Yves Klein: Between the Spiritual Void and Cannibal Satiety

José Díaz Cuyás

Contexts / 20.05.2013

Yves Klein, Grande Anthropophagie bleue: Hommage à Tennessee Williams (ANT 76) (Large Blue Anthropophagy: Homage to Tennessee Williams), 1960, pure pigment, synthetic resin on paper mounted on canvas, 275cm x 407cm. © Yves Klein, ADAGP, Paris

For the general public of the 1960s, Yves Klein, artist of Immaterial Sensibility and Conquistador of the Void, was more famous for his participation in Mondo Cane (A Dog’s World, Paolo Cavara, Franco Prosperi and Gualtiero Jacopetti, 1962), the shockumentary that launched the Mondo film genre, than for his artistic work.1 Mondo is usually included under the umbrella of exploitation films and was enormously popular in Europe, Asia and the US during the 1960s and early 70s. Emerging within the context of a nascent globalised economy, its imaginary is linked to the new leisure and mass-tourism industries. An uninhibited pastiche, somewhere between ethnographic documentary and news reporting, the genre focused on mocking the most bizarre customs of different cultures, including Western ones. Interpreted as a cultural symptom, the fascination with this genre can be seen to emanate from an interest in breaking any of the ‘taboos of the world’ (after which Romolo Marcellini’s 1963 film was titled), provoking a carnivalesque inversion of values that exposed mass audiences around the world to the violent and brutal collapse of the modern, packaged in a cynical rhetoric that aimed to present the ‘raw truth’. An insect restaurant in New York presented side by side with a ‘pig slaughter’ in New Guinea, for example, shattered any appeal to the idea of progress.

Paolo Cavara, Franco Prosperi and Gualtiero Jacopetti, Mondo Cane (A Dog's World), 1962, 35mm film, colour, 108min, stills. Courtesy Mediaset

In July 1961, as one amongst the many curiosities in the film, Klein staged an ‘anthropometry’ session for Mondo Cane’s co-director Paolo Cavara which recreated the artist’s celebrated performance of Anthropométries de l’époque bleue (Anthropometries of the Blue Period, 1960) at the Galerie Internationale d’Art Contemporain in Paris the previous year. Under the direction of the artist and in front of an audience, in this performance nude female models covered in blue paint pressed their bodies against large canvases while an instrumental ensemble played music composed by Klein. However, in May 1962, he was reported to have left the movie’s premiere in Cannes upset and humiliated by how he and his work were portrayed. According to the artist’s official website, ‘the blue-covered models were filmed making somewhat lascivious gestures bearing no relation whatsoever to the session of Anthropometries staged by Klein. The same evening, Yves showed the early signs of his first heart attack.’2 Shortly afterwards, on 6 June, Klein died in his Paris home on rue Campagne-Première.

With some nuances, this is also the most common account put forth by his biographers. ‘For those who admire Klein’s career’, insists Thomas McEvilley, ‘it is difficult […] to watch this sequence; his self-importance, his apparent lack of ironic distance, make one almost wish to turn away. (How must it have made him feel?) And he was not even the centerpiece of this freak show, but just another trivial absurdity among sequences of people eating insects and drinking turtles’ blood’.3 Despite the sincere consternation expressed in his commentary, it is difficult to accept what McEvilley, along with the majority of Klein’s exegetes, overcome by the dreadfulness of this ‘freak show’, take for granted when they halt their narrative at this point: the idea that nothing in Mondo Cane has anything to do with art and, consequently, nothing to do with Klein or his work. I would like to suggest that on the contrary his participation in the film not only helps us to understand the cultural significance of the Mondo genre – which in the 1970s gave rise to the ‘cannibals in the jungle’ sub-genre – but also shines light on the artist’s work.

