Yves Klein: The Lure of Blue

If you think of the French painter, Yves Klein, who died aged just thirty-four in 1962, you think of blue. Although he made art works in many different colours and media, it is his monochrome blue paintings, velvety in their depth of pigment, of which he made nearly 200, that are his most significant contribution to art history. In May 1960 Klein even patented the blue that approached the nearest he could get to his ideal colour, a colour that represented for him the immateriality of deep space: International Klein Blue, or IKB. Developed with chemists at the French pharmaceutical company Rhône Poulenc, this is made from ordinary synthetic ultramarine pigment, but with a polymer binder to preserve the colour’s intensity and powdery texture. Used by Klein, the colour seems both to stand proud as a dazzling object in its own right and also, as Klein put it more extravagantly, to offer an “open window to freedom as the possibility of being immersed in the immeasurable existence of color.”

Ever since then, that extreme intensity of ultramarine blue has carried with it an asso- ciated glamour, a sense of creative daring and spiritual ambition, which owes as much to Klein’s own reputation and charismatic personality, as to the chromatic power of the pigment itself. Wherever we see that blue - on clothes, on furnishings, on accessories, in paintings, even on bottles of Absolut Vodka - we respond to its allure.

Klein was not of course the first to appreciate the seductive spirituality of the colour blue. For six thousand years the precious stone lapis lazuli has been mined in the mountains of Afghani- stan, for use in jewellery and as a pigment. The Ancient Egyptians associated the deep blue of water with the female principle, and sky blue with the male. Their God Amon, the personification of air, was painted blue, using either this costly lapis lazuli or a special manufactured Egyptian Blue. The Jews too, instructed by the Book of Numbers, thread blue through their prayer shawls while the Muslims build blue mosques that seem to open the way to heaven. Having lost the rec- ipe for Egyptian blue, medieval painters in Europe resorted once again to lapis lazuli, bringing it from Afghanistan through Venice and renaming it “ultramarine” to emphasise its farfetched beauty. More expensive than gold, this ultramarine was reserved for the garments of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ and still glows deeply in the most precious of illuminated manuscripts. It is this colour too that floods the dreamlike mountain landscapes of early Flemish painters and fills the sky of Titian’s painting Bacchus and Ariadne with an otherworldly eroticism.

It is perhaps not by chance that the first modern pigment to be synthesised was a blue, Prussian Blue, discovered accidentally in 1704. Then in 1802 Louis Jacques Thénard discovered Cobalt Blue, a cool blue that does not fade and today marks out Asbolut Vodka from other brands. But ultramarine still proved elusive to science, until, in 1824, with the cost of Lapis Lazuli going though the roof in Paris, the French Societé d’Encouragement offered a prize of six thousand francs to anyone who could produce a synthetic variety that would cost less that three hundred francs per kilo. On February 4, 1828, the prize was awarded to Jean Baptiste Guimet who sub- mitted a process he had secretly developed in 1826. Almost simultaneously a German professor of chemistry, Christian Gottlob Gmelin, discovered a slightly different method, and within a few years ultramarine was being manufactured in both countries. Artists now had recourse to this most glorious of pigments at a tenth of the price that it had cost previously.


For Yves Klein, however, blue was not just a pigment among others, but a medium in its own right, a substance that came to represent his unique artistic vision.


For Yves Klein, however, blue was not just a pigment among others, but a medium in its own right, a substance that came to represent his unique artistic vision. Right from the beginning of his career, colour had meant much more than mere decoration or representation. As he wrote in a diary entry for 14th March 1952, “Day is blue/silence is green/life is yellow/...” His earliest paintings are monochromes, in a variety of colours, because, as he explained later, “In this way I seek to individualize the color, because I have come to believe that there is a living world of each color and I express these worlds.” A monochrome offered an image of “pure, existential space.” He did not convince everyone. When his orange canvas, Expression de l’univers de la couleur mine orange (Expression of the Universe Colour Minium Orange) was rejected from the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, the jury explained, “You know, it’s just really not sufficient, if Yves would accept to add at least a little line, or a dot, or even simply a spot of another color, then we could show it, but a single color, no, no, really, that’s not enough, it’s impossible!” But Klein took up arms (quite literally, as a Knight of the Order of Archers of Saint Sebastian), adopting as his crusade the cause of pure colour in art, in defiance of line and drawing.

