Yves Klein Life and Art Periods

"The imagination is the vehicle of sensibility. Transported by the imagination, we attain life, life itself, which is absolute art."

YVES KLEIN SYNOPSIS

Yves Klein was the most influential, prominent, and controversial French artist to emerge in the 1950s. He is remembered above all for his use of a single color, the rich shade of ultramarine that he made his own: International Klein Blue. But the success of his sadly short-lived career lay in attacking many of the ideas that underpinned the abstract painting that had been dominant in France since the end of the Second World War. For some critics he is a descendent of Marcel Duchamp, a prankster who lampooned settled understandings of painting and opened art up to new media. Others consider him as a descendant of earlier avant-garde artists such as Kazimir Malevich and Aleksander Rodchenko, who were also attracted to the monochrome. And even in the ways he used performance later on in his career, he is like many artists who rediscovered some of the tactics of earlier avant-gardes in the 1950s and '60s. Klein might also be compared to his contemporary Joseph Beuys, for, like Beuys, he embraced aspects of Romanticism and mysticism - Klein was intrigued by Eastern religion and Rosicrucianism, and was even influenced by judo. Also like Beuys, many have condemned him as an obscurantist and a charlatan: yet the brevity, wit, and seductive beauty of much of his work continues to inspire.

YVES KLEIN KEY IDEAS

The abstract painting that dominated French art in the 1950s was invariably premised on the notion that an artist could communicate with the viewer through the power of abstract form. But skeptics of modern, abstract art have always alleged that the viewers, like the faithful devotees of a false god, do more of the work than the artist, investing the forms with their own feelings rather than discovering the artist's. Viewed in this light, Klein's monochrome blue paintings might be read as a satire on abstract art, for not only do the pictures carry no motif, but Klein insisted there was nothing there at all, only "the void."
Klein's pictures may also be read in a contradictory fashion. He was genuinely fascinated by mystical ideas, by notions of the infinite, the undefinable, the absolute, and his use of a single rich and suggestive tone of blue might be seen as an attempt to free the viewer from all imposed ideas and let her mind soar. For, as Klein believed, lines in pictures were a form of "prison grating," and only color offered the path to freedom.
Throughout Klein's work, from his canvas monochromes to his later performances, there is a stress on immediate experience that reflects aspects of the Performance art movement of the 1960s. Although he was never specifically opposed to creating art objects, many of Klein's later works seem to want to abandon the object as a vehicle for art and instead find ways to more directly transmit ideas and experiences.
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YVES KLEIN BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

Yves Klein was born on April 28, 1928, in Nice, France, to an artistic family; his mother, Marie Raymond, was a leading figure in the Art Informel movement, while his father, Fred Klein, painted figures and landscapes characteristic of the Post-Impressionists. Although Klein grew up in a creative household, he received no formal artistic training. The family lived in Paris between 1930 and 1939, but spent the summer months with artist friends in Canges-ser-Mer where Klein was left in the care of his aunt, Rose Raymond. She provided him with stability and a pragmatic outlook, a stark contrast to his parents' free-spirited attitude. These differing viewpoints, combined with his parents' artistic conflicts between figurative and abstract work, eventually led Klein to reject line and severely restrict color in his early work.

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Early Training

Between 1942 and 1946, Klein studied at the Ecole Nationale de la Marine Marchand and the Ecole Nationale des Langues. During this time he became close friends with a young poet named Claude Pascal and a promising sculptor named Arman Fernandez. Together they shared common interests of judo (a modern martial art), jazz music, esoteric literature, and Eastern religions.

Klein's major artistic breakthrough occurred in 1947 while lying on a beach with Pascal and Arman. In the apocryphal account, the three friends divided the universe between themselves: Arman claimed the materiality of the earth, Pascal appropriated language and words, and Klein possessed "the void," or the planet empty of all matter. Klein embarked on a "realistic-imaginative" daydream into the depths of the universe, where he claimed to have inscribed his name in the sky. The symbolic gesture was a flashpoint in Klein's artistic pursuit to grapple with what he defined as the infinite.

Mature Period

Yves Klein Biography

The enlightening realization of the void in the sky led Klein to experiment in painting, performance, and music. In 1949, he created The Monotone-Silence Symphony, a piece containing a single chord sustained for twenty minutes followed by twenty minutes of meditative silence. The composition symbolized the sound pitch emitted from the monochrome blue sky (or "the void"), emphasizing universal harmony.

He lived in London with Pascal from 1948 to 1952, where he began to assist in the London frame shop of Robert Savage, learning gilding and basic painting techniques using raw pigments. In 1953, Klein traveled to Japan where he received a black belt in judo at the Kodokan Institute in Tokyo. There, he had a second private exhibition of monochromatic paintings and proclaimed The Manifesto of the Monochrome, in which he declared monochrome to be an "open window to freedom, as the possibility of being immersed in the immeasurable existence of color." Klein was determined to evoke emotions and sensations independent of line, rendered objects, or abstracted symbols, believing the monochromatic surface released the painting from materiality through the totality of pure pigment.