The best evidence of this co-implication between Klein and the Mondo is their shared passion for anthropophagy. In late capitalism, the reification of all aspects of life by consumption, including the commercialisation of experience through the new leisure industry, results in a desperate search to achieve a non-mediated life, to obtain ‘authentic’ and ‘real’ experiences. This unreachable and always frustrated desire – Life, the Real – can be seen to be shared by both post-War avant-garde artists and the consumer or mass tourist, albeit with different levels of awareness, as if they were at the opposite ends of the same arc. ‘Real’ life, as real art, exists beyond all laws, and, for the Western imagination, the closest state to Nature – furthest from History and Labour – is cannibalism, whether in its Edenic or satanic version. Interestingly, such fascination for anthropophagy and its metaphors, both in the artistic sphere and in popular culture, occurs at a moment of transition from a production economy to a consumption economy. The cannibal can be understood as a mystified and compensatory image for the new experience-based economy, whose model is the tourism industry ... the worker-consumer openly consumes the ‘lives’ of others in the same way that he offers his own life for consumption.

If we review the relationship between Klein’s performances and cinema we can observe that it was not the first time, nor will it be the last, that his ritual body painting was ‘freakishly’ distorted. Claude Chabrol’s Les Godelureaux (Wise Guys, 1961), a satire of easy-going but nihilistic post-War French youth, had already included an eroticised parody of an anthropometry session for which Klein unsuccessfully sued the director in court. Mondo Cane was an opportunity for Klein to get even with that pretentious young director and, by extension, a sector of the Parisian cultural scene that saw him as merely a phony and a Dada.

Without a doubt Jacopetti, the main co-director of Mondo Cane, acted in bad faith. The one-thousand franc contract signed by Klein on 12 July 1961 gave him the right to review the final cut before the movie was screened. As filmed, the scene would have lasted 20 minutes and shown the entire progression of his work: the artist first painting with a brush, later with a roller and sponges, culminating in the final scene with live models. The filming took place in the Galerie Rive Droite in Paris and the production included seven professional models, a chamber orchestra and a well-equipped film crew that always followed Klein’s script and instructions. However, in the final cut, the scene was reduced to just five minutes showing only the final apotheosis with the nude models, an edit made worse by the swift replacement of Klein’s ‘Monotone-Silence Symphony’, which consisted of a single sustained D-major chord, with the film’s main soundtrack, a commercial romantic melody.4

However, this is not simply the story of a dishonest act. The title on the first contract was La donna nel mondo (Women of the World) and in an earlier draft, dated 18 June 1961, it was specified that the sequence would last between ten and twenty minutes and exclusively consist of ‘battles of women’. This detail gives us an idea why the directors were initially interested in Klein and also helps to clarify the artist’s role. Jacoppeti’s first job in cinema was as the script writer for Europa di Notte (European Nights, 1959), a documentary on the cabaret and burlesque scene, directed by Alessandro Blasetti, and a direct antecedent to Mondo Cane. What the ‘freak’ directors were looking for was something quite similar to what must have been on the mind of the artist’s first gallery director, Iris Clert, when she referred to his body painting as ‘blue striptease’.5 George Marci, a partner of Klein’s dealer, Jean Lacarde, acted as intermediary with the Italian film-maker and was with Klein at Cannes. He later declared that the artist knew beforehand what he was going to see, and it wasn’t the subject of the documentary that he did not like, but rather the way in which the directors manipulated his scene.6 In fact, in November 1961 he had travelled to Rome for an early screening and had returned jubilant to Paris: ‘The film is simply marvelous! And I keep remembering and seeing the scenes in front of my eyes all the time, like in a dream’.7

