‘All colours bring forth associations of concrete, material, and tangible ideas, while blue evokes all the more the sea and the sky, which are what is most abstract in tangible and visible nature’ (Y. Klein, ‘Speech to the Gelsenkirchen Theater Commission’, in Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein, Putnam 2007, p. 41).
‘I saw the sky very dark and the earth blue, of a deep and intense blue’ (Yuri Gagarin).
In the same family collection since it was conceived, Yves Klein’s Relief planétaire (RP 9) emerges from the wall, an almost sculptural painting, reverberating with a distinct chromatic intensity. Executed in 1961, RP 9 is part of a discrete series of around 23 works that the artist conceived in the immediate aftermath of the historic first human journey into space undertaken by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. The series captures the zeitgeist of the moment when Gagarin exclaimed to the world: ‘I saw the sky very dark and the earth blue, of a deep and intense blue’. In his Relief planétaires, Klein gives affirmation to this statement, presenting his awe-inspiring vision of earth seen from above. While some of the Relief planétaires are titled according to the specific topographical landscapes they depict such as Grenoble (RP2 and RP10) or Europe-Africa (RP11), others, including RP9 were left without descriptions, enabling us to contemplate them as the ‘borderless worlds’ that Klein conceived them as. Indeed, the aerial landscape of RP 9 takes on a feeling of other-worldliness as Klein’s trademark IKB Blue engulfs the cresting peaks and cleft valleys, putting the landscape in sharp relief. Photographed upside down in the artist’s catalogue raisonné, when put right, it becomes evident that RP9 depicts the riverbeds of the Arly close to its confluence with the L’Isere near Albertville. Ascending from the left and right are the Bauges and Lauzière mountain ranges, respectively. In addition to blue reliefs of the earths’ surface, Klein also made ones based on the moon (RP21 and RP22) and Mars (RP1), tinted a monochrome Pink to symbolize the fires at work in the eternal genesis of the universe. A further series of galactic reliefs was planned, but their completion was intercepted by Klein’s untimely death the next year.
From April through June 1961, Klein was in the United States for his show with Leo Castelli, and it was there that he learned of Gagarin’s triumph as the first human to journey into space and orbit the Earth in Vostok 1. When the newspapers printed Gagarin’s now legendary statement in April 1961, Klein crowed of this as scientific confirmation of his own belief espoused as early as 1957: ‘that the Earth was entirely blue!’. ‘How and why in 1957 I realized that to continue to make progress in my monochromatic and pneumatic works (pneumatic in the sense of abstract sensibility) I find myself obliged to take power in France (the country where an intense quality of sensibility in its natural material state reigns and constantly radiates). It is not the act of seizing power that interests me but the possibility of realizing a monochrome painting in my new style, “the refinement of sensibility,” on the scale of ALL France and in France itself, on this extraordinary terrain, in this shrine of the world, this future support of the highest quality, using as pigments “the people and both the tangible and the intangible nature of dynamic, explosive and pneumatic quality in the highest degree” (Y. Klein, ‘Comment et pourquoi, en 1957...’, in Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein, Putnam 2007, p. XVIII).
In August 1961, Klein paralleled the fights of Russian and American astronauts by embarking on his Planetary Reliefs, a project which saw him engulf the territories of France in his trademark IKB Blue, thereby bringing to fruition his vision of a total monochromatic environment to the scale of his own country. On his return from the United States, Klein acquired physical relief maps of France at the Institut Géographique National. His earliest iterations in this series show the region of Grenoble and were conceived by pigmenting the maps using a long spray gun. This technique, which projected millions of individual drops of pigment acutely reflected Klein’s vision that each dot stood for a human being. As the artist stated, ‘Each individual in my system will be considered by me during the creation of my painting “France” as grains of pigment...In order to fix the independent individualities of the great dynamic multitude to the surface of “France,” I want them to discover that they are artists; everyone is an artist, a creator, and a refiner of sensibility without knowing it’ (Y. Klein, ‘La grande force de ce mouvement...’, in Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein, Putnam 2007, p. XVIII).
The Relief planétaires are extensions of Klein’s signature monochromes, which form the cornerstone of the artist’s entire artistic output. The mysterious, textural expanse of pure radiating colour provides a highly physical manifestation of the inherent dialogue that Klein hoped to induce between the sensibility of the viewer and the vast monochromatic expanse of intense, but immaterial colour emanating from the surface of the work. Having settled on pure colour as the immaterial medium through which he hoped to ‘impregnate’ the viewer with this sense of the mystic, from all the colours, Klein selected blue to be the material vehicle through which to express the immaterial void. ‘Blue has no dimensions’, Klein explained, ‘All colors bring forth associations of concrete, material, and tangible ideas, while blue evokes all the more the sea and the sky, which are what is most abstract in tangible and visible nature’ (Y. Klein, ‘Speech to the Gelsenkirchen Theater Commission’, in Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein, Putnam 2007, p. 41).
In its conception and presentation, the Relief planétaires convey a symbolic power, bringing material presence to the notion of a borderless Earth, which prefigured the first photograph of earth, known as the ‘Blue Marble’, taken by Apollo 17 over a decade later in 1972. Suffused with the curiosity about the world we inhabit, the Relief planétaires stand as some of the last records of the Klein’s voyages of discovery.