The Courage to Create

One artist’s “Leap Into the Void”

by Marlena Chertock

“The dominant invades the entire picture, as it were,” the famous painter said. “In this way I seek to individualize the color, because I have come to believe that there is a living world of each color and I express these worlds.”

Express different worlds French artist Yves Klein did from 1954 to 1962. His short-lived career was due to a heart attack he suffered at the age of 34. But the brief length of time he had to create did not keep Klein from producing a multitude of inspirational and unique artworks.

I went to see the Yves Klein exhibit in the Hishhorn Museum in DC on Jan. 27. The exhibit, “With the Void, Full Powers,” goes on through Sept. 12, 2010.

I love looking at art, though I won’t lie—I’m not always able to understand the work, or what it makes me feel, or why it is considered art, or how to interpret it. But I do love going to art museums, walking around with a diverse group of people and attempting to understand what I am seeing. I was intrigued with Klein’s work and ever since the exhibit I wanted to learn more about the artist. I did some research that I would love to share with you.

See Klein’s archives here and videos describing how he made his works here.

Klein changed the art world. He moved art into its modern stage. He created his own shade of blue, which he called International Klein Blue (IKB). He used diverse techniques to create his works.

For some of his works he used “human paintbrushes,” nude female models who smeared themselves with IKB and then either pressed their paint-soaked bodies onto canvases or slid around on the canvases on the floor. The effects were “stamps” of the human body; Klein succeeded in capturing the presence of a body. He was obsessed with capturing the presence of objects that took up space, such as the human body, rain, fire, wind and air.

He also used fire in his paintings. With a flamethrower, he would trace around nude model’s bodies, leaving their presence behind on the dampened canvas. The result of these fire paintings is quite incredible.

Klein wanted to master the elements, in a way, or at least use them in an efficient way. He sketched intricate architectures “of the future,” he said. These futuristic homes would be constructed with light, air, gas, fire and water, Klein believed.

He was also obsessed with creating the feeling and understanding of an idea through the imprint of an object, what is left behind. In one of his famous exhibits, The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, The Void, Klein kept the exhibition space completely empty, free of anything that would be considered an artwork. In this way, he made the public and viewers feel the same from the absence of his art.

Here are a few works of Klein’s that had an affect on me.

When I looked at this painting I instantly knew what I felt—light, airy, like I was flying. The women shown are flying in their own way. There is a beauty in their flight, in the movement and position of their bodies that is undeniable. This was one time when I could look at a piece of art and know what the artist was trying to get across.

I’ll leave you with my favorite work of Klein’s. Klein is pictured leaping off a second-story window, in suspension. It seems that he is levitating, for a moment. This picture, aptly named “Leap Into the Void,” was made through montage. Several shots were taken to produce the picture—one where helper’s were gathered under him to catch him when he fell and one without the men. Both pictures were placed on top of each other to create the final effect of Klein jumping into the sky.

To me, this picture represents a great deal. It represents what Klein sought—transcendence, immortality, achieving and beating the void, the inevitable emptiness that is sure to come, the uncertain future. It represents going after what one yearns for, going after one’s goals, trying and perhaps failing, but trying all the same. And it represents the courage to do what one loves, to have faith in oneself.

Klein’s work gives me courage to pursue writing as a career. When creating any form of art, literature, or the like there is no assurance that the public will like what you have created. They may be disgusted with your work, not understand it, fear it, loathe it, ignore it, or the worst, not be aware that it was ever created. But Klein’s work shows me that he was not afraid to fail—he would only try again. Klein seemed to learn from this uncertainty.

“I am the painter of space,” he said. “I am not an abstract painter but, on the contrary, a figurative artist, and a realist. Let us be honest, to paint space, I must be in position. I must be in space.” In this “Leap Into the Void” Klein seems to truly be in space, he seems to have achieved all he dreamt of. But knowing that the picture is a fake perhaps tells us more of Klein’s person and his dreams—even though he knew it was impossible to levitate, to not fall, to beat the void, he made an attempt, an attempt that was quite believable on first viewing. His attempt to leap into the void and hang suspended and all his other attempts (and successes) in his career truly make this artist a dreamer and actualizer at the same time.

I hope you are able to visit the exhibit at the Hirshhorn. If you are not, I hope I have aided in your understanding and awareness of Klein and his work.