How Yves Klein Tricked the World with This Iconic Photograph

Jacqui Palumbo
Jan 2, 2020 7:30PM

On a brisk morning in November 1960, Parisians were greeted with a special four-page newspaper placed alongside the weekly Le Journal du Dimanche. It was not a paper known to anyone, and its front page featured a smartly dressed man frozen in curvilinear form, having just flung himself from a second-story roof onto the cement sidewalk below. “A man in space!” the headline proclaimed, announcing the newcomer’s victory over the heated international space race. “The painter of space leaps into the void!”

The man was avant-garde artist Yves Klein, and it was his own satirical publication featuring his now-famous image Leap into the Void (1960). It was easy, at the time, to take the photograph at face value—that Klein was abandoning himself to gravity. In truth, Klein’s wife and friends were holding a tarpaulin to catch his falling body. The magician’s illusion was executed off the scene by photographers Harry Shunk and Jean Kender. In a darkroom, they composited an image of the empty street with one of the artist’s fall.

Leap into the Void was unprecedented in photography. While photographers like Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson used “straight” photography to seek emotional truths, Klein harnessed the inherent malleability of the medium’s veracity. Leap was a modern-day legend. For decades after his untimely death in 1962, the story behind the image was hotly disputed, and some accounts still differ today.

Klein would have never admitted to trickery, though he was winking between every line of his newspaper. “Today the painter of space must, in fact, go into space to paint, but he must go there without trickery or deception,” he wrote. “He must be capable of levitation.”

Klein’s career only spanned about seven years, but he was a temerarious figure in the art world. He was best known for his monochromatic paintings with the ultramarine pigment he eventually registered, International Klein Blue (IKB), and his avant-garde high jinks. He published an art catalogue of non-existent paintings. He had nude models cover themselves in IKB and print their own bodies on paper. While they did so, an orchestra played a single note for 20 minutes, followed by 20 minutes of silence. For his last act, he had a series of heart attacks at age 34, the first during the screening of a film in which his role had been cut.

“Klein was clever and charismatic—a mystic and a mythmaker who beguiled his admirers with the prospect of transcending the material limitations of earthly life,” Mia Fineman wrote in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition catalogue for the 2012 show “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop,” which included his famed image.

Klein’s Leap wasn’t his first dally with the concept of the void. In 1958, in a show known as “The Void” at Iris Clert Gallery in Paris, the only object in the gallery was a cabinet that Klein had emptied. As a parting gift, gallerygoers went home to discover that the IKB-hued cocktails they’d been served came out blue on the other end, too.

The artist’s fascination with the void came from his training in judo, which he studied fervorously to earn a fourth-degree black belt. He trained at Tokyo’s Kodokan Judo Institute in 1953, and he became infatuated with the Japanese Buddhist idea of an infinite expanse of nothingness.

Klein reportedly didn’t take the leap into the void just once, but multiple times. Before photographers Shunk and Kender were present, Klein claimed to have tested it on his own with no one to break his fall. On the day of, he jumped many times in the Paris suburb of Fontenay-aux-Roses, practicing the arc of his body and testing different elements in the scene.

“There were three versions in the end,” Shunk relayed to the London Times at a later date. “One with a bike, one with Yves’s car, and one with nothing. He immediately decided that the official version should be one with the bike, but then he also sent out the other one. But never the one with the car; he hated the car because it was cheap.”

Though the performance and newspaper were saturated in irony, Klein was serious about keeping the illusion in tact: Shunk said he was threatened with legal action if he ever pulled back the Ozian curtain. The mysteries of the photograph weren’t fully revealed until two shows in 2010 delved into the making of the image. One of them, at the Menil Collection in Houston, even had the Holy Grail: a piece of slate purported to be from the roof from which Klein jumped.

Klein’s Leap reveals more than an illusionist’s trick, but the very nature of photography that we often forget, no matter how many doctored images we see today. “Convincing to the eye if not to the mind, Klein’s Leap symbolically enacts the leap of faith we make in accepting the truth of any photograph,” Fineman writes, “acknowledging both the pleasures and the perils involved in the willing suspension of disbelief.”

Jacqui Palumbo
Jacqui Palumbo is a contributing writer for Artsy Editorial.