As much as a certain shade of blue, fire was aesthetic perfection for the artist Yves Klein. In 1961, a year before his death, he travelled to a French gas company test-centre to make an astonishing series of fire paintings.
At nineteen, Yves Klein (1928–62) lay on a beach in the south of France with his friends and proceeded to sign the sky – claiming it as his very first artwork. Throughout his brief but remarkably influential career, he would go on to create works that conjured an impression of infinity – be it his famous blue monochromes, his leaps into the void, or his fire paintings, which hauntingly capture the natural phenomenon’s trace on canvas.
In the spring of 1961, shortly after co-founding the art movement New Realism, considered as the French equivalent of pop art, Klein travelled to the Centre d’Essais du Gaz de France, the test centre of France’s national gas company, in Plaine-Saint-Denis. The resulting series of ‘Fire Paintings’ produced that day remain amongst the most elemental and spiritual he ever created, recording the presence of absence.
During his visit, Klein made use of an industrial blowtorch weighing forty kilograms, learning how to control the metres-long flame and heat that it emitted. As the artist bowed over each canvas – Swedish cardboard, resistant to combustion – for several minutes at a time, firemen stood at his side, constantly cooling the works with jets of water, and toeing a delicate line as each hovered on the brink of being reduced to ashes.
Going about his task, Klein was more alchemist than artist; crackled and streaked by the fire, the wet surfaces morphed from gold to brown and black, unleashing bizarre apparitions, depending on which approach he used: almond-shaped geometric forms, ghostly figures on their backs, cottony clouds, and vertical streaks, akin to infernal vegetation.
The last painting he made that day, FC1, was yet more astounding, drawing on his beloved ‘anthropometries’, by which he imprinted the traces of naked, paint-covered women on his canvases. This time around, he sprayed the models with water and asked them to press their bodies to the compressed board, going over those areas with the blowtorch to reveal the spectral trace of their presence as a negative image.
By ‘burning’ their figures onto the paper, he was ingeniously endowing fire with a similar role to that which light plays in photography – but also, of course, nodding to the nuclear shadows of the blast victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which had affected him early in his career.
While his experimentation at the test centre ended abruptly when the nude models were discovered – the laboratory’s director was fired – he had used his brief time there to produce some 125 paintings. In 2012, FC1 went on to sell for $36.4 million at Christie’s, setting an auction record for the artist.
As early as 1959, Klein had touched on the role of fire – a dualistic force – in his imagination, during a lecture at the Sorbonne University in Paris:
Fire for me is the future without forgetting the past. It is the memory of nature. (…) It is gentleness: [Fire] is gentleness and torture. It is cookery and it is apocalypse. It is a pleasure for the good child sitting prudently by the hearth; yet it punishes any disobedience when the child wishes to play too close to its flames. It is well-being and it is respect. It is a tutelary and a terrible divinity, both good and bad. It can contradict itself; thus it is one of the principles of universal explanation. On the other hand, one can, I believe, discuss the quality of fire from the point of view of aesthetic perfection. Fire is beautiful in itself, regardless.
His exploration of the medium was sparked by a 1961 exhibition at the Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld, Germany, entitled ‘Yves Klein: Monochrome und Feuer’ (Yves Klein: Monochrome and Fire). Featuring an array of techniques – monochromes, sponge reliefs, anthropometries, cosmogonies – it also included his spectacular ‘Fire Wall’ and ‘Fountain of Fire’, which were set out on the museum’s lawn. The fountain of fire consisted of two columns of flame that shot three metres into the air, while the fire wall comprised fifty Bunsen burners arrayed on their sides in a grid-like pattern, raised a metre or so above the ground, like peculiar stadium lights.
During the exhibition’s opening, Klein arranged for the ‘lights’ to go on as guests gathered on the lawn – a display that ‘suddenly illuminated the twilight’. According to the art critic Pierre Restany, co-founder of New Realism, and author of Yves Klein: The Fire at the Heart of the Void, those who witnessed it were left with ‘Prometheus and Empedocles complexes: attraction, repulsion, bedazzlement and apprehension’.
Restany’s comment encapsulates fire’s conflicting powers, already touched on in Klein’s lecture at the Sorbonne: a force of creation and warmth, it also has the potential to cause harm. Klein made this yet more explicit in his Chelsea Hotel Manifesto, also produced in 1961: ‘‘Truly, fire is […] essentially contradictory, […] since it is both the sweetness and torture that lies at the heart and origin of our civilization.’
On the last day of the exhibition, 26 February 1961, Klein summoned the museum’s director and public to witness the inauguration of his fire paintings – taking imprints of the fire fountain and wall of fire by holding a sheet of paper or compressed board to the flames for a few seconds. In some, the fire left a scorching pattern; in others a charred residue, crackled veneer or scarred splotches, setting the template for his trip to Gaz de France.
‘My works are only the ashes of my art,’ claimed Klein – a trace of a process or happening which is invisible to the eye. For Klein, fire – one of the four elements – was indispensable for getting to grips with absence, with the unseen – the spiritual sense that lies beyond the surface of material things.
In Fire at the Heart of the Void, Restany – a Catholic – repeatedly underlines the symbolic and ritualistic correspondences in Klein’s use of fire, positioning the artist as an initiate who worked ‘in perfect accord with God’s calling’. The fire paintings, he wrote, were the expression of ‘the alchemist of fire meant to apprehend light as a true believer’.
Klein was not only influenced by thinkers who had grappled with fire – Gaston Bachelard or Jung – he was inspired by the palette of fire itself: blue, rose and gold. By combining fire and painting, he captured a moment in time that seemed to speak of the substance of life.
The viewer of these works can experience a similar revelation – should they have the courage, Restany dramatically concludes. ‘We will then be able to join Yves Klein in the eternal present of the glorious body, the corpus glorifications, and plunge ourselves in the Fire in order to take possession of our own Self. Thus we will ourselves be fire.’ A fitting response given that, rather than paper, Klein’s ultimate canvas was life.