‘The sky is dark...the Earth is blue’ (Y. Gagarin, quoted in The Daily Mirror, 13 April 1961).
‘It is not with rockets, Sputniks, and missiles that modern man will achieve the conquest of space... It is by the terrible but pacific force of sensibility that man is going to inhabit space. It is by the impregnation of human sensibility into space that the veritable conquest of that much coveted space will occur. Because man’s sensibility is all-powerful in immaterial reality... It is our power of effective extradimensional action’ (Y. Klein, in Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein, New York 2007, p. 75).
‘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, quoted in ‘Speech to the Gelsenkirchen Theater Commission’, in Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein, New York 2007, p. 41).
Executed in his signature International Klein Blue pigment, Yves Klein’s Relief planétaire (RP 17) is an outstanding sculptural painting, mirroring the topographical contours of the Nice coastline where the artist was born. Of profound personal significance to Klein, the azure shade of the Mediterranean sea and the sky at the beaches where he spent his formative years inspired the artist to explore the elemental and immaterial, giving birth to IKB. Later, in the summer of 1957, visiting family and friends in Nice, Klein would meet Rotraut Uecker, the young German artist who would subsequently become his wife. Unique amongst the artist’s Relief planétaires in representing the contours of his beloved birthplace, in RP 17 Klein translates the microcosmic sphere of his imagination into the macrocosmic exposition of this immaterial satellite view from space, exploring the chasm that existed between the vast unknown distance of space and the close familiarity of his homeland. Inspired by the first human voyage into space on 12 April 1961, the same year as the creation of the present work, Klein believed that the Soviet astronaut, Yuri Gagarin had provided scientific proof of his belief that the earth was blue, imbued with the immaterial pictorial sensibility that saturated Klein’s work. The series from which the present work comes explores the way in which humanity perceived itself and its place in the universe with the advent of space travel, responding to Gagarin’s statement: ‘I saw the sky very dark and the earth blue, of a deep and intense blue’. 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. Envisaging the earth from an aerial point of view RP 17 presents part of the artist’s native France engulfed in IKB: from the coastline of Monaco, to the jagged outline of Cap Ferrat and the ridges and mountainous territories of the Côte d’Azur, the play of light and shadow emphasises the peaks and valleys that characterize the landscape where Klein spent his formative years. While several of the Relief planétaires were named according to the geographical locations they represent, such as Grenoble (RP 2 and RP 10), or Europe-Africa (RP 11), others, such as the present work remained untitled, invigorating the painting with a sense of universality that correlates to Klein’s conception of a total sensibility and corroborating his understanding of the series as ‘borderless worlds’. Alongside the terrestrial theme of the IKB topographical landscapes, Klein made corresponding galactic works based on the moon (RP 21 and RP 22) and Mars (RP 1) in a rose pink hue. A further series of cosmic reliefs was planned, but their completion was intercepted by Klein’s untimely death in 1962.
On Klein’s return from New York in June 1961 Gagarin’s confirmation of his belief that ‘the entire earth is blue’ injected the artist with a renewed spirit (Y. Klein, quoted in S. Stich, Yves Klein, Stuttgart 1994, p. 240). He gleefully wrote to his friend, the artist Arman, also born in Nice, that the IKB impregnation of earth had been achieved and that Gagarin had been the only visitor at his exhibition opening in space. Before travelling to Nice for the summer he acquired physical relief maps of France at the Institut Géographique National and in August he created his first Relief planétaire, a map of the Grenoble region infused with IKB. Between September and November 1961 he went on to create approximately twenty further works in this series. A plaster cast of the original map was made before being painted uniformly in IKB. Although the structural relief of the map is still clearly visible the monochromatic palette obliterates boundaries and renders geographic distinctions obsolete. Klein’s position in what he identified as the battle between line and colour is well known; for him, traditional characteristics of painting were limiting and reductive, while colour had the ability to inhabit space entirely: ‘The line runs, goes out to infinity, while colour itself ‘is’ in infinite’ (Y. Klein, ‘The Monochrome Adventure’, in Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein, New York 2007, p. 142).
In his manifesto, ‘Overcoming the Problematics of Art,’ Klein wrote, ‘I am opposed to the line and to all that result from it: outlines, forms, and compositions’ (Y. Klein, quoted in ‘Overcoming the Problematics of Art’, in Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein, New York 2007, p. 46). By saturating the canvas in his patented shade Klein eliminated visual hierarchy and removed the lines he found so inhibiting. As the representative of immaterial pictorial sensibility IKB became a pervasive force in Klein’s quest for a ‘blue revolution’. 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, quoted in ‘Speech to the Gelsenkirchen Theater Commission’, in Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein, New York 2007, p. 41).
The geographical location depicted in RP 17 is particularly significant for Klein as the birthplace of his preoccupation with blue. In the summer of 1946, lying on a beach with his friend and fellow artist, Arman and the poet, Claude Pascal, Klein famously signed the sky, asserting his ownership over the expanse of blue above. He would later describe this as his first monochrome. Paralleling the adventures of Russian and American astronauts, Klein’s Relief planétaires brought to fruition his vision of a total monochromatic environment on the scale of his own country. Exploring the coastline of Nice, in RP 17 Klein demonstrates the success of his aspirations towards the total saturation of IKB into the world at large. Writing early in his career, Klein described his immaterial ambitions: ‘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, quoted in ‘Comment et pourquoi, en 1957...’, in Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein, New York 2007, p. XVIII). The representation of this specific location makes literal his ambitions, emancipating the landscape of his childhood from materiality and moving beyond the pictorial to demonstrate an immersive and transcendent experience.