Yves Klein and His Use of Blue: How These 5 Facts Made Him Famous

Famous for his blue paintings, Yves Klein is one of the best-known artists of the 20th-century. Take a look at these 5 facts about his life and work.

Nov 24, 2020By Dea Cvetković, BA and MA in Art History
victory samothrace yves klein blue
Victory of Samothrace by Yves Klein, 1962; with Blue Monochrome by Yves Klein, 1961


Yves Klein is a French artist, a member of the Nouveau réalisme group, and an inventor of the International Klein Blue color. This shade of blue is used in many of his famous blue paintings. During his short life, Klein made a great impact on modern art history. He created proto-conceptual artworks, proto-performances, and explored ideas of spirituality immateriality in art. Here, we explore the fascinating life and work of the great Yves Klein.


1. Yves Klein Was a Very Spiritual Artist

Yves Klein by Ida Kar, 1957, via National Portrait Gallery, London


Yves Klein was inspired by many things and found spirituality in his judo practice, Christianity, and mysticism. He was born into a family of artists in 1928. His mother, Marie Raymond, was a well-known abstract painter, and his father, Fred Klein, created figurative paintings.


Despite his artistic roots, Klein wanted to be a judoist at first. In 1947, he started training judo. Five years late he even traveled to Japan for training and received a fourth dan blackbelt. At the time, he was the only French person to have one. Klein even wrote a book on the foundations of Judo and wanted to become a judo teacher, so he opened his judo school in 1955. It’s worth noting that the school was designed in monochrome colors we see in Klein’s artworks.


Anthropometry: Princess Helena by Yves Klein, 1960, via MoMA, New York


Yves Klein also learned about the mysticism of the Rosicrucian order and read works written by the philosopher Gaston Bachelard. When he was nineteen years old he read Cosmogonie by Max Heindel – a book that was considered important for the Rosicrucian Order. Klein was so drawn to their philosophy and ideas that he started getting lessons by mail from the Rosicrucian Society in California. The artist also knew a lot about Buddhism and Buddhist teachings.

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Ex-voto dedicated to Santa Rita de Cascia by Yves Klein, 1961, via Yves Klein’s Website


Yves Klein’s spirituality can also be seen through the artist’s dedication to Saint Rita of Cascia, the patron saint of lost causes. To give thanks to Saint Rita, Klein donated a beautiful artwork know as his Ex-voto to the monastery of Saint Rita of Cascia in Italy in 1961. In this small, but exquisite work we can see all of the typical Yves Klein visual elements. His monochrome colors are present, including the International Klein Blue seen in his blue paintings. The work was, however, discovered much later, in 1979. During his life, Klein made at least five pilgrimages to Cascia and even wrote a handwritten prayer to Saint Rita. It’s also interesting to note that the building in Paris, where Klein made his piece Leap into the Void, later became a church dedicated to Saint Rita.


2. Klein Was a Member of the Nouveau Réalisme Movement

Constitutive Declaration of New Realism, 1960, via Yves Klein’s Website


During his exhibition called Yves, paintings in Paris, Klein met the art critic Pierre Restany. Restany was a key figure for the development of the Nouveau réalisme movement. This French art movement was founded in October of 1960. The Nouveau réalisme Manifesto was written on a piece of paper that was colored in the famous International Klein Blue seen in Klein’s blue paintings. The Manifesto was signed by the artist himself, Restany, and six other people. Artists who signed the document were Arman, Daniel Spoerri, Jean Tinguely, Raymond Hains, Francois Dufrene, and Jacques de la Villegle. In later years, artists like Mimmo Rotella, Christo, and Niki de Saint Phalle also joined the movement.


The term Nouveau réalisme was created by Restany. He was referring to the 19th-century art movement Realism, with the added prefix New. Like New Realism, other New movements were Nouvelle Vague, also known as the New Wave, and Neo-Dada. The movement is thought of as the French equivalent to American Pop art.


Total Speed – Crazed Blue (S 27) by Yves Klein and Jean Tinguely, 1958, via Yves Klein’s Website


The artists of New Realism used many techniques and created a variety of artworks. They made collages, assemblages, wrappings, sculptures, proto-performances, and much more. The New Realists organized group exhibitions in 1962 and 1963, but the movement remained active for around 10 years.


During his career, Yves Klein collaborated with another Nouveau réalisme artist Jean Tinguely. Together they made three kinetic sculptures. He also created relief portraits of fellow New Realism artists like Arman and Martial Raysse based on life-sized plaster models of their figures. And you guessed it, they were also colored blue.


3. Klein Made Conceptual Art Before the Movement Was Born

Leap into the Void by Yves Klein, 1960, via MoMA, New York


Yves Klein experimented with a type of immaterial art that was soon to become known as conceptual art. So, it’s safe to say that he had a major influence on conceptual art.

