Today is 29 February so this week’s picture is a photographic record of the “Leap into the Void”, enacted by the French painter, sculptor, judo expert and mystic, Yves Klein. Dressed formally in a two-piece suit, the artist hurls himself into space from a ledge below the mansard roof of a house in a street somewhere in a town in France. He has been caught by the camera at what must have been the zenith of his trajectory, although his eyes are fixed on the heavens as if to suggest that he still believes that he really might fly. Oblivious to the act of existential defiance taking place behind him, a cyclist travels calmly away from the scene. He was presumably included in this artful photograph, commissioned by Klein from Harry Shunk, to represent the indifference of the world. He recalls the ploughman in Brueghel’s famous painting of The Fall of Icarus, who does not even look up as Icarus plunges into the waters behind him. The picture also recalls films stills taken on the sets of silent movies, with the leaping Klein coming across as a conceptualist’s Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton.
Born in 1928, Klein was an early exponent of the idea that a modern artist might also play the part of a charismatic performer, a shaman-cum-showman. He first came to prominence as the creator of a group of entirely monochrome blue canvases. “Yves le Monochrome”, as he came to be known, said that he wanted to create pictures as pure as pieces of fallen sky, and once imagined signing the blue sky itself, as if it were an enormous canvas. “My first and purest painting,” he would say when he was older, pointing upwards, adding that he hated birds because “they keep trying to make holes in it”.
Klein created a disparate body of work, which also included a bright blue version of the celebrated classical sculpture The Victory of Samothrace, as well as numerous so-called Anthropometries, created by dipping naked women in pigment and recording the ghostly imprints of their bodies on canvas. Running through it all was a dream of self-transcendence, which Klein pursued with the gauche enthusiasm of a perpetual adolescent. He was fascinated by the idea that it might be possible – whether through art, through Zen meditation, or through judo, which he practised to the extent of becoming a black belt of the fourth dan – to escape the confines of this world and ascend to a higher sphere of being. The artist Jean Tinguely, who was his friend, recalled that “He always talked about two things: he talked about levitation, and he talked about just vanishing.” According to Rotraut Uecker, who was Klein’s model, collaborator and wife, “He was sure he could fly. He used to tell me that at one time monks knew how to levitate, and that he would get there too. It was an obsession. Like a little child he really was convinced he could do it.”
Shunk’s photograph of Klein’s leap is in fact a mock-up, an image faked through the device of montage. The site where the event took place, in Fontenay-des-Roses, was chosen because it was next-door to a judo club, many of the members of which were known to Klein. Twelve of these judokas were persuaded to hold a tarpaulin beneath him and to catch his body as he leapt into space a number of times, to ensure that the camera caught him in the position that he wished to record. Once the picture had been taken, the judokas were removed in the darkroom and replaced with the neutral image of the street with solitary cyclist. Under magnification, the montage line is visible.
Klein went to these lengths because he believed he had in fact successfully levitated, and briefly flown, in a true “leap into the void” carried out some months before. He had invited his friend, the critic Pierre Restany, to witness this earlier jump, but Restany was delayed and only arrived at Klein’s Paris apartment in the aftermath of the event. “When I got there,” Restany later recalled, “Yves was in a kind of mystical ecstasy. He truly seemed to have accomplished some prodigious physical feat. He said to me, ‘You have just missed one of the most important events of yourlife’. He was limping slightly from a twisted ankle.” During the weeks and months that followed, Klein became increasingly depressed and irritated, because almost no one believed in his “leap”. He subsequently tried it a couple of times in public, jumping over a table on one occasion and leaping down a stairwell at the Rive Droite Gallery on another; but only succeeded in damaging his shoulder and fuelling the scepticism of his friends.
The staged photograph, which he published on the cover of Dimanche, his own personal newspaper, imitating the format of the mass-circulation Journal du Dimanche, was intended as retrospective proof of an event which he was sure had taken place. It is a forgery but one that is nonetheless true to the intensity of Yves Klein’s mystically aspiring personality – the portrait of a modern-day Holy Fool. He also saw it as the image of the premature death for which he felt destined, and which (he said) he welcomed. Within two years of creating it, he had leapt into the void for good, dying of a massive heart attack on 6 June 1962, at the age of just thirty-four.