November 26, 2015

Tangled Up In Blue

Image: Yves Klein’s International Klein Blue at Yves Saint Laurent’s Majorelle Gardens in Marrakech.

Bright Earth examines the vast spectrum of colours we live with, from the illustrious history of monarchic purple to the 17th century attempts to make and define pink. In this extract, author Philip Ball uncovers the history and chemistry behind the infamously patented International Klein Blue.

‘I believe that in future, people will start painting pictures in one single colour, and nothing else but colour.’

The French artist Yves Klein said this in 1954, before embarking on a ‘monochrome’ period in which each work was composed from just a single glorious hue. This adventure culminated in Klein’s collaboration with Paris paint retailer Edouard Adam in 1955 to make a new blue paint of unnerving vibrancy. In 1957 he launched his manifesto with an exhibition, ‘Proclamation of the Blue Epoch’, that contained eleven paintings in Klein’s new blue.

By saying that Yves Klein’s monochrome art was the offspring of chemical technology, I mean something more than that his paint was a modern chemical product. The very concept of this art was technologically inspired. Klein did not just want to show us pure colour; he wanted to display the glory of new colour, to revel in its materiality. His striking oranges and yellows are synthetic colours, inventions of the twentieth century. Klein’s blue was ultramarine, but not the natural, mineral-based ultramarine of the Middle Ages: it was a product of the chemical industry, and Klein and Adam experimented for a year to turn it into a paint with the mesmerising quality the artist was seeking. By patenting this new colour, Klein was not simply protecting his commercial interests but hallmarking the authenticity of a creative idea. One could say that the patent was a part of his art.

Yves Klein’s use of colour became possible only when chemical technology had reached a certain level of maturity. But this was nothing new. For as long as painters have fashioned their visions and dreams into images, they have relied on technical knowledge and skill to supply their materials. With the blossoming of the chemical sciences in the early nineteenth century it became impossible to overlook this fact: chemistry was laid out there on the artist’s palette. And the artist rejoiced in it: ‘Praise be to the palette for the delights it offers . . . it is itself a ‘‘work’’, more beautiful, indeed, than many a work,’ said Wassily Kandinsky in 1913. The Impressionist Camille Pissarro made the point forcefully in his Palette with a Landscape (1878), a pastoral scene constructed directly on his palette by pulling down the bright colours dotted around its edges.

The Impressionists and their descendants – van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin, Kandinsky – explored the new chromatic dimensions opened up by chemistry with a vitality that has arguably not been equalled since. Their audiences were shocked not only by the breaking of the rules – the deviation from ‘naturalistic’ colouration – but by the sight of colours never before seen on canvas: glowing orange, velvety purples, vibrant new greens. Van Gogh dispatched his brother to acquire some of the brightest and most striking of the new pigments available, and wrought them into disturbing compositions whose strident tones are almost painful to behold. Many were dumbfounded or outraged by this new visual language: the conservative French painter Jean-Georges Vibert rebuked the Impressionists for painting ‘only with intense colours’.

It was a complaint that echoes back through the ages, to be heard whenever chemistry (or foreign trade, which also broadens a culture’s repertoire of materials) has made new or superior colours available to painters. When Titian, Henry James’s ‘prince of colourists’, took advantage of having the first pick of the pigments brought to the thriving ports of Venice to cover his canvases with sumptuous reds, blues, pinks and violets, Michelangelo remarked sniffily that it was a pity the Venetians were not taught to draw better. Pliny bemoaned the influx of bright new pigments from the East that corrupted the austere colouring scheme Rome had inherited from Classical Greece: ‘Now India contributes the ooze of her rivers and the blood of dragons and of elephants.’

There is something poignant in seeing ultramarine, the undisputed queen of pigments in the Middle Ages, relegated to just another off-the-shelf blue in the twentieth century. It is a common trajectory for painting materials: from exotic and illustrious import, with all the mystery of rare spices or incense, to cheap commodity. But maybe this is to take too downbeat a view, for art has certainly benefited from the tremendous broadening of the palette. And that process continued in the twentieth century with the introduction of still more shades of blue.

Two new pigments arrived in 1935: Monastral blue and manganese blue. The first is the English trade name for a lake pigment made from ICI’s copper phthalocyanine. Bold claims were made for it – that it was the ‘most important discovery since those of Prussian blue and artificial ultramarine’ – and there is no doubting its considerable commercial impact. As a blue pigment, it shares none of the luxuriant hue of ultramarine; but its importance lies more in the fact that it absorbs red and yellow almost totally, while transmitting or reflecting blue and green – making it the ideal cyan colour for three-colour printing (see Chapter 12).

Manganese blue – barium manganate attached to particles of barium sulphate – also displays a slight greenness of tint. It was patented in 1935 by the German colour cartel IG Farben, and was initially used to colour cement. It has never become a major pigment for artists – these days, the blue market is too tough unless you have something very special to offer.