It was at an exhibition at Galerie Collette Allendy of twenty monchrome surfaces, all differ- ent colours, in 1956, however, that Klein realised that employing more than one colour would not do. The audience at the private view took delight in what they regarded as a decorative scheme, enjoying the play of one colour against another. As Klein put it later, “It was then that I remembered the colour blue, the blue of the sky in Nice that was at the origin of my career as a monochromist.” What he recalled was a moment in 1946, on a beach with two friends, Claude Pascal and Arman Fernandez, when he was still in his teens, when they had pledged to “con- quer glory” and had divided the world between them, Klein choosing the sky. He wrote later, “I went and signed my name on the other side of the sky during a fantastic “realistico-imaginary” voyage.” In January 1957 an exhibition at the Galleria Apollinaire in Milan, boldly titled L’Ep- oca Blu, confirmed Klein’s dedication, featuring eleven deep ultramarine paintings. This was the first exposure of International Klein Blue - not just a colour, but an entire philosophy about what pigment can do and what it could mean.

“It was then that I remembered the colour blue, the blue of the sky in Nice that was at the origin of my career as a monochromist.”

From then on Klein experimented with blue sculptures, blue balloons, blue fire works, blue screens, blue tapestries, blue sponges on sticks, and ultimately his notorious blue paintings, made from the imprints of naked female bodies, rolled, at his command, in colour. While this now seems an hilariously dated exercise, there is a poignancy to these great sheets of paper, which preserve forever the passing actions of once living bodies, in that unearthly, celestial colour. Even the name of the colour had resonance for him: in 1959 he exhibited in a group exhibition in Antwerp, as he put it, immaterially, standing in the place reserved for his painting, and reciting from the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard; “At first there is nothing, then a deep nothing, and then a deep blue.”

Whatever your view of Yves Klein, charlatan or genius, he made manifest the quintessential character of his beloved blue pigment, confronting us with its intrinsic power, divorced from all subject matter, form or line. He represents an entirely original contribution to the twentieth cen- tury exploration by artists of fundamental questions about art and its meanings. If you add to this the poignancy of his early death, there is no wonder that his work still resonates. You have only to experience the pigment works or deep blue curved “void” sculptures of Anish Kapoor to see Klein’s insight into the psychological power of blue, its capacity to induce in us a heady sense of tumbling into the void. More commercially, the Barcelona-based optical brand Etnia, recognising the iconic appeal of Klein’s colour, has collaborated with the artist’s archives on a collection of glasses for men, women and children called International Klein blue.

Photo: Darn that Blue, film by Philippa Kuligowski (Glasgow School of Art), 2013

In recognition of the power of colour to inspire, this year Absolut vodka commissioned the final- ists of New Sensations 2013, the exhibition of young talent organised annually at the Saatchi Gallery, to re-imagine the Absolut Cobalt Blue colour. Three of twenty young artists, chosen by the judges, had their artworks displayed at the Saatchi Gallery. What these winners revealed is how variously the colour can be employed in art. Freya Douglas-Morris used cobalt blue to lend inkiness to the sky in her watercolour, “Exposing themselves to the moonlight like bathers under a midnight sun,” , 2013. Katja Larsson used thin, matte ultramarine paper, pressed to the surface of a rock and then lifted away to create a rocky shape, “Cloudy is the stuff of stones”, 2013, which she lit from the side. Meanwhile Philippa Kuligowski made a film, Darn That Blue, looking at how deeply the colour blue permeates a specifically British culture. As she summed up her work: “The colour blue runs just as a deep in any British Citizen—Princess Diana’s iconic blue dress and engagement ring, the sea and sky surrounding us, flying on our Union Jack flag and something blue will be worn by every bride across the country.”

The door that Yves Klein opened to an appreciation of pure blue is now there for other artists to enter through.

Text: Emma Crichton-Miller