“I wanted to know how the Mother Superior, as a religious person, understood the idea of immaterial sensibility coming from an eccentric, avant-garde artist such as Yves Klein. She told me, ‘Oh, that’s totally normal—it’s faith. He had faith, and he called it immaterial sensibility.’ For her, nothing was surprising.”
— Philippe Vergne , co-curator of Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers
Yves Klein reveled in provocation throughout his short artistic career—his 1960 “leap into the void” and his use of nude women as “human paintbrushes” being only two of the more notorious examples. What has been explored less often is the devout Catholicism that compelled him to create a contemporary votive offering, which he quietly donated to an Italian monastery. In this interview, originally published in the November/December 2010 issue of Walker magazine, Philippe Vergne, co-curator of the exhibition Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers, talks with Julie Caniglia, the magazine’s managing editor, about how this mysterious, rarely seen artwork came to be lost and then found, and the unusual story behind its inclusion in the retrospective.
Julie Caniglia: The Ex-voto dedicated to Saint Rita of Cascia by Yves Klein was a key loan for you and co-curator Kerry Brougher. Why is that, and what role does this work play in the show?
Philippe Vergne: Actually, I like to joke that it would have almost been enough to have just the Ex-voto as the entire exhibition. On its own, it’s kind of a mini-exhibition of Yves Klein’s work: all of the elements are there, and it shows a commitment to the colors that he has always used, including the gold. There’s also the relation of this work to his spiritual side. Klein always said that his paintings and sculptures were the “ashes” of his art, so to have to have some kind of a reliquary in the show was important. And the other part of it is that I don’t think this work has ever been shown in America, because it came to people’s knowledge kind of late.
Caniglia: Why was the work unknown for so long?
Vergne: The story is that Klein was a believer in Saint Rita, the patron saint of lost causes. There is a little Augustinian monastery dedicated to her in a remote town in central Italy; Klein went there in 1961 with Rotraut, his spouse, and gave them this reliquary. It was done extremely discreetly; nobody was really aware of it until, I think, after the 1979 earthquake. This piece was discovered as they were restoring the convent, and it took a bit of time for them to figure out what it was. I think the first time the convent let the work out of their sight was for the Pompidou Center’s Yves Klein retrospective in 2006. Now it’s in our show, of course, but I don’t think people are going to have the opportunity to see it many other times.
Caniglia: So Klein didn’t really talk about this work—was that discretion unusual for him? After all, he had quite a flair for publicity and drama.
Vergne: I’m not sure it was against his conventional practices as an artist. I think the spiritual element was actually fully part of who Klein was, but people never really pinned down his real personality. That’s why it was important to have the work in the exhibition, because it shows an aspect that takes him in a different direction than purely “avant-garde modernist artist.”
It’s also a piece that comes with questions. It’s always complicated when an artist, at least a 20th-century, avant-garde artist, involves religion or spirituality in their work. It’s not really part of what contemporary art has been known for.
Caniglia: Why has this work been referred to as a reliquary, and how does Klein’s contemporary art version compare to a traditional Catholic one?
Vergne: Unlike traditional reliquaries, there are no bones, no locks of hair, no physical sense of a person that was involved—just the spirit is present. I’m convinced that this work is related to protecting these very high ideals of art that Klein had, and his belief in the power of art to affect people’s lives. For him, art was not attached to any material object, but it was about what he called “immaterial sensibility”—a way to see the world, which is more about the senses, and about something we cannot pin down. He had a very early awareness that what constitutes art is more in the way you go through your life than in the way you look at an object. The object can only inform us about how we could go through the world.
Caniglia: How do the nuns at the Monastery of Saint Rita see the Ex-voto?m
Vergne: When I went to Italy with the loan forms for the work, Badessa Reverenda Natalina Todeschini—the Mother Superior of the convent—organized a meeting so that we could talk about Klein. I wanted to know how she, as a religious person, understood the idea of immaterial sensibility coming from this eccentric, avant-garde artist. She told me, “Oh, that’s totally normal—it’s faith. He had faith, and he called it ‘immaterial sensibility.’ ” For her, nothing was surprising. But it was amazing for me that it was actually something quite relevant in her life. That’s also for me what this piece is about: the absolute openness in the ways you can understand a work of art.
Caniglia: And she stood apart from a lot of people in how she thought about Klein’s work?
Vergne: Yes. One of the values of Klein’s work is that there are multiple levels of entry. She was able to figure out the way she was going to deal with this work and weave in her own construct and her own belief system. This particular work, despite its small size, does seem to encompass so many of his ideas and so much of his philosophy. After working on this show, I took Klein out of 20th-century modern narratives and thought of him as someone who was actually reaching out to many historical backgrounds and cultures. I’m not trying to justify or find an explanation for his work within 20th-century art. I’m more interested to see Klein in a timeless way, beyond 20th-century modernity.