Neither is this a story of media banalisation or distortion caused by the shift from the visual art context to the cinema. In a film as self-conscious of the trap of language as Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Glissements progressifs du plaisir (The Slow Slidings of Pleasure, 1974), for instance, we find a similarly voyeuristic and fetishistic version of Klein’s anthropometries. After printing the traces of her body, smeared with red paint, on the walls of her cell, Alice is reprehended by the Mother Superior, to whom she replies naughtily, ‘Isn’t it beautiful? It could be Modern Art...’ Both Grillet and Klein can be referred to as artists of the void. In Klein, the void is conceived from a transcendent position: as an affirmation of a full Life and of the purest Real beyond material restrictions and the mundaneness of the surrounding materialism. In Grillet, by contrast, it is understood from an immanent position: as a denial of the referentiality of language, and in the assertion that all Life or appeal to the Real based on the completeness or purity of meaning, beyond the materiality or corporeality of the sign, is an illusion. This is why his incredulous cinematic interpretation is a comic tribute to the symbolic force of Klein’s anthropometries: colour as blood, the trace taken from the flesh, the author as vampire, the communion of the body. Devoid of aestheticised idealisations, through Grillet’s lens Klein’s work becomes an explicit ‘cannibal feast’. ‘Europe is truly made of pure “flesh”’, wrote Klein in his journal in 1957, ‘gorged with the blood of past civilisations and speechless from inner joy. We rapidly become anthropophagites.’8

Poster (in English) advertising Mondo Cane, directed by Paolo Cavara, Franco Prosperi and Gualtiero Jacopetti, 1962

The longing for the spiritual void in Klein is counterbalanced by the ‘carnal’ satiation of the cannibal. Indeed anthropophagy was a recurring theme throughout the 1960s and early 1970s.9 It was the main subject of the International Surrealist Exhibition, held at the Galeria Daniel Cordier in Paris in 1959–60, as well as of Klein’s antropometries around the same time. The metaphor of consumption as predation saturated the mass culture of the period in a somewhat veiled way, reaching its greatest expression precisely in the touristic-ethnographic documentaries of Mondo. It is no coincidence that J. G. Ballard’s novel The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) was dedicated to the genre. As Ballard notes, by the beginning of the 1960s, the public was already prepared to enjoy being corrupted by a demystifying and disrespectful documentary that showed humanity as a ‘world of dogs’ – of dog-men, of cynics, but also of savage cannibals:

We, the 1960s audiences, needed the real and authentic (executions, flagellant’s processions, autopsies, etc.) and it didn’t matter if they were faked ­– a more or less convincing simulation of the real was enough and even preferred. Also, the more tacky and obviously exploitative style appealed to an audience just waiting to be corrupted – the Vietnam newsreels on TV were authentically real, but that wasn’t ‘real’ enough. […] I think that Jacopetti opened a door into what some call postmodernism and I call boredom. Screen the JFK assassination enough times and the audience will laugh.10

If, following Dean MacCannel, we understand tourism and the leisure industry as the manifestation of a ‘cannibal economy’ – that is, an economy based on the utopia of profit without exploitation, or the negation of work in consumption – then Klein can be thought of as one of its aesthetic divinities, insofar as his work attempted to negate the relationship that unfailingly links profit to work and work with exploitation.11 He saw himself as not paid for his work, but for his existence, for having reached and held sovereignty over the immaterial – Spirit, Life, the Real. ‘The painter, like Christ, says the mass while painting and gives his body and soul as nourishment for other people; he realises a little the miracle of the Last Supper in every painting.’12 His symbolic economy was, by any measure, a ‘cannibal’ one.

It was precisely during the ‘battles’ period – as his dynamic Anthropometries were also known – that Klein developed his most ambitious theories on the advent of cannibalism. In the artist’s messianic utopia, the ‘anthropophagic era’ would not be cruel and inhuman, but rather a ‘biological synthesis’ which ‘liberates us from tyrannical aspects of nature…’; or put another way, of labour, to which we were condemned upon expulsion from Paradise. Reaching a peak state of collective leisure, without social violence, would be the ‘peaceful’ version of the utopia proposed in a way by the touristic Eden. It is not a coincidence that the work in which his cannibal mythology is most explicitly present, Grande Anthropophagie bleue (Large Blue Anthropophagy, 1960), has as a subtitle: Hommage à Tennessee Williams, the author of Suddenly Last Summer (1956). Adapted to cinema in 1959 by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, this story revolved around the mysterious death of Sebastian, devoured by a group of young cannibals whilst on a tourist trip.

