10 Things to Know about Yves Klein

Photograph of Yves Klein taken by Charles Paul Wilp
Photograph of Yves Klein taken by Charles Paul Wilp

Born on the 28th April 1928, and originally from Nice, Yves Klein can be considered one of the pioneers of contemporary art. A painter, craftsman, sculptor, photographer, videographer and performer; his works and unique vision of the world set him apart as an artist. His hypnotising blue works are in every major museum across the world, and are a testament to the artist that revolutionised the 20th century art scene. Artsper invites you to discover 10 remarkable facts about the incredible life and work of Yves Klein.

1. He Created his own Colour

Yves Klein, Monochrome Blue Without Title (IKB 75) (1960)
Yves Klein, Monochrome Blue Without Title (IKB 75) (1960)

Yves Klein was convinced that artists of the future would only create monochrome pieces. According to Klein the very essence of art was found in the purity of the colour used, as it allowed the viewer to immerse themselves in the immaculateness of its hue. He then made a decision that would change his life forever; to focus on just one colour in particular. The colour blue. “It will be blue and nothing but blue that I will devote my life to!” For several months, this navy, ultramarine blue pigment would become the centre of his research. It was due to a new synthetic resin that allowed Klein to create the famous International Klein Blue (IKB). Obsessed with his discovery, Klein registered the name at the Institut national de la propriété industrielle (INPI). The exact formula of the IKB has never been revealed, despite many attempts to imitate it. It also has never been marketed, and only Klein himself was ever able to use it.

2. His Paint Brushes were Alive

Yves Klein and one of his models during the creation of his Anthropometry works (1960)
Yves Klein and one of his models during the creation of his Anthropometry works (1960)

In 1960, Yves Klein turned the art world upside down with his Anthropometry works, which were produced in a completely original way. Klein would cover female models in his IKB paint, and then have his “living brushes” lie or drag themselves across the canvas to create images. This allowed Klein to distance himself from traditional painting methods and establish his own, very blue, artistic print. At a time where sexuality was still discussed in hushed tones, Klein’s living paint brushes were considered extremely provocative, and were met with strong criticism from the art world.

3. He Claimed the Sky as his Own

Yves Klein on “La Marseillaise” bridge
Yves Klein on “La Marseillaise” bridge

At the age of nineteen, Klein and his friends lay on a beach in Nice and divided the world between them: Arman was the king of the earth, Pascal the emperor of words and Klein the ruler of the sky. Klein viewed the sky as his property, this immense open space, full of creative possibility and wonder. He was so infatuated with it that he considered shooting birds that infiltrated the purity of this space: “whilst i was lying on the beach in Nice, I found myself developing a hatred for the birds that flew through my beautiful, cloudless, blue sky. They risked messing up my greatest masterpiece.” He would go on to place the sky at the centre of his works claiming that “the blue sky was [his] first ever work.”

4. He was a Martial Arts Champion

Yves Klein and Master, Sampei Asami
Yves Klein and Master, Sampei Asami

Considering both Klein’s parents, Marie Raymond and Fred Klein were artists, many presumed this would immediately foreshadow the young Klein’s career. However, originally Yves Klein planned to follow a very different path. With no formal artistic training, he studied at the École Nationale de la Marine Marchande and the École Nationale des Langues Orientales. His interests included Jazz, literature, religion and martial arts, especially Judo. He would practise this discipline for the duration of his artistic and personal life. During a visit to Japan in the 1950s, he perfected the technique, becoming not only a 4th dan black belt, but also the first European to rise to this rank. When he returned to Paris in the mid 1950s, he opened a Judo club and wrote a book called Les Fondements du judo (The Foundations of Judo). An artist of both visual and martial practices, Klein’s experiences had a profound impact on his works.

5. He used Air and Emptiness in his Work

Yves Klein, Aerostatic Sculpture (1957)
Yves Klein, Aerostatic Sculpture (1957)

Klein took his title of art provocateur one step further when he created the The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, The Void exhibition at the Iris Clert Gallery in Paris. Shrouded by a velvet blue curtain, he allowed just ten visitors to enter at a time, where they were met with a succession of empty white rooms. Despite the impressive turnout, Klein caused an upheaval amongst the 2500 guests who came to admire his work. His fascination with emptiness continued when he arranged to release 1001 blue balloons in Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés. He called this a “Aerostatic Sculpture” and created a photomontage called Saut dans le Vide (Jump into the Void), which showed himself diving off the roof of a small church. Yves Klein was light years ahead of his time, and continued to tear down the boundaries of conceptual art.

