A compelling new exhibit of the French artist Yves Klein at Washington, D. C.’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which opened May 20 and runs until September 12, is a good occasion for reevaluating this artist’s unexpected link to the Israeli military leader Moshe Dayan.
Despite claims on many websites, Klein was not himself Jewish, being born to a Dutch Protestant father and a French Catholic mother. A student of alchemy and judo, Klein died of a heart attack in 1962 at age 34, and an acclaimed Jewish Museum retrospective five years later may have unwittingly helped launch the misimpression of Klein’s supposed Yiddishkeit.
The Hirshhorn exhibit, which will travel to Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, where it can be seen from October 23 to February 13, is accompanied by a flurry of publications, including a lavish catalogue with beautiful reproductions, and, it must be said, some exceedingly abstruse texts. Far more reader-friendly are the publications under the aegis of art curator Klaus Ottmann, a trained philosopher who manages to make Klein’s complex metaphysics seem clear.
Ottmann’s elegant “Yves Klein: Works, Writings, Interviews” from Poligrafa Editions in Spain, “Yves Klein: USA” from Éditions Dilecta, co-authored by Klein’s widow, herself an artist, and especially “Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein,” from Spring Publications, clear up the picture considerably.
In the last-mentioned, we find how Jewish and Old Testament tradition impressed Klein, from an obsession with Solomon’s Temple and the Garden of Eden to his declared intent to rebuild what he called a “pre-Hitler Bauhaus.” In a feverish June 1959 lecture at the Sorbonne, reprinted in “Overcoming the Problematics of Art” and available on CD from Waxidermy Recordings, Klein names the department chairs for his (abortive) reconstituted Bauhaus. These mostly include his artist friends teaching subjects like sculpture and architecture, but at the end of the list appears “Martial Arts and War College: General [Moshe] Dayan.”
By June 1959, Dayan had successfully led Israel in the Sinai Campaign and in April 1956, delivered a still oft-quoted eulogy for Roi Rutenberg, a young resident of Kibbutz Nahal Oz who had been killed by Egyptian soldiers.
In 1958, Dayan retired from the IDF, and in the November 1959 elections to the Fourth Knesset he would be elected to a seat representing Ben-Gurion’s Mapai party. A few months before, Klein might have thought Dayan was looking for a job.
Moreover, Klein, an intensely devoted practitioner of judo, surely knew the pioneering Israeli judo teacher and friend of Dayan, Moshe Feldenkrais. A member of the International Judo Committee, Feldenkrais, later to become influential for his method of “somatic education,” was present in postwar Paris when Klein taught judo, and as judokas, both men authored instructional manuals.