the gallery system built around it, Klein once exhibited a completely empty gallery. And managed to make quite a show out of it. More than 2,500 eager guests flooded the street outside Paris’s Galerie Iris Clert to see Klein’s eccentric exhibition titled The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State of Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, or simply – “The Void”. Klein allowed in only ten people at a time, ushering them through a velvet curtain to unveil a monochromatic white and completely empty gallery space.

The evening’s theatricality didn’t end with the showcase of bare gallery walls. All guests were served a special cocktail, a mixture of Cointreau, gin and methylene blue. When leaving the body, the drink dyed the connoisseurs’ urine Klein’s trademark ultramarine blue.

Le Saut dans le Vide, or the Leap into the Void, is another controversial work produced by the artist. In 1960, Klein published a fake one-day newspaper titled Dimanche, which featured a photomontage of himself leaping off the parapet of a house, onto a street. From a young age, Klein had claimed that he possessed the ability to levitate, which might have been the inspiration behind this collage.

Untitled Blue Monochrome by Yves Klein, 1957

Klein’s fire-based artworks also raised a few eyebrows. Channelling his alchemical interests, Klein used the flames of a torch gun to morph and sear canvases in an effort to turn the destructive power of fire into a creative force.

Critics argue that some of Klein’s work trod a very fine line between shamanism and commercialism. His idea of selling “immaterial zones” for the price of gold, which was essentially an effort to monetize empty spaces, could be interpreted in two ways: it was either the artist’s attempt to imbue virtue into an artwork or simply a highly marketable activity. In 1962, Klein performed a “ritual transfer of immateriality” on the banks of the Seine, which saw him selling "pictorial sensibility" to an Italian author, Dino Buzzati, receiving a gold leaf in payment and issuing a receipt for his “zone”. The ritual ended with Klein tossing half of the gold leaf into the river and burning the receipt.

Yves Klein died aged only 34 after suffering three consecutive heart attacks. But he’s remembered today as a true innovator who eloquently mixed painting, sculpture, performance, photography, music, theatre, film, architecture and even theoretical writing in his works.

Throughout his epic journey, he valued naked honesty and the freedom to do things his own way. What Yves achieved through the use of pure colour and his provocations artistiques teaches us that revolutions come from open thinking. Vive la revolution!

Merci.
PHOTOS: Charles Wilp/BPK Berlin, Pierre Descargues, Harry Shunk and János Kender/J. Paul Getty Trust, The Estate of Yves Klein
WORDS: Tomas Laurinavicius