He has this passion for Santa Rita as the patron saint of lost causes, and then he has this absolute belief in the capacity of art to make a difference. And maybe there’s something critical there, saying that in this culture, art—the absolute purity of art, art that is not compromised—is a lost cause. These absolute standards that Klein believed in were maybe for him like a lost cause. It’s interesting to read the little prayer embedded in this work. He’s praying to become a better artist. It’s a very moving, genuine gesture.
“May my enemies become my friends, and, if that is possible, may any attempt against me never harm me. Make me and all my works invulnerable. So be it. … Saint Rita of Cascia, saint of impossible and desperate cases, thank you for all the powerful, decisive, marvelous aide that you have granted me up to now. Thank you infinitely. Even if I am personally unworthy of it, grant me your aide again and always in my art and always protect everything that I have created so that even in spite of myself it should always be of great beauty.”
—Yves Klein, excerpt from “Prayer to Saint Rita,” a handwritten document placed within the votive, February 1961
Caniglia: So that’s another level of contradiction with Klein: his absolute faith in art versus dedicating one of his works to the saint of lost causes.
Vergne: When you read his writing, there were his friends and a few people around him that he was giving some credit to, but I think he was very critical of most of the art of his time. I also see in this work a connection to illuminated manuscripts from the middle ages, made by monks who were also artists. The Ex-voto is not a book, of course, though there is a component of writing, and the subject overall is a part of this tradition.
That subject being one’s devotion to something?
To an ideal, to a very high ideal. Whether it’s religion or not. Klein was criticized because he had this attachment to religion and ritual, but above all this little reliquary shows his commitment to higher standards. When you look at his life and his commitment to judo—he went to the ultimate extreme and was one of the highest judo athletes in France. With art he was the same, there was no compromise, no mediocrity, it has to be as pure as possible. I think this reliquary is dedicated to that striving.
Speaking of striving, you literally went out of your way so that Ex-Voto would be a part of the exhibition. Can you talk about how this loan was carried out?
Klein made an extraordinary gesture with this artwork and that’s reflected in how it’s treated by the monastery. I don’t think the Mother Superior would have allowed it to leave the convent without a meeting with one of the exhibition organizers. She was basically saying to us curators, “If you really want this work of art, you’re going to have to come and tell me why. It cannot be treated as one more object. You’re not going to just send a loan form, you’re going to have to come and sweat a little bit because this object is extremely important.”
On the other hand, she was kind enough to meet me at a cloistered convent in Rome so I wouldn’t have to make the long drive to her convent at Cascia. We were in a little room accessible to visitors, but divided wall-to-wall by a table: one side for guests and the other for nuns. They brought me coffee and cookies. Through a translator, we entered this conversation talking about Klein’s work and how important it was to have the Ex-Voto in the exhibition. Then we read the entire loan document word for word, all of the details about insurance and transport, everything. It was really like a ritual. Then we had a conversation about immaterial sensibility.
I also got to tell her a story about the well-known Leap into the Void photo—how the house that Klein leapt from outside Paris later became a church dedicated to Saint Rita, through absolutely no relationship with Klein. I thought this was extraordinary, but she said, “No, it’s normal.” I thought she meant for Klein, but she said, “No, for him,” pointing her finger to the sky.
Before I met with the Mother Superior I got to see a part of the convent closed off to the public where some absolutely gorgeous 13th-century frescoes were being restored. That, too, became part of the Yves Klein exhibition for me. I see it as an example of Klein’s immaterial sensibility: I am made of all these little layers of experience, which came together in the making of the exhibition.
This all sounds definitely out of the ordinary for the way the art world works, as you said.
This experience reminded me of how exquisite art should be, how rarified real art should be. We too often end up considering artworks as commodities. Or we organize exhibitions and send loan forms and get a signature back and that’s it—no conversation, no ritual. Art deserves more than that. The ritual that Klein developed around this reliquary brings to mind someone who valued a work of art as a gift. To consider a work of art as an offering is to me something that is quite interesting.
And the ritual that the Mother Superior requested around this work—for me it has become a part of the exhibition. I ended up seeing how it was one of the most relevant things to do: if you want a work of art, you go pay respect to it and to the person who cares for it. It slows things down and you start to think, “Why am I going to Italy to ask for a piece that is not much bigger than my cell phone?” She is asking the right questions. She is enforcing the idea that art is a very exceptional thing. I know I sound a little bit naïve, huh? The fact that there is no trace of that conversation is what Klein considered immaterial sensibility. But it matters, because we were two people from very different walks of life, meeting and having a conversation. At the end, that’s what art is about.