6. He also Painted in Gold and Pink

Yves Klein, Ex-Voto dedicated to Saint Rita de Cascia (1961)
Yves Klein, Ex-Voto dedicated to Saint Rita de Cascia (1961)

It really is true… Yves Klein used colours other than blue! As a devout catholic, the artist was very religious and interested in philosophy, which inspired his infatuation with the sky. It is also due to his interests in religious doctrine that he use gold and rose in his works. Along with blue, these colours were particularly important in religious iconography, often recalling the holy trinity: gold for the Father, blue for the Son and pink for the Holy Spirit. He created different triptychs using these three colours, including his work Ex-voto which served as a shrine to Rita de Cascia, as a testament to his devotion to this saint.

7. He Played with Fire

Yves Klein creating Fire Painting (F 25) (1961)
Yves Klein creating Fire Painting (F 25) (1961)

Yves Klein’s creative fever hit new temperatures with his “fire paintings.” Not only did he explore the boundaries of colour and emptiness, but also current affairs. He was deeply affected by the horrific photographs of Hiroshima, where unrecognisable images of bodies were shared across the globe. In 1961, Klein began his Fire Painting series, where he attempted to imprint traces of fire onto various surfaces. Klein learned to control fire at the Gaz de France Test Centre in Saint-Denis, where the availability of industrial equipment allowed him to adjust the power of the flame. He was supervised by firefighters when he “painted” his works with a flamethrower, finding yet another immaterial source to serve as his new paint brush.

8. His Career was Fleeting

 Yves Klein, Anthropometry of the Blue Period (ANT 82) (1960)
Yves Klein, Anthropometry of the Blue Period (ANT 82) (1960)

Yves Klein’s fate was as rich as it was dazzling. The artist died at the tender age of 34 after three consecutive heart attacks. The first took place in May 1962, during a screening of the film Mondo Cane at the Cannes Film Festival, in which one of his public performances for Anthropometry of the Blue Period, was ridiculed. Another heart attack followed a few days later, and a third on the 6th June 1962 which was fatal. Some claim that Klein’s use of strong chemicals in his work would have accelerated his decline in health.

9. He Inspired many Artists

PINK stuart semple
Stuart Semple, PINK (2016)

Yves Klein’s accomplishments inspired many artists throughout the second half of the 20th century and today. “Vantablack S-VIS,” a sprayable form of one of the darkest substances known, was exclusively licensed to Anglo-Indian artist, Anish Kapoor in 2016. Kapoor’s purchase of the “world’s blackest” substance caused a huge conflict with fellow artist, Stuart Semple. As a result, Semple created “PINK,” the brightest shade of pink in the world, and prohibited Karpoor from using it. Those wishing to purchase the colour must sign a declaration confirming “you are not Anish Kapoor, you are in no way affiliated to Anish Kapoor, you are not purchasing this item on behalf of Anish Kapoor or an associate of Anish Kapoor. To the best of your knowledge, information and belief this paint will not make its way into that hands of Anish Kapoor.” However, there are also artists who managed to honour Klein without getting into arguments over colours, or the attempt to monopolise certain shades. In 2004, the late Agnès Varda chose to present one of Klein’s famous pieces from the Anthropometry of the Blue Period, in a documentary she made at the Centre Pompidou. Varda interpreted the work and conveyed her admiration for the artist, paying homage in a magnificent tribute from one great artist to another.

10. One of his Works got Stepped on

Yves Klein, Pigment bleu sec (Dry Blue Pigment) after a visitor stepped in it
Yves Klein, Pigment bleu sec (Dry Blue Pigment) after a visitor stepped in it

In April 2017, a man inadvertently walked over a work by Klein during an exhibition at Mamac, the modern and contemporary art museum in Nice. The man left an imprint of his shoe in the IKB sand. A multi-million dollar mistake whose damage has fortunately been rectified. Ironically another visitor made the same mistake a few months later at the Bozar museum in Brussels.

Yves Klein in front of his work "Grande Anthropophagie bleue - Homage to Tennessee Williams" (ANT 76)
Yves Klein in front of his work “Grande Anthropophagie bleue – Homage to Tennessee Williams” (ANT 76)

Although his eccentric and daring artistic choices were heavily criticised, Yves Klein opened the world to a new way of seeing. Through his installations, performances, monochromatic paintings, invention of colour and living paint brushes, Klein turned the art world upside down and left a legacy as vast as his sky.

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