BOLT FROM THE BLUE
The vivid creations of Yves Klein are set to electrify the hallowed galleries of Blenheim
Yves Klein stirs up stately Blenheim Palace
‘ We love to contemplate blue, not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it,’ wrote Goethe in his 1810 Theory of Colours. That text was published 150 years before Yves Klein patented International Klein Blue, the synthetic ultramarine pigment that was to become his artistic signature. Yet there can be no better proof of Goethe’s hypothesis than the intoxicating allure of the works from Klein’s blue epoch, whose infinite variety compels the viewer to look ever more closely, teetering on the border of the sublime.
Some of those masterpieces are now set to go on display as part of a landmark exhibition at Blenheim Palace celebrating 90 years since the artist’s birth. The latest in an annual series that has previously featured Ai Weiwei, Lawrence Weiner, Michelangelo Pistoletto and Jenny Holzer, the show will be the UK’s most comprehensive Klein retrospective to date. Visitors wandering through the lavishly decorated Great Hall, Long Library and Saloon will find the artist’s vivid monochrome paintings juxtaposed with Blenheim’s collection of Old Masters, his monumental coloured screens set among the Palace’s 18th-century furniture, and his bright blue, classically inspired sculptures sitting alongside marble statues of dukes and duchesses past.
The project is ambitious in its scope, says Daniel Moquay, who manages the Yves Klein Estate in collaboration with his wife Rotraut, Klein’s widow and an artist in her own right. ‘It isn’t easy marrying Yves’ work with pieces from the 17th and 18th century,’ he admits. ‘We’re not writing something on a white page – the page is already very busy.’ Klein himself would surely have been the first to take on the challenge, however. As the Blenheim Art Foundation’s director Michael Frahm points out, ‘his way of thinking was that everything is possible, that there are no limits’. So powerful was this conviction that, at the age of 19, while lying on the beach in Nice and gazing upwards into the heavens, he claimed the blue sky as his debut work of art, later calling it his ‘greatest and most beautiful’ achievement.
Klein’s peculiar brand of absolutism bears all the hallmarks of religious faith; without necessarily remaining loyal to a single belief system, he was deeply spiritual in his outlook, as well as being attracted to ritual. Brought up a Catholic, he was also a member of a Christian fraternity, corresponded with a Rosicrucian group in California and was fascinated by the Zen philosophies he encountered during the years he spent studying judo in Japan. This compulsive quest for something beyond the physical manifested itself in his art, through which he sought to transport himself and the viewer into a higher state of being. ‘Pure, existential space was regularly winking at me, each time in a more impressive manner, and this sensation of total freedom attracted me,’ he wrote of his early experiments with painting in monochrome.
Klein’s subsequent ‘Anthropometry’ series of works, in which he used naked women sponged in blue as human paintbrushes, are perhaps best understood in the context of his interest in religious ceremony. In our more enlightened times, it’s hard not to look critically at the idea of a male artist directing a series of nude models to press themselves against the canvas, but Klein himself was genuinely distressed by accusations of lasciviousness (in fact, he suffered his first heart attack at the Cannes Film Festival of 1962 after watching a documentary that presented his work in this light). In his view, performance was a way of empowering artists to become not merely makers but also stage managers, choreographers and ringmasters. Unlike the Abstract Expressionists, who believed in the spontaneous brilliance of an individual, Klein placed his creations at one remove. ‘Detached and distant, the work of art must complete itself before my eyes and under my command,’ he said of the ‘Anthropometry’ paintings.
‘We see a lot of conceptual art these days, but you have to remember Klein was at the beginning – he was a pioneer,’ says Antonia Jolles, the Blenheim Art Foundation’s senior exhibitions manager. ‘There’s a little bit of Klein in everything.’ Indeed, as well
as being a forerunner to the pop art movement and an inspiration for performance artists past and present, he has influenced the worlds of fashion (Céline’s spring/summer 2017 collection featured dresses and accessories imprinted with his hallmark blue), theatre and music. Although there is no evidence the two ever knew each other, John Cage formulated his famous silent composition 4’33” in the late 1940s as Klein was devising his groundbreaking MonotoneSilence Symphony, a single D-major chord that is sustained for 20 minutes and followed by a 20-minute silence.
This is minimalism taken to the extreme, and a reminder that Klein’s finest works are essentially intangible. To create his ‘Fire’ Paintings, examples of which will be on display at Blenheim, he used gas flames to mark the surfaces of his canvases, thereby capturing the creative force inherent in an act of destruction. His quest to understand and inhabit what he called ‘the void’ also saw him exhibit an empty gallery and sell artworks that consisted solely of an exchange of paper money for a receipt, both of which were then ceremonially destroyed. For Moquay, these works are the most significant in Klein’s oeuvre because they strike at the heart of his extraordinary utopian vision. ‘It can be difficult for us to make sense of them in a world where the dollar sign is everywhere, but Yves Klein understood that there are many important things that can’t be materialised,’ he says.
‘Without doubt it is through colour that I have little by little become acquainted with the Immaterial,’ explained Klein in his 1959 Sorbonne lecture. Three years later, he died of a heart attack at the age of just 34, delivered prematurely into the ‘imaginary beyond, pure and insubstantial’ of which he had spoken so lyrically during that address. This summer, at Blenheim Palace, his spirit will be resurrected so that a new generation can experience the power of an artist who never feared to venture into the wild blue yonder. The Yves Klein exhibition runs from 18 July to 7 October at Blenheim Palace (www.blenheimpalace.com).
Yves Klein with his ‘Sponge Sculpture’ in his Paris atelier in 1960
Blenheim Palace. Right: looks from Céline S/S 17
‘Untitled Sculpture’ (1960)
Clockwise from right: ‘Blue Venus’ (1962). ‘Jonathan Swift’ (1960). Klein in his atelier with his ‘Blue Globe’ in 1961