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Yves Klein at Blenheim Palace

Visionary French artist Yves Klein so adored the colour blue that he developed a particularly concentrated ultramarine known as International Klein Blue. This vivid exhibition at Blenheim Palace celebrates this radical artist, whose work contrasts strikingly with the classical antiques of this Oxfordshire setting

Relief portraits of Arman and Claude Pascal in the Long Library. Photograph: Tom Lindboe/Courtesy of Blenheim Art Foundation

Think Yves Klein. Think blue. Sculptures, paintings, installations, performances, audacious experiments, the rule-breaking artist’s legacy is immense, yet his work has had little exposure in the UK. Working from the late 1940s into the 50s and 60s - until his early death in 1962, aged 34, from a heart attack - his pioneering experimentations anticipated and inspired movements in conceptual art, minimalism and performance art.

“He was extremely radical in the 1950s; at the time, most painting had to be somewhat representational, form or figure. Yves with his monochromes and writings and new attitudes to art was revolutionary,” said Daniel Moquay of the Yves Klein Estate, collaborating with the Blenheim Art Foundation to present their latest art exhibition, Yves Klein at Blenheim Palace. Marking what would have been the artist’s 90th birthday, it is the fifth in Blenheim Art Foundation’s series of monographic exhibitions of influential international contemporary artists at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire.

International Klein Blue (IKB), developed and patented by Klein, became a symbolic part of his practice. The colour is so intense it draws you in, it is virtually mesmerising. You see the colour long after you’ve left the exhibition and gone home. Energising, enlivening, extreme, intense, it is like the artist himself. “The world didn’t exist outside his art, outside himself, in that moment,” said Moquay.

The over fifty monochromatic artworks on show, mostly blue, seen amid the baroque splendour of the great rooms of this 18th-century palace - the home of the 12th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough and the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill - make an extraordinary impact.

Yves Klein, Pure Pigment installation, courtesy of Blenheim Art Foundation, photo by Tom Lin

A huge square of blue pigment in its raw state sets the scene, placed centre stage in the Great Hall. This dense field of saturated colour, recreated for the show, dates from his ‘blue period’ which began in 1957, Klein having discovered Renaissance artist Giotto’s azure skies on a trip to Assisi. I had never seen such an expanse of penetrating colour, the closest being the pigment or ‘mountain’ sculptures of Anish Kapoor, born in 1954. Klein, born in 1928 in Nice (on the Côte d'Azur, pleasingly) to artist parents, very soon made his name as a pioneering artist.

His Anthropometry series of body paintings are among his most famous. One hangs in the Red Drawing Room, making a splash between the Old Masters. In the series Klein was experimenting with the limits of painting. His models were ‘living brushes’ - naked models, usually female, daubed in paint, usually IKB, who moved around imprinting their body shapes and movements onto the canvases. I was struck by the confluence of space, the void, colour and physicality for Klein, who, intriguingly, was also a black belt in judo.

The witty juxtapositions of Klein’s artworks and the antiques are part of the pleasure of this show. Here, a winged Victory of Samothrace in his signature blue cavorts near a globe alluding to an artistic worldview; there, a blue ‘sponge’ sculpture writhes up on a pedestal in front of prancing horses on one of the tapestries depicting the Duke of Marlborough’s victories, including the Battle of Blenheim in 1704.

Bold monochrome panels hang in the corridor between statues and clocks striking the hour, a skittish Bacchus and his grapes here, the goddess Flora there, watched over by glassy-eyed hunting trophy heads; and one monochrome seems about to drip black paint onto the Blanc de Chine porcelain in the cabinet below. Klein’s monochrome panels - blue, red and pink, yellow, green, black - are early experiments to demonstrate the different psychological effects of colours on the viewer.

Yves Klein, Untitled Sponge Sculpture, courtesy of Blenheim Art Foundation, photo by Tom Lind

Meanwhile, magnificently, at one end of the Long Library, a grandly robed and bejewelled Queen Anne, carved in marble by Rysbrack, stands imperious between two vivid blue, slightly meek-looking, naked men, portrait figures of Klein’s friends, Arman and Claude.

And twelve of his famous nude Blue Venuses stand gracefully on pedestals around the Saloon. Works like these are not sculpted but are appropriated objects, often inspired by classical Greek sculptures and often ready-made figures from museums, re-imagined and enveloped in his IKB pigment.

Blue for Klein was “the most abstract of colours, recalling the space and depth of the sea and sky, and thereby bringing us closer to a pure spiritual experience.”

As Moquay said, “Klein would have covered the whole world in blue, if he could.”

In a departure from blue, there’s a line of huge artworks in the Long Library: Klein’s The Immaterial, photographic records of 1960’s performance art involving the sale of ownership of ‘immaterial space’. Klein’s art was always as much about the process as realising the final object, and this, where “the ritual is the work”, Klein considered to be his most important work.


Yves Klein at Blenheim Palace

Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire

Showing until: 7th October 2018

For more information CLICK HERE


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