On the Labyrinthine Reality of Empty Squares (or Nietzsche’s Stimmung in Turin)
Steffen Dix

Yves Klein's exhibition on emptiness was presented sixty-five years ago, in 1958, at Galerie Iris Clert, in Paris, and is considered a fundamental moment in the history of art. This essay by Steffen Dix takes it as the starting point for a personal journey into questioning the place of the void in art and philosophy. Along with Klein's name are those of Giorgio de Chirico, with his metaphysical painting, Friedrich Nietzsche, with his philosophy of affirming life as a work of art, and Fernando Pessoa, with his heteronyms and his city. Steffen Dix is a German researcher and university professor. A specialist in religious history and modernism in Europe, he is also a translator and the author of renowned studies on Fernando Pessoa.

Yves Klein

Note written by Albert Camus after the opening of Yves Klein's exhibition Le Vide [The Void], 1958 © The Estate of Yves Klein / ADAGP, Paris

On 28 April, 1958, Paris saw the opening of an exhibition by Yves Klein titled La Spécialisation de la sensibilité à l’état matière première en sensibilité picturale stabilisée [The Specialisation of Sensibility in the Raw Material State in Stabilised Pictorial Sensibility]. The opening was a roaring success. As this was also the artist’s thirtieth birthday, a huge group gathered at 9pm at Galerie Iris Clert, on rue des Beaux-Arts 3, in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. With great delight Yves Klein later said that by 9.45pm the crowd was such that he could no longer move. The event’s success was entirely justified given the unusual nature of the work on show. Aside from the long (somewhat inaccessible and cryptic) official title, the exhibition also had another abridged designation which describes more accurately the only object on display: Le Vide. Albert Camus attended the show and left a brief note ‘Avec le vide, les pleins pouvoirs.’ [‘With the void, full powers.’]

To show the void is already a highly transcendent experience, however, the opening proved also to have a rather ironic aspect since the exhibition’s main object – the void – vanished as soon as the gallery’s only room began filling up with guests. The void ceases to be a void as soon as it is filled. Two years later, the void conspicuously reappeared in another iconic Yves Klein work. The photo‑ graphic montage Le Saut dans le vide [The Leap into the Void] shows the artist leaping into an empty space. Around the same time, the void became the centre of his monochrome works and, from 1960 onwards, it became the main reference for the Nouveau Realisme group in France and group ZERO in Germany, who both sought to establish new ways of perceiving reality. In other words, the representation of the void served to awaken a greater spiritual awareness in the viewer. The void was not seen as horror vacui or philosophical nihilism, but as an attempt to reproduce an immanent beauty pointing to a reality that (supposedly) lies beyond the physical: tà metà tà physiká. In that sense, an empty gallery or a monochrome painting represent a question that transcends human epistemological abilities. How to show the void? The question cannot be answered philosophically. The void vanishes as soon as an observer tries to observe it, because there is always an immediate and immanent relationship between the observer and the observed. The observer is part of the observed; positing the observer’s real existence means that he cannot observe the void without involuntarily filling it with his own presence. The void is a paradox, i.e. does the void (or nothingness) really exist?



Giorgio de Chirico, Nature-morte. Torino printanière [Still life. Turin in Spring], 1914


Piazza San Carlo, Turin, 1929 page124image21401920

The exhibition of the void at Galerie Iris Clert is now considered a turning point in art history. However, the presentation of the void was not exactly novel. The void was always a relevant subject in modern art, with pride of place in some works by the most celebrated artists of the 20th century. Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, Marcel Duchamp, Mark Rothko or Giorgio de Chirico placed the question of the interaction between materiality and immateriality at the centre of their art. There is, especially in Giorgio de Chirico’s oeuvre, a very particular analogy with Yves Klein’s works. In his pittura metafisica, the Italian painter anticipated the French artist’s spatial void. Yves Klein’s Le Vide was an installation, a deserted white room, an empty public space, an accessible and visitable place (absurdly filled on the opening night). Most pittura metafisica represents the attempt at translating the feeling of spatial voidness into painting by emphasising the reality of the void. The difference between Yves Klein and Giorgio de Chirico naturally lies in the fact that the empty city squares featured in pittura metafisica cannot be physically visited. However, the attempt to visualise the void remains a contradiction, or a perfidious provocation to our metaphysical abilities. Giorgio de Chirico was one of the first visual artists to dedicate a significant part of his oeuvre to the complex question of the reality of the void. His pittura metafisica was always an entirely captivating contradiction but it did gain a new, unforeseen fascination, especially in its latter stages.

Curiously, the lockdown brought with it an involuntary ability to once more reflect on the question of the reality of the void. For a few weeks, the emptiness of public spaces became an omnipresent phenomenon. The lockdown offered (albeit against explicit orders) the unique possibility of visiting some empty city squares of the same kind as those which can be seen in Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings. An invisible virus afforded us a few rare moments to acquaint ourselves with the extraordinary reality of empty squares. The empty city squares of pittura metafisica became a visitable reality in the spring of 2020. In other words, the pandemic spurred a new reflection on the empty city squares painted in the golden days of European modernism. But what is the fascination of an empty square?

On 26 January, 1910, Giorgio de Chirico was in Florence and wrote a letter to Fritz Gartz declaring himself as the only one to have truly understood the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, and adding that his entire oeuvre was the proof of that.1 Fritz Gartz, a painter from expressionist realism, was a friend from Munich and a colleague of Giorgio de Chirico between 1906 and 1909 at Akademie der Bildenen Künste. During that time, the two friends had come across the works of Arnold Böcklin and Max Klinger at the city’s Neue Pinacothek; they would become a decisive influence on Giorgio de Chirico. Böcklin’s symbolism in particular left an unforgettable impression on him. However, even more important to his pittura metafisica were two other moments in 1909. In the autumn of that year, little after his arrival in Florence, Giorgio de Chirico spent a sun-drenched afternoon on a bench in Piazza Santa Croce, which was all but empty, looking at Dante’s monument. Although he had spent time at the emblematic square in the centre of Florence on other occasions, de Chirico had the ‘strange feeling’ that he was seeing ‘for the first time’. He understood that the reality of Piazza Santa Croce is an enigma. The two first works of his metaphysical art bear the titles L’Énigme de l’oracle [The Enigma of the Oracle] and L’Énigme d’un après-midi d’automne [The Enigma of an autumn afternoon], the latter a clear reference to the realisation of the ‘strange feeling’ of seeing the quasi-empty Piazza Santa Croce, with the Dante monument reappearing on the canvas like a Greek statue casting a long shadow across the sunny autumnal afternoon.


1. Cf. Ara H. Merjian, ‘“Il faut méditerraniser la peinture”, Giorgio de Chirico’s Metaphysical Painting, Nietzsche, and “the Obscurity of Light”’, California Italian Studies, 1–1, 2010, p. 4.