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Yves Klein: the artist who tried to convince the world he could fly

Over cobbled streets, Yves Klein soared into the air with a look of euphoria plastered across his face like a drunk on his way home who has just seen a fresh kebab dangling from an adjacent tree. His wispy quiff blowing back and his besuited form quietly leaping from a dangerously high wall perpendicular to the humble street below. In the distance, a young kid cycles away, seemingly unaware that over his shoulder, an avant-garde artist is either about to defy what we thought was humanly possible or be rendered the stupidest and most pained man in his local A&E or perhaps even morgue. 

It was 1960 and Yuri Gagarin was about to become the first man in space… for the sole purpose of making the Russians seem superior to their American counterparts. Klein thought that the space race was infantile. He wanted to poke fun at it while accepting that it was one hell of a spectacle. Naturally, as an avant-garde French artist, this doesn’t immediately come across when you look at Leap Into the Void. The first question you ask yourself is: how did he do it?

While the jury is still out, the common explanation is that Klein – who was a master of Judo – used his training in that field to propel himself safely from the roof onto a mat. This provided the perfect image of his leap for photographers Harry Shunk and Janos Kender. In fact, Klein was so confident in his ability that he apparently leapt dozens of times in order to get the image just right. 

Prior to his leap, Shunk had taken a photo of the empty street, with an errand boy cycling into shot to inadvertently add a little more flavour to proceedings. Later in the lab, the two images were doctored together to create what Shunk calls a “confection”. In a world long before Photoshop and dreaded AI, this feat was a marvel in itself. In a true postmodern piece of mastery, art and technology collided to create an image that both awes, puzzles, and makes a point. 

And therein lies the true brilliance of the picture beyond the trifling matter of how. The image first appeared in Klein’s own fake publication foisted upon newsstands: Dimanche – Le Journal d’un Seul Jour (Sunday – The Newspaper for Only One Day). In Paris, this “appropriation of the world” was sold along typical print on November 27th, 1960. It was Klein’s innovative way of bringing a manifesto to the masses. 

In the illustrated paper, beneath the striking opening image of him flying/falling, the artist outlined his theory behind Theatre of the Void. In essence, he decreed that the usual constructs of theatre were now being rendered redundant. Plays were no longer a spectacle. There were now no actors, playwriters, stages, directors, or audiences, even. In fact, this is why Klein pertinently never revealed how his photo was achieved in his manifesto; there was no traditional play, and for all intents and purposes, he really could fly. The only spectacle was the void—closing the door on an empty room, and then leaping out of the window. As his poem decreed…

If you come back someday 
You who dream also 
Of this marvellous void 
Of this absolute love 
I know that together 
Without a word to one another 
We will hurl ourselves 
Into the reality of this void 
Which awaits our love 
As I wait for you each day . . . 
Come with me into the void!


While his point is, naturally, hard to fathom entirely. With a retrospective eye, you can usher in your own prescient corroboration regarding how now we do enjoy most art in a void, but whether this is what he meant is hard to truly know. Perhaps the most concise he came with his leap into nothing, was with the following proclamation: 

“I am proposing to artists that they pass by art itself and work individually on the return to real life, the life in which a man no longer thinks he is the centre of the universe, but in which the universe is the centre of each man. The true painter of the future will be a mute poet who will write nothing but recount, without detail and in silence, an immense picture without limit.

Yves Klein – Leap into the Void

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