An artist's blue

Different strokes

An artist's blue

When Yves Klein died on June 6, 1962, he was just 34. Despite a relatively short artistic career that lasted all but eight years, Klein is remembered to this day as one of the most influential, prominent and controversial French artists to emerge in the 1950s. His densely peculiar and prolific portfolio of works that explored ideas of perception, experience and spirituality is subject of many scholarly discussions.

In particular, his use of a single colour — the rich shade of ultramarine — ‘International Klein Blue’ is not only seen as unique but sensational. So were his provocative performance pieces in which he directed nude female models covered in sticky blue paint to press their bodies against large white canvases and imprint images of their bodies upon them. “For all his stunts and attention-grabbing performances he was a sensualist as much as a provocateur,” writes Alastair Sooke (Yves Klein: The man who invented a colour / BBC Culture / August 28, 2014).

Sooke also recalls how, to celebrate the opening of a solo exhibition in 1957, for instance, Klein had released 1,001 helium-filled blue balloons in Paris; and how his exhibition in 1958, now known as The Void, consisted of nothing more than an empty gallery — yet attracted a crowd of 2,500 people that had to be dispersed by police.

In what is considered an iconic photograph of the 20th century (Leap into the Void / 1960) Klein showed himself as a man with outstretched hands soaring over an empty street; down below, a bicyclist rode into the distance, oblivious of the drama being enacted over his head; at the end of the street a train seemed to silently pass by.

“He was a consummate trickster, and nearly half a century after his death, we’re still not sure how seriously to take him,” wrote art critic Richard Lacayo (Was Yves Klein a genius, a put-on — or both? / Time magazine /June 21, 2010). “A merry prankster and shrewd self-publicist, Klein was a singular combination of spiritual seeker and shameless showboat — an artist of metaphysical bent, but with none of Mark Rothko’s majestic gloom or grumpy self-regard. As with Marcel Duchamp before him and the conceptual artists who came after, Klein believed that the idea behind a work was more important than the execution. My paintings, he once said, are the ashes of my art.”

While his blue monochromes were hailed not just as paintings “but experiences, passageways leading to the void,” Klein said that he “wanted to offer the public a possibility of the illumination of pictorial, essential colour matter, impregnated with which all physical things, stones, rocks, bottles, clouds, become a pretext for the voyage of human sensitivity.”

On June 27, 2012 (50 years after his death) Klein’s Le Rose du bleu (RE 22) hit the headlines when it was auctioned by Christie’s in London for a spectacular sum of £23,561,250. It was not only a world-record price for the artist, but also for any French post-war artist at auction. Executed in 1960 and made of dry pigment in synthetic resin, natural sponges and pebbles on board, the vast, nearly two-metre-high monochrome canvas was adorned with nine massive sea-sponges and thousands of scattered pebbles to form a magical organic and otherworldly landscape.

Passion for judo

Born to parents who were artists, Klein’s first love was curiously not art but judo, where he built up considerable reputation. His initial training was at the police school in Nice when he was barely 19. By 1951, he was teaching judo in Madrid, Spain where he had basically gone to study Spanish. In 1952, the then 24-year-old Parisian went to Tokyo and became one of the few Europeans to successfully attain the 4th Dan (Yodan) at the famed Kodokan Judo Institute.

Two years later, back in Paris, the prestigious firm of Grasset published his book Les Fondements du Judo (The Foundations of Judo), illustrated with hundreds of photographs of Klein and the leading Japanese teachers demonstrating the six major Kata of judo. Klein considered that Judo was, in fact, the discovery by the human body of a spiritual space. “My interest in Judo, what fascinates me, is Movement, and while the end of Movement is always abstract and purely spiritual, it can be combined with the passion and emotion of the moment.”

On an artistic path

Unfortunately, Klein’s attempt to make a name in Paris came to a nought, thanks to the negative attitude of the French Judo Federation, which even refused to take him as a member. It was then that Klein turned to art seriously, but his initial attempts to make inroads into the French art scene too were anything but easy.

When he worked on with the idea of the monochrome, and submitted an orange one to the Salon des RéalitésNouvelles, an organisation of abstract artists, it was rejected by the jury which exclaimed: “A single colour, no, no, really that’s not enough.” Falling and rising became a habit for Klein. “It’s quite possible,” Philippe Vergne, former curator at the Walker Art Center, says. “Remember, he was also a judo master, so the notion of falling was part of his practice. He appropriated something from judo into his art.”

Klein believed that imagination was the vehicle of sensibility. “Transported by the imagination, we attain life, life itself, which is absolute art.” While his monochrome pictures became a rage, he said that they were not his definite works, but only preparations for his other works. “They are the leftovers from the creative processes, the ashes. My pictures, after all, are only the title-deeds to my property which I have to produce when I am asked to prove that I am a proprietor.”

Klein died with multiple heart attacks in the same year he had married his long-term friend and live-in partner Rotraut Uecker (born 1938). At the time of their marriage, Uecker was pregnant; their love child, born two months after Klein’s death,  was also named Yves.

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