With its blue corporeal form suspended within a vast white void, Barbara (ANT 113) is an exceptional, monumentally-scaled example of Yves Klein’s groundbreaking Anthropométries. In the artist’s signature International Klein Blue (IKB) pigment, the work registers multiple impacts of a human body, creating a larger-than-life trace of the figure that hovers as if caught in motion. Rills of vivid paint accumulate across the wave-like silhouette, dense and textured like a sprawling mineral terrain. Executed in 1960, the same year that Klein inaugurated the series with a seminal live performance, ANT 113 belongs to a select subset of Anthropométries in which the body appears to take flight in a transcendental act of levitation. Contorted and disoriented into abstract arabesque, three sets of breasts and torsos intertwine at the base of the canvas, swooping upward through a fluid gestural curve—a record of thighs dragged across the surface. It is a composition shared by a discrete number of works from 1960, including Princess Helena (Museum of Modern Art, New York) and ANT 130 (Museum Ludwig, Cologne). Seeking to render visible the immaterial dimension of physical being, the Anthropométries were created by nude female models, coated with paint, who imprinted their bodies upon paper and canvas under Klein’s choreographic direction. According to Sidra Stich, “The anthropometries made history for Yves Klein and became a benchmark of his career” (S. Stich, Yves Klein, exh. cat. Museum Ludwig, Cologne 1994, p. 186). For the first time in the long history of the female nude, canvas and body were seamlessly united. Of all Klein’s works, they perhaps best encapsulate the artist’s enduring mystical belief in mankind’s fated dissolution into the immaterial world of the spirit—a destiny he conceptualized as the “leap into the void”. With its sense of formal ascendancy, liberated from the restraints of gravity, the present work represents a euphoric expression of this conviction.
In IKB, Klein had found a pigment so intensely saturated that he believed it had the power to fully immerse the viewer in the metaphysical realm: it was dimensionless, formless, evocative of the unknown territories of sea and sky. Klein saw it as the purest expression of the void, its all-consuming chromatic resonance acting as a gateway to a world of immaterial sensibility. His monochromes had sought to explore the full potential of this color by allowing it to flood the surface of the canvas with as little intervention as possible. In deciding to use the human body as a vehicle for IKB, Klein created a new level of remove between himself and the picture plane. “It was the solution to the problem of distance in painting”, he explained; “my living brushes were commanded by remote control” (Y. Klein, Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein, New York 2007, p. 114). By focusing on the torso—breasts, abdomen and thighs—Klein tapped into that part of the body that he believed to be independent of conscious thought. “The heart beats without thought on our part; the mind cannot stop it”, he wrote. “Digestion works without our intervention, be it emotional or intellectual. We breathe without reflection. True, the whole body is made of flesh, but essential mass is the trunk and the thighs. It is there that we find the real universe, hidden by the universe of our limited perception” (Y. Klein, Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein, New York 2007, p. 186). Free from the artist’s touch, the Anthropométries brought about a pure, uninhibited transmission of that essential life force onto canvas. The present work—almost unrecognizable as a body—represents an energetic marker of human presence, a sweeping trace of its core vitality.
Klein’s Anthropométries emerged at the height of his so-called “blue period”—an intensive stream of artistic production during which he attempted to commune at close range with the volatile, transcendent properties of his newly-discovered pigment. As time passed, Klein began to invite naked models into his studio, in the hope that the presence of human flesh would allow him to stabilize his engagement with the void. Enchanted by the powerful exchange of energy he perceived between the models and his monochromes, he began to contemplate a union between the two. “One day, I understood that my hands, the tools by which I manipulated color, were no longer sufficient”, he said. “I needed to paint monochrome canvases with the models themselves ... No, this was no erotic folly! It was even more beautiful.” Recalling his early experiments, Klein described how “I threw a large white canvas on the ground. I poured some twenty kilos of blue paint in the middle and the model literally jumped into it. She painted the painting by rolling her body over the surface of the canvas in every direction. I directed the operation standing up, moving quickly around the entire perimeter of the fantastic surface on the ground, guiding the model’s every movement, and repositioning her” (Y. Klein, Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein, New York 2007, p. 113). On June 5, 1958, Klein conducted the first performance of this phenomenon at a dinner party hosted by his friend Robert Godet.
It was not until February 1960—almost a year and a half later—that Klein returned to the idea of body painting in earnest. He had spent the summer watching his friend Arman working on his Allure series, created by throwing a variety of inked objects at blank canvases in order to capture ephemeral traces of their forms. Refining his own approach, Klein developed a more controlled interface between body and canvas. Rather than inviting his models to launch themselves into pools of paint, he applied the pigment directly to their skin before carefully choreographing their position and motion. Present on the evening of February 23, when this new method was conceived, Pierre Restany—the critic who coined the term Anthropométrie—described how “Rotraut Uecker ... smeared the front of her body, from breast to knees, with an emulsion of blue pigment. Following the monochrome painter’s instructions, she lay down on the floor, leaving the imprint of her torso on the sheet of paper that had been placed there for that purpose. After receiving a new coat of wet paint, she repeated the operation, this time standing up and applying her body five times in succession to a long sheet of paper attached to the wall at the proper height. The marks thus left on the paper represented the central part of the body, breasts, abdomen, and thighs, in the manner of an anthropomorphic sign. I could not help exclaiming: ‘These are the anthropometries of the blue period!’ Yves, who had been waiting for just this, jumped up in triumph. He had his title: Anthropometries” (P. Restany, Yves Klein, New York 1982, p. 110).
