Yves Klein is a French plastic artist. Deceased at the age of 34, he only worked in this field for a few years but the power of his work is gaining momentum with time. The way he lived, his life, his thought processes and creative acts make him a visual artist from the inside out. His pieces of work are just traces of his art.
A member of the New Realists group of friends and artists, Yves Klein subscribed to the idea of art being a return to reality and abandoning what had always been until Duchamp the essence of European art; the production of an aesthetic form at the service of a potentially superior end. The composition, representation, thoughtful intention of the artist, the rehashing of figuration and aestheticisation of abstraction, tradition and lyricism, all this was good for breaking away and going towards art that was simply and emotionally real. Klein’s associates would collect rubbish from the real world such as industrial objects and scrap items and focus their gaze on banal things from which they would extract aesthetic significance and meaning.
Yves Klein for his part would return to the real in art like a incantator animated by a mystical vision. Reality is not the trivial in a society that reorganises its norms and customs in line with commercial objectives but the Universe itself, the whole of Creation, life that passes through a person like a river of light and this vast blue sky that he would have signed at the bottom of the canvas had those devilish creatures not circled round his infinite canvas, throwing all his cosmic imagination in the air: « We must get rid of birds, every last one of them » he concluded in his Chelsea Hotel Manifesto, not without provocation for fools.
The artist aimed to create an art that imbued the viewer with an awareness of vastness. His monochromes attest to that. He sums things up at the beginning of the above mentioned Manifesto: « In view of the fact that I painted monochromes for fifteen years, In view of that fact that I created states of immaterial art, In view of the fact that I manipulated the power of the void, In view of the fact that I sculpted with fire and water and that, from fire and water, I created paintings, In view of the fact that I used living brushes to paint, […] ». And it is these pictures of flames, water and human beings heightened by his trademark blue which are his ultimate creations and to which the following words apply.
« My aim is to extract and obtain traces of the immediate in natural objects » : flames are an immediate phenomenon that leave a trace on canvas. The resulting painting is not an aesthetic form but a living memory in golden colours of the artistic act. Ubiquitous beauty precedes the act of creation that manifests itself only to make it stand out in the visible.
In 1961, Yves Klein spent an exhausting day creating fire paintings at the Gaz de France testing centre at Plaine-Saint-Denis using an industrial blow torch weighing 40 kgs, following basic instructions on how to control the several metre long flame and control the power of the heat emitted therefrom. The canvas was Swedish cardboard with strong combustion resistence. Each piece of work involved several intense minutes, when a few extra seconds more would have reduced it to ashes, despite the fireman by his side constantly cooling the piece down with jets of water as Klein focused his whole attention, presence and commitment to what he was doing, his body bowed in devotion to his art.
By switching from the devouring flames to the licking flame of his crematorial brush Yves Klein brings life to the wet surface that becomes golden, brown and black, creackling and streaking in the process. Golden mandorles (geometric forms the shape of almonds) appeared, drips and projections seemingly seized by the fire in their flow, blossoms in the inferno are frozen and burning nebulae are petrified as dark splinters turning a shiny blond yellow colour. This day was experienced as an initiation rite by all participants. He would die of a heart attack in June 1962.
The famous painting FC1, the last one created that day, and forever more, linked this experience of fire painting with his beloved « anthropometry » when he exercised his invention of painting using naked women covered in paint posing on his canvas under his instruction, leaving their traces on it (which had been his twist on the classic nude in art with all the theoretical implications that can be deduced about the artist and his subject as a result). He posed his naked models and friends on his fire paintings to reverse their silhouettes with water, then went over the areas with the blow torch to reveal the spectral trace of their presence as a negative image. Then he had them pose again with paint on the skin and around their bodies. This work is his legacy. Everything was unprecedented, the pure invention of the artist, and would remain forever new (flaming new you could say): the capture of a creative act in which fire played a part similar to light in photography as it fixes the image on the film.
He describes his art as follows: “My paintings are only the ashes of my art” (in Architecture of Air, Conference at the Sorbonne, 1959). Incandescent with gold and blue, they will glow for all eternity.