One Model Reflects on the World and Work of Artist Yves Klein
Three ambitious young men (two of whom would become major artists), lounging on a beach in Nice during the summer of 1947, divided up the world. Armand Pierre Fernandez (whom the art world would later know as “Arman”) claimed the animal kingdom; his friend, Claude Pascal, opted for plant life; and the nineteen-year-old Yves Klein chose the realm of minerals and the infinite blue sky. He chose well. In an astonishing career, cut short by his death at age 34, Klein transformed the landscape of postwar European art, instigating alchemical changes through his use of fire, water, and pigment in monochrome paintings, performances, and “anthropometrical” prints.
The latter were made with what the artist called his “living brushes”—young women who covered their naked bodies in his patented shade of blue paint, and applied themselves to his canvases, creating haunting imprints, at once visceral and uncanny. His Untitled (FC1)—the subject of a surprise announcement made this morning by Christie’s, which plans to include the rarely seen painting in its evening sale of Post-War and Contemporary Art on May 8th—is a masterpiece in the genre, made during the last year of Klein’s life (1962). Among the ghostly yet vividly sensual shapes that reach skyward across its scorched surface is the outline of a young woman—the Italian Elena Palumbo-Mosca, who met the artist when she was hired as an au pair to look after his friend Arman’s children in Nice. Later, moving to Paris to study, she stayed with Klein, danced in nightclubs, married a jazz musician, and became the artist’s favorite model. Now 77 and living in Brussels, she shared her memories of the artist and their work together.
Where and how was FC1 created?
It was at the Gaz de France, an immense, factory-type building where they produced gas for cooking and heating. It was not terribly comfortable—it was winter and cold. That was where he had permission to make his fire paintings. Gilles, the other model, and I had to get completely wet with cold water. Then we made the prints [by pressing their bodies to the cardboard], which were more or less invisible. Then Yves burned the board, which burned to a different degree in the parts that were wet and those that were not, so that you could see the silhouette of the person. Once that was done we applied blue paint to our bodies, and then applied ourselves again to the shape. And Yves went around the body with the airbrush, to make the outline more precise.
What did you think of the work, back then?
I knew the meaning of fire and water in Eastern philosophies, and the meaning of the color blue in Neo-Platonism. It was interesting dealing with these categories. In those times, I didn’t realize that we were doing something important, though I think Yves was always very sure. He was absolutely positive that he was giving a new start to art. He had written that, in the 20th century, after thousands of years of the fight between color and line, that color was at last taking over. And that through color, man would accede to a different vision of reality. He was a utopian.
Would you call it “posing,” what you did for Klein?
No, I worked with him. That was what he said, too. He was like a theater director. I remember this one very long painting—a sort of manifesto for the nouveau réalisme—where my body print appears, and they asked me to sign my name, Elena, underneath it.
Since you signed it, did you or Klein—or both of you—consider it a collaboration?
I was doing it as play. It was interesting, it was amusing, and it was certainly disturbing to my bourgeois family. I enjoyed it.
What is the effect on you today, when you see this image of your own body?
I’m pleased. I think at least I will leave a shadow of myself behind somewhere.
By Leslie Camhi