When it comes to society weddings, the ceremony Yves Klein meticulously orchestrated in 1962 for his union with Rotraut Uecker has long topped my list. The groom decked out in the outfit and insignia of the Knights of the Order of Saint Sebastian. The white of the bride’s dress and veil interrupted by the unmistakeable International Klein Blue (IKB) of her tiara. The couple’s wedding portrait – a visual feast of high and low culture – was later presented by Christo, who used to make ends meet as a portrait painter in Paris’s Montmartre.
All this to say that the 50-odd works by Klein, dating from 1949 to the early 1960s, which currently grace the rooms and halls of Blenheim Palace, should feel right at home in the ostentatiousness and pomp of its baroque interiors. Organized by Blenheim Art Foundation and the Yves Klein Archives, ‘Yves Klein at Blenheim Palace’ purports to be the most comprehensive exhibition of the artist in the UK to date and marks what would have been his 90th birthday. In reality, it’s a predominantly chronological rush through a prolific career that lasted only seven years, cut short by Klein’s untimely death from a heart attack at the age of 34; in that time, he produced 1,500 artworks and an equally sizeable amount of written texts.
Unsurprisingly, blue predominates. It’s there on the floor of the Great Hall, a giant rectangle of pure, loose IKB pigment (Pure Pigment), which recreates an installation from 1957. It glows from the surfaces ofglobes (Blue Globe, 1957), miniature plaster casts of iconic ancient Greek and renaissance statues (Blue Venus and L’Esclave de Michel-Ange, Michelangelo’s Slave, both 1962) and sponges, Klein’s preferred tool for painting. With their eye-popping intensity, these works are immediately decipherable among Blenheim Palace’s antique furnishings – an added bonus, as it’s impossible to get anywhere close to them for all the barriers in place. While the works’ placement, for the most part, seems arbitrary, there are occasional moments of dialogue between the historic and contemporary: a drawing room full of staid portraits is perturbed by the crazed energy of a large painting from Klein’s ‘Anthropometry’ series (Jonathan Swift, c.1960), the canvas an index of agitated bodies and flesh. A set of crockery in Klein’s signature palette of blue, rose and gold sits among the palace’s collection of fine china: the everyday elevated to objet d’art but, with their slapdash paint splatters and encrustations, also a middle finger to received notions of value and taste. Yet, for an artist who in 1958, in a letter to US President Eisenhower, willed a ‘blue revolution’ to address the socio-political structure of France, and would later propose the use of IKB to colour everything from atomic bombs to sea plankton, taken together, this is a frustratingly one-dimensional encounter that prioritizes the aesthetic over the experiential.
Following the trajectory of Klein’s career, starting with his first monochromes of yellow, pink, green and red through to the ‘dematerialized’ works of the early 1960s (Fire Painting, 1961, Zone de sensibilité picturale immatérielle, Zone of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility, 1962), this is an exhibition that puts forth an essentialist reading of the artist as utopian dreamer on a quest for the sublime and the spiritual. Yet Klein – who was often labelled a trickster and charlatan, and actively courted ‘authentic bad taste’ (according to an article published in the German journal Zero in July 1961) – was also deeply aware of the power of hyperbole and the media. Forget beauty and the sublime; I prefer to consider him a producer of authentic fakes. And, in presenting such a sanitized version of the artist, the exhibition strips both him and his work of the deliciously irreconcilable elements that make Klein so infuriatingly complex and impossible to pin down.
Main image: Yves Klein, Pure Pigment installation, installation view, Blenheim Palace, 2018. Courtesy: Blenheim Art Foundation; photograph: Tom Lin