On March 9, Klein arranged to showcase this newly-refined technique in a ceremonial live performance at the Galerie Internationale d’Art Contemporain on the rue Saint-Honoré. The proprietor, Maurice d’Arquin, had designed the event as an exclusive, one-night-only spectacle, with a select guestlist of artists, critics and patrons. Unlike Godet’s lively dinner party, a sense of near-religious grandeur prevailed. At exactly 10pm, the audience took their seats on gilded chairs in front of an empty stage, whose walls and floors were covered with blank sheets of paper. A group of musicians—three violinists, three cellists and three choristers—entered the gallery, followed by Klein, dressed in a tuxedo and wearing the Maltese cross of his Saint Sebastian brotherhood. At Klein’s signal, the ensemble began to play his Monotone-Silence Symphony: a twenty-minute hypnotic drone followed by twenty minutes of silence, which, like IKB itself, sought to induce a state of metaphysical rapture in its audience. Once the stage was set, three nude women entered the gallery carrying pails of IKB paint. As they sponged their bodies with pigment, Klein began to issue instructions, both gesturally and verbally. Over the course of the evening, two of the women focused their attention on the wall, pressing their bodies up against the surface in rhythmic, almost balletic motion. In contrast, the activities of the third model were driven by a frenetic, raw energy, as she dragged her paint-smeared body across the floor in a series of arabesques. Those present at the performance were struck by its grace and serenity, its mesmerizing mise-en-scène and the ritual solemnity of the printing process.
The reverential nature of the performance at the Galerie Internationale d’Art Contemporain made plain Klein’s desire to distance the Anthropométries from any affiliation with eroticism. The use of the naked female form was conceived not in sexual terms, but rather as a “resurrection of the flesh”: an investigation of its phenomenological properties. Much as he had previously tried to capture colors as “living beings … true inhabitants of space”, so Klein now sought to show the human body as vital source of dynamic creativity. In this regard, the Anthropométries owed much to his long-standing fascination with the art of judo—in particular, its assertion that the body harbors a core repository of physical and spiritual energy, and its devotion to exploring and marshaling these forces. The resemblance between the Anthropométries and the body imprints left by fallen judokas—and, indeed, between the white paper and the dojo mat—were fully acknowledged by Klein. The metaphysical power of the carnal trace was an idea that stretched back far into his youth, from a shirt he adorned with handprints and footprints aged twenty to his childhood fascination with his bodily impressions in the sand of the beaches near his home in Nice (S. Stich, Yves Klein, exh. cat. Museum Ludwig, Cologne 1994, p. 172). For Restany, the concept ultimately spoke to the origins of mankind, invoking a kind of primal existentialism. “The blue gesture launched by Yves Klein runs through 40,000 years of modern art to be reunited with the anonymous handprint, as sufficient as it was necessary in that dawn of our universe, that Lascaux or Altamira signified the awakening of man to self-awareness and the world” (P. Restany, Yves Klein, New York 1982, p. 110). Significantly, the Anthropométries would later combine with the artist’s attempts to capture a new set of traces on canvas—the primeval, elemental forces of wind, rain and, ultimately, fire.
While the Anthropométries stood in sharp contrast to much of the art that was being produced at the dawn of the 1960s, they resonated with a number of tendencies that emerged during this period. In a world largely dominated by abstraction, several artists were increasingly drawn to the idea of the indexical imprint as a means of re-engaging with the human figure. During the 1950s, Robert Rauschenberg and his wife Susan Weil had created a series of works by placing their own bodies on cyanotype blueprints and briefly exposing them to light. Bruce Nauman made impressions of his own form in media as diverse as grease and neon. Even artists operating more traditionally within the realm of figurative representation were approaching the body as a site of energy and spiritual vitality. Following the legacy of works such as Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, Willem de Kooning’s Women transformed the female nude into a whirlwind of visceral impressions, whilst Henri Matisse’s Blue Nude cut-outs of the 1950s reduced it to a set of sinuous planes. The shape of the present work in particular invites comparison with Matisse’s 1952 work La Chevelure. At the same time, the performative, theatrical nature of the Anthropométries aligned them with the “Happenings” staged by John Cage and the Fluxus artists, the action paintings of Jackson Pollock and, to a degree, the body-orientated art of the Japanese Gutai group. According to Stich, “the anthropometries thus constituted a seminal part of the critical reorientation that replaced illusive and introspective art with work that boldly displayed images of unadorned, raw reality” (S. Stich, Yves Klein, exh. cat. Museum Ludwig, Cologne 1994, p. 186).
Ultimately, however, the significance of the Anthropométries lies in their status as an apotheosis of Klein’s own artistic journey. If he conceived his practice as a progressive immersion of his own being and identity into the realm of his art, then the Anthropométries stand as a moment of breakthrough. Tuxedo-clad, Klein was orchestrator, composer and master of ceremonies: an omniscient creator who cut to the essence of the human spirit without ever laying a finger upon the canvas. “[Klein] conceived of the body as a force of creativity, a marking apparatus that was itself a sign and signifier of life”, explained Stich. “The body was an evocative presence but also a trace—the incorporeal vestige of a material form that no longer existed in real time” (S. Stich, Yves Klein, exh. cat. Museum Ludwig, Cologne 1994, p. 176). As the body departed, the artist dissolved with it, reduced to a spirit whose machinations left their indelible mark upon the picture plane. In the present work, and others like it, the human form is rearticulated, the traditional vertical hierarchy of breasts, abdomen and thighs inverted, broken down and restructured into a singular, fluid gesture. It is longer a concrete form, but an expression of visceral energy—a celebration of the immaterial force that gives life to human flesh.