‘One of the 20th century’s most daring artistic projects’: Yves Klein’s Anthropométrie de l’époque bleue

Only a handful of large-scale works from the Anthropométries series — famously created by the audacious French artist in collaboration with models covered in paint — remain in private hands. One of them is offered in London on 28 June

In his most renowned series, Anthropométries, the French artist Yves Klein (1928-1962) invited naked female models to cover themselves in blue paint and imprint their bodies onto canvas.

Some of these paintings were created in front of a live audience, the most infamous performance being on 9 March 1960 at the Galerie Internationale d’Art Contemporain in Paris. Few witnessed the event, but rumours of its scandalous display of nudity shocked the French establishment and cemented Klein’s reputation as a provocateur.

On 28 June, one of Klein’s rare Anthropométries — named after the study of sizes and proportions in physiology — will be offered at Christie’s in London for the first time.

Yves Klein, performance of Anthropométries de l’époque bleue at the Galerie Internationale de l’Art Contemporain, Paris, 1960

Yves Klein, performance of Anthropométries de l’époque bleue at the Galerie Internationale de l’Art Contemporain, Paris, on 9 March 1960. Photograph: Charles Wilp. Photo: Scala, Florence/ bpk, Bildagentur für Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte, Berlin. Artistic action of Yves Klein: © Succession Yves Klein c/o ADAGP, Paris and DACS London 2022

‘It is an artwork of groundbreaking significance,’ says Alex Rotter, chairman of 20th/21st Century Art at Christie’s, noting that it is one of only a handful of large-scale Anthropométries  to remain in private ownership. ‘It stands as a historic record of one of the 20th century’s most daring artistic projects — to seal the passage from the material to the immaterial realms,’ he says.

It is difficult today to imagine the impact of Klein’s Anthropométries. However, in 1960s Paris, the artist was obliged to defend his actions. They were not intended to titillate, he argued, but to liberate. The time of the paintbrush was over: art was coming out of the frame, and his models, or ‘living paintbrushes’, were there to depersonalise and dematerialise the art object.

Yves Klein, Anthropometrie de l'époque bleue (ANT 124), from 1960

Yves Klein (1928-1962), Anthropométrie de l’époque bleue (ANT 124), February 1960. Dry pigment and synthetic resin on paper laid down on canvas. 60¾ x 124¾ in (154.5 x 317 cm). Sold for £27,197,000 on 28 June 2022 at Christie’s in London

The artist’s dream of a transcendent art is best exemplified by a photograph from 1960 (below), in which Klein appears to be taking flight from a first-floor window in a quiet street in suburban Paris — arms outstretched and toes inches away from the parapet. Two months earlier, Joe Kittinger had set a world record by skydiving from the edge of space. It must have felt as if humanity was on the brink of a liberating void.

Klein’s ingenious though sadly brief career began at the age of 19, when he decided that the space above the Côte d’Azur was his to claim — ‘The blue sky is my first artwork,’ he is said to have announced — and ended when he died of a heart attack at 34. Yet he left a legacy that is still being explored by artists today, through colour, light, performance and photography.

Yves Klein, Leap into the Void, 1960. Photo: Harry Shunk & Janos Kender

Yves Klein, Leap into the Void, 1960. Photograph by Harry Shunk and Janos Kender. Photograph: Shunk-Kender © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2014.R.20). Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence. Artistic action of Yves Klein: © Succession Yves Klein c/o ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2022

Central to Klein’s practice was the desire to awaken humanity to the infinite possibilities of the universe, and he believed he could do this by unlocking the senses. To this end he invented an intense pigment named International Klein Blue (IKB), its opaque luminosity evoking the immensity of the ocean and the vastness of the cosmos. He saturated sponges in IKB and covered canvases in its blue depths.

In part, Klein’s Anthropométries  should be seen in the context of the Cold War, the space race and the traumas surrounding the creation of nuclear arms. On a visit to Hiroshima in 1953, Klein saw the silhouette of a man that had been burnt into the rock face by the atomic flash. It left a deep impression on him, and he wrote that it was ‘a witness, without doubt terrible, but nevertheless a witness, both for the hope of survival and for permanence — albeit immaterial — of the flesh’.

Klein saw Hiroshima in the spectral impressions made by his Anthropométries. It was as if solid flesh had melted into air. The cool, blue imprints looked like the last traces of a humanity that had been blasted into outer space.

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In the future Klein hoped that artists would become ‘aerial men’ who would ‘levitate in total physical and spiritual freedom’. The Anthropométries  would be their calling card, the last impressions made on the physical world. As he said in a lecture in 1959, ‘Accept the idea of nothingness, and the spectacle begins!’

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