In his 1960 piece Leap into the Void Yves Klein presented his attempt to fly. In this

black and white photograph, we see a nicely dressed Klein falling from the sky and almost hitting the pavement of a Parisian street in the Fontenay-aux-Roses. The photographs serve as documentation of this performance of Klein’s. Artists Jean Kender and Harry Shunk took the photos of the leap. The final photograph is, however, a montage, or should we say – it is “photoshopped.” For the creation of the work, several people helped Klein by holding a trampoline where the artist could fall without getting hurt.


The Void exhibition by Yves Klein, 1958, via Yves Klein’s Website


Another proto-conceptual work of Klein’s is called The Void. Klein had pronounced his paintings invisible in 1958, and for the exhibition of The Void at the Iris Clert Gallery in Paris, he wanted to take the idea of immateriality even further. He exhibited the empty space of the gallery. There was nothing to be seen inside and the mere exhibition was the artwork itself. It’s interesting to know that during the opening blue drinks were being served to guests, and those blue cocktails supposedly turned guests’ urine blue.


For the opening of the exhibition, Klein also released 1000 blue balloons to the sky. He even sold two immaterial paintings at the Iris Clert Gallery. If we try to understand the opening of the exhibition, the flying balloons, the blue cocktails, and the people who came to the gallery as the artwork, then we get close to ideas related to conceptual art, happenings, and performance art. Those art movements were of course yet to come, so it safe to say that Yves Klein was ahead of his time.


Transfer of a Zone of ​​Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility, photo by Harry Shunk and Janos Kender, 1962, via Yves Klein’s Website


We can surely say that Klein was fascinated with the idea of immateriality. Another fascinating work made by Klein was named the Zone of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility. The work itself was immaterial and therefore, invisible. The people who chose to buy it received a cheque stating the ownership of the work. For this piece, however, Klein didn’t accept money. Payment could only be made in gold. Right after receiving the gold, Klein threw a part of it into the Seine or the sea. People who bought the work were asked to burn the cheques they had priorly received. Finally, the buyers ended up with nothing, so the immaterial piece Klein had in mind was achieved. The Zone of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility is a fine example of a proto-conceptual artwork.


4. Klein Is Famous For His Blue Paintings

Blue Monochrome by Yves Klein, 1961, via MoMA, New York


For Klein, color was the way to get in touch with the immaterial and infinite. He began painting his monochromes in 1947. Klein even claimed that in the future artists would only use one color in their works. Klein’s most famous works are probably his blue paintings, but in the monochrome paintings, the artist also used colors pink, gold, and orange. During his artistic career, Yves Klein painted around two hundred blue paintings.


Klein’s blue was supposed to represent the immaterial, the pure form, and space. Blue was infinite like the sky. Klein even trademarked the color in 1957 and named it International Klein Blue or IKB. Blue had no dimensions. Klein was also inspired by the blue skies of Giotto’s paintings in the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi, which he visited.


In 1956, Yves Klein organized an exhibition called Monochromes at the Colette Allendy Gallery in Paris. Here, the artist exhibited only his monochrome works, including his blue paintings.


Victory of Samothrace by Yves Klein, 1962, via Christie’s


In 1957, he presented eleven of his blue paintings at the Gallery Apollinaire in Milan, Italy. The blue paintings were exhibited 20 cm away from the wall so that it seemed like they were levitating in space. The canvases only showed a saturated blue color, so the viewers could get lost in the colored space of blue paintings.


Klein also painted many sculptures in his famous shade we see in the blue paintings. He painted sponges and reliefs. He even recreated several ancient sculptures and painted them blue. There is his beautiful version of Victory of Samothrace and his Venus Bleue modeled after Venus de Milo. The artist also made a blue version of Michelangelo’s Dying Slave sculpture.


5. Yves Klein Used Human Bodies as Paintbrushes

Untitled Anthropometry by Yves Klein, 1960, via Sotheby’s


For the creation of his Anthropometry series in 1960, Klein directed nude women to roll their bodies in blue paint and then leave marks on canvases. Therefore, female bodies functioned as paintbrushes in this series. The shade of blue paint was the same one used in Klein’s blue paintings. For the Anthropometry series, Klein was supposedly inspired by the way bodies left marks on mats in Judo.


Klein also organized events for the creation of the Anthropometry paintings. Guests were invited to watch models paint the canvases blue with their bodies while drinking blue cocktails and listening to music. Klein’s musical choice was also unusual. The Monotone-Silence Symphony which was played during the painting session consisted of only one note being repeatedly played for twenty minutes, followed by twenty minutes of silence.


Human bodies were not the only interesting “tool” Klein used in the process of creating art. The artist also created fascinating works and abstract shapes with fire. He created a series of his Fire Paintings in 1961 for which he used a blow torch weighing almost 80 pounds. These works were made with the help of the laboratory of the National Gasworks of France. A fireman was always by Klein’s side so that no accidents would happen.


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By Dea CvetkovićBA and MA in Art HistoryDea has a Bachelor and a Master’s degree in history of Art from the University of Belgrade. Her main fields of interest include modern and contemporary art, American art, gender studies, photography, and film. She loves taking pictures, watching movies, traveling, and wandering around museums.