If Yves Klein’s biographers can agree on anything, it is that he was a complicated, contradictory and precocious artist, even by the standards of the avant-garde scene of his day. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that he so often found expression in blue. This colour, particularly the ultramarine pigment that he used in his monochromes, was pregnant with meaning and history. Lionised by artists and extremely expensive, it was traditionally used to paint the Virgin Mary’s robes. By the 20th century, however, a succession of cheaper blue alternatives and even a synthetic ultramarine had stripped this precious pigment of much of its status. Not so for Klein. For him this was the colour of the ether and creative freedom, and the International Klein Blue (IKB) he trademarked was, as he put it, his “pure idea”.
Kassia St Clair studied the history of women’s dress and the masquerade during the eighteenth-century at Bristol and Oxford. She has since written about design and culture for the Economist, House & Garden, Quartz and has had a column about colour in Elle Decoration since 2013. Her book, The Secret Lives of Colour is a cultural history of the world through the prism of colour, it looks at the story behind 75 different hues, from Whitewash to Avocado, from Acid Yellow, to Ultra Marine Blue, (Available 20 October, published by John Murray Publishers).