We need not look far for blue themes in twentieth-century works. I wish to single out Yves Klein because of his uncommon engagement with the technology of colour, which led him to invent a new blue that bore his name.

Klein’s early monochromes of the late 1940s and early 1950s left him troubled by the effect of the binding medium on the pigments. He adored the richness of the dry powders – ‘what clarity and lustre, what ancient brilliance’ – but recognised that this was always diminished once they were mixed with the binder to form a paint:

The affective magic of the colour had vanished. Each grain of powder seemed to have been extinguished individually by the glue or whatever material was supposed to fix it to the other grains as well as to the support.

Klein longed to find a means of retaining the intensity of the pure colour and so realise its full potential to awaken the emotions of the viewer.

He sought the assistance of Edouard Adam, a Parisian chemical manufacturer and retailer of artists’ materials. With Adam’s help, Klein found his solution in 1955: a fixative resin called Rhodopas M60A, manufactured by the Rhône-Poulenc chemicals company, which could be thinned by mixing with ethanol and ethyl acetate. ‘It allowed’, he said, ‘total freedom to the specks of pigment such as they are found in powder form, perhaps combined with each other but nevertheless autonomous.’10 To Klein, the matt, velvety texture that resulted possessed a kind of ‘pure energy’, allowing every nuance of colour to reveal itself as ‘a living creature of the same species as the primary colour’. He used the binder to create textured monochrome surfaces in spectacular colours: golden yellows, deep rose pinks. Yet he found that audiences seemed to appreciate his bright canvases largely for their decorative effect, which was not his intention at all. Klein therefore resolved to restrict himself to working in a single colour. It would consequently have to be a truly extraordinary one.

And what could be more extraordinary than Cennino’s illustrious ultramarine – albeit now a product of synthetic chemistry, divorced from its mineral source? Yet while Cennino delighted in the grandeur of the material, Klein was attracted by something more abstract – an idea of blueness that would draw the viewer beyond any superficial splendour. For him, the technical achievement involved in realising this blue was a means to a conceptual end. Thus his patenting of the new colour, International Klein Blue, in 1960 was not so much a commercial act as, on the one hand, a formal validation of the metaphysical idea that his medium represented and, on the other, an insurance against the possibility that others would use it in ways that corrupted the ‘authenticity of the pure idea’.

Klein’s exhibition in Milan in 1957, ‘Proclamation of the Blue Epoch’, disclosed his programme in a series of blue monochromes. To emphasise his intention to transcend the superficial, Klein gave each canvas a different price, despite the fact that all were ‘identical’. Value, he felt, should reflect the intensity of feeling that had gone into the creation of the work, and not what it ‘looked like’. The product was simply a record of that creative energy. This stress on the making is an enduring aspect of Klein’s contribution to modern art.

The Milan exhibition was a great success. In Paris, where the elite of the avant-garde were prone to bitter, factional controversies, the reception was more mixed. But Klein’s bold concept soon won him international acclaim as ‘Klein le monochrome’.

These shimmering blue works, mostly identified simply by a numbering scheme prefixed with ‘IKB’ (Plate 10.5), have to be seen at first hand to be fully appreciated – no reproduction can do them justice. Klein applied the paint with a roller or with sponges, which in 1958 he began to incorporate into the work itself, preserved with a resin and impregnated with the blue pigment.

As Klein’s work broadened into new conceptual areas – his Pneumatic Epoch with its focus on the Void, his kinetic sculptures with Jean Tinguely, his body imprints or anthropome ́tries – he remained largely true to his blue manifesto. Hiroshima (1961) captured blue silhouettes against a deeper blue space, their outstretched limbs recalling the ghostly white shadows of vaporised victims of the atomic bomb. The joyous blue outlines of Humans Begin to Fly (1961) mark his conviction that mankind can surmount its physical limitations. His exquisite votive offering (Ex Voto) to the shrine of St Rita at the Cascia Convent in Italy, made in 1961, carries his colouristic aims to their logical conclusion by presenting unadulterated pigments, enclosed in clear plastic (Plate 10.6). Here is a prayer accompanied by a primary trinity of medieval descent: ultramarine, gold, and a thoroughly modern deep pink to replace vermilion.

In the IKB-coated world of Blue Globe (1957) and the topographic Planetary Reliefs (1961) Klein revealed his utopic vision of a planet rendered comfortable and harmonious by a ‘permanent miracle’ of climate regulation. Nothing served to strengthen this vision more than Yuri Gagarin’s words from 1961, a year before Klein’s premature death in 1962: ‘Seen from space, the earth is blue.’

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Bright Earth by Philip Ball (Vintage) is available now.

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