Yves Klein, Suaire de Mondo Cane (Mondo Cane Shroud), 1961, pigment, synthetic resin on gauze, 234cm x 297cm © Yves Klein, ADAGP, Paris In its way the current art scene also pays great respect to the new anthropophagic era predicted by Klein. A news item on the website of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, announces the acquisition of the Suaire de Mondo Cane (1961), the result of the rehearsal before the filming of the movie, as follows: ‘The beauty of Mondo Cane Shroud is its drama [...] Klein could not reconcile himself to the rude awareness that Mondo Cane was the first global exploitation film – a “shockumentary” – abusing his work dedicated to spiritual perceptions of the world’, and concludes, ‘Mondo Cane put an end to Klein’s blue revolution and Mondo Cane Shroud became the ethereal shroud of the artist himself”.13

The new messiah of the anthropophagic era was himself cruelly and cynically cannibalised by Jacopetti. But it is fascinating to see how the Museum, with civilised manners and an emphasis on the ‘spiritual’, continues the work of converting that ill-fated ‘shroud’ into nothing less than the artist’s ‘authentic’ souvenir-shroud. In the best cannibal tradition, attempting to appropriate his soul – the ethereal Void of the Spirit – by exploiting and voraciously devouring the remains of his cadaver.

  1. ‘If you don’t know him for his work, you will all remember him for his participation in the movie Mondo Cane…’This introduction, so disconcerting for today’s public, was how Yves Klein was presented in an interview with his widow, Rotraut Uecker, given to Swiss television in 1966, four years after his death.

  2. See http://www.yveskleinarchives.org/documents/bio_us.html

  3. Thomas McEvilley: ‘Yves Klein: Conquistador of the Void’, op. cit., p.76.

  4. The ‘Monotone-Silence Symphony’ – of uncertain chronology, the artist placed it at 1947-48 – was a piece consisting of one note lasting forty minutes and was for Klein the musical equivalent of his monochromes. With no beginning or end, it transcended time and was a manifestation of silence in the same way that his paintings were a revelation of the void and immateriality.

  5. Sidra Stich, Yves Klein, London: Hayward Gallery, 1994, p.272, fn.25.

  6. Ibid., p.271, fn.74.

  7. Ibid., p.191.

  8. Ibid., p.180.

  9. See, amongst others, Jack D. Forbes, A World Ruled by Cannibals: The Wétiko Disease of Aggression, Violence, and Imperialism, California: D-Q University Press, 1979; Jack D. Forbes, Columbus and Other Cannibals: The Wétiko Disease of exploitation, imperialism and terrorism, New York: Autonomedia, 1992; Dean MacCannell, ‘Cannibal tours’, in Society for Visual Anthropology Review, Autumn 1990, pp.14–23; D. MacCannell, ‘Cannibalism today’, Empty Meeting Grounds: The Tourist Papers, London and New York, NY: Routledge, 1992, pp.17–73; Deborah Root, Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation, and the Commodification of Difference, Boulder: Westview Press, 1996; Carlos A. Jáuregui, Canibalia: Canibalismo, calibanismo, antropofagia cultural y consumo en América Latina, Madrid: Iberoamericana, 2008.

  10. J. G. Ballard quoted in Mark Goodall, Sweet and Savage: The world through the shockumentary film lens, London: Headpress, 2006, pp.13–14.

  11. For more on the cannibal economy, see D. MacCannell, ‘Cannibalism today’, op. cit., p.28–9. With regards to Klein and labour, see Th. De Duve, ‘Yves Klein or The Dead Dealer’, October no.70 (Autumn 1994), pp.47-62.

  12. T. McEvilley, op. cit., p.51.

  13. Philippe Vergne, Walker Art Centre Magazine [online journal], 1 January 2004, available at http://www.walkerart.org/magazine/2004/recent-acquisition-yves-klein-suaire-de-mondo. Emphasis the author’s.