In 1956, Klein established himself in the Paris art scene with a controversial exhibition at the Galerie Colette Allendy titled Yves: Propositions Monochromes. Twenty monochromatic paintings were displayed, rendered in tones of blue, red, yellow, and orange. Klein received a disappointing reaction from the public, who viewed the exhibition as a new form of interior abstraction rather than an infinite journey into the immateriality of the surface. But Pierre Restany, an emerging French critic, immediately understood the sublime power of Klein's monochrome and supported him in expressing his viewpoint. After considering the public's misinterpretation at the Galerie Colette Allendy, Klein decided to push the monochrome a step further by focusing on his favorite color, blue.

Late Period

In 1956, with the assistance of a chemical technician, Klein succeeded in suspending his favorite ultramarine pigment in petroleum extracts, which allowed the pigment to maintain its brilliance and something of its powdery texture without dulling. He named the substance International Klein Blue (IKB). This marked the beginning of Klein's Blue Period, in which he produced several monochromatic paintings in the signature color, titling each International Klein Blue, combined with a serial number. Klein believed IKB was the perfect instrument with which to elaborate his belief in spiritual powers and the immaterial; ultramarine is the traditional symbolic color of the Holy Ghost in Christian religion and also evokes the expanse of the infinite sky and the depth of the oceans. In 1957, Klein exhibited 11 evenly spaced, vibrant IKB paintings at the Gallery Apollinaire in Milan. The paintings were displayed on poles, identical in size and structure but each bearing a different price, something that for Klein suggested the irrelevance of the material objects themselves and the importance instead of the viewer's response.

Klein took the concept of the immaterial a step further when he removed everything with the exception of an oversized cabinet from the Iris Clert Gallery in 1958. He believed that in emptying the gallery "the invisible [would] become effective through the perceptible." He titled the piece Le Vide (The Void), and created an intricate entrance ritual for the opening night.

In 1960, Klein renounced personal attachment to the picture plane by applying IKB with paint rollers and female models in a series dubbed the Anthropométries, the first of which was exhibited as a performance piece at the Galerie Internationale d'Art Contemporain in Paris. Nude female models slathered themselves in IKB and pressed their bodies against the gallery walls to create imprints. During this time, Klein became increasingly fascinated with natural elements and would incorporate fire, water, sea sponges, and gravel into his canvases and sculptures. This resulted in a series of fire paintings, monochromatic relief paintings, and IKB sculptures that expressed cosmological ideas of infinite space.

Yves Klein Photo

Klein received a poor response after he exhibited at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York in 1961, where his paintings failed to sell, and he responded with the Chelsea Hotel Manifesto (1961) in which he explained his ideas. In 1962, he married artist Rotraut Uecker, several months before he died of a heart attack at the age of 34.

YVES KLEIN LEGACY

In France, Yves Klein's quirky perception of reality was a significant forerunner of Nouveau Réalisme, a French strain of Pop art that was driven by the critic Pierre Restany, and which included Arman Fernandez, Martial Raysse, César Baldaccini, and Daniel Spoerri. His painting represents one of the most important responses to the monochrome in the twentieth century and has joined the contributions of others such as Kasimir Malevich and Aleksander Rodchenko in defining the mode. Although, like similarly conceptual forerunners such as Marcel Duchamp, he has had few direct ancestors, his eccentric blend of mystical and materialist attitudes - his interest in the ineffable, and in the mechanics of the art market - has inspired many to believe that a lifetime as an artist can consist of all kinds of activity, from writing to painting to performing.

Original content written by Larissa Borteh
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YVES KLEIN QUOTES

"As I lay stretched upon the beach of Nice, I began to feel hatred for birds which flew back and forth across my blue sky, cloudless sky, because they tried to bore holes in my greatest and most beautiful work."

"The imagination is the vehicle of sensibility. Transported by the imagination, we attain life, life itself, which is absolute art."

"For me, each nuance of a color is in some way an individual, a being who is not only from the same race as the base color, but who definitely possesses a distinct character and personal soul."

"My monochrome pictures are not my definite works, but the preparation for my works. They are the leftovers from the creative processes, the ashes. My pictures, after all, are only the title-deeds to my property which I have to produce when I am asked to prove that I am a proprietor."

Yves Klein

Yves Klein Influences

Interactive chart with Yves Klein's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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Eugène Delacroix
Eugène Delacroix
Eugène Delacroix was a mid-nineteenth-century French painter and pioneer of European Modernist painting. Known primarily as a Romantic, Delacroix's paintings were passionate in their depictions of love, war and human sensuality, earning the artist both praise and controversy in his time. His preoccupation with color-induced optical effects and use of expressive brushstrokes were crucial influences on Impressionism and Pointillism.

Modern Art Information Eugène Delacroix
Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch painter, commonly associated with the Post-Impressionist period. As one of the most prolific and experimental artists of his time, van Gogh was a spontaneous painter and a master of color and perspective. Troubled by personal demons all his life, many historians speculate that van Gogh suffered from a Bipolar disorder.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Vincent van Gogh
Kazimir Malevich
Kazimir Malevich
Kazimir Malevich was a Russian modernist painter and theorist who founded Suprematism. Along with his painting Black Square, his mature works feature simple geometric shapes on blank backgrounds.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Kazimir Malevich
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian, a founding member of the De Stijl movement, was a modern Dutch artist who used grids, perpendicular lines, and the three primary colors in what he deemed Neoplasticism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Piet Mondrian
Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Kandinsky
A member of the German Expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter, and later a teacher at the Bauhaus, Kandinsky is best known for his pioneering breakthrough into expressive abstraction in 1913. His work prefigures that of the American Abstract Expressionists.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Wassily Kandinsky
Pierre Restany
Pierre Restany
Pierre Restany was a French art critic and cultural philosopher. In 1960 Pierre Restany created the idea and coined the term "Nouveau Realisme" with Yves Klein during a collective exposition in the Apollinaire gallery in Milan. It was an idea that united a group of French and Italian artists.

Modern Art Information Pierre Restany
Claude Pascal
Claude Pascal
Claude Pascal is a French composer, singer, and critic. As a composer, he won the Prix de Rome in 1945 with his cantata 'Jokes of Bootstrapping Merchant'. He was very active as a performer and was selected to play Yniold in Debussy's opera Pelleas and Melisande.

Modern Art Information Claude Pascal
Max Heindel
Max Heindel
Max Heindel was a Christian occultist, astrologer, and mystic from Denmark. In America, he gave lectures based on his occult knowledge, founded The Rosicrucian Fellowship in 1909-11 at Mount Ecclesia, Oceanside, California published the Christian Esoteric magazine Rays from the Rose Cross in 1913, and launched the Fellowship's Spiritual Healing service.

Modern Art Information Max Heindel
Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionism refers to a number of styles that emerged in reaction to Impressionism in the 1880s. The movement encompassed Symbolism and Neo-Impressionism before ceding to Fauvism around 1905. Its artists turned away from effects of light and atmosphere to explore new avenues such as color theory and personal feeling, often using colors and forms in intense and expressive ways.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Post-Impressionism
Art Informel
Art Informel
Art Informel, otherwise known as Tachisme or lyrical abstraction, was the European equivalent of Abstract Expressionism during the 1940s and '50s. Artists associated with the movement included Jean Dubuffet, Hans Hartung and Alberto Burri. Like the American Action painters, the Tachists emphasized the importance of spontaneity and emotion.

Modern Art Information Art Informel
Dada
Dada
Dada was an artistic and literary movement that emerged in 1916. It arose in reaction to World War I, and the nationalism and rationalism that many thought had led to the War. Influenced by several avant-gardes - Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Expressionism - its output was wildly diverse, ranging from performance art to poetry, photography, sculpture, painting and collage. Emerging first in Zurich, it spread to cities including Berlin, Hanover, Paris, New York and Cologne.
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Jean Tinguely
Jean Tinguely
Jean Tinguely was a Swiss painter and sculptor. He is best known for his sculptural machines, or Kinetic art, in the Dada tradition; known officially as metamechanics. Tinguely's art satirized the mindless overproduction of material goods in advanced industrial society.

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Raymond Hains
Raymond Hains
Raymond Hains was a French artist and photographer. In 1946-47 he did his first abstract photographs, inspired by Surrealism, using mirrors or capturing objects through distorting glass. In 1950 he invented the concept of the "Ultra-lettre" and devoted himself to his lettres éclatées (shattered letters).

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John Cage
John Cage
John Cage was an American composer and conceptual artist who incorporated chance, silence, and environmental effects into his performances. An important art theorist, he influenced choreographers, musicians, and the Fluxus artists of the 1970s.
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Arman
Arman
Born Armand Pierre Fernandez, Arman is a French painter who moved from using the objects as paintbrushes, to using them as the painting itself. He is best known for his "accumulations" and destruction/recomposition of objects.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Arman
Thomas McEvilley
Thomas McEvilley
Thomas McEvilley is an American art critic, poet, novelist and scholar. He is the founder and former head of the Department of Art Criticism and Writing at The School of Visual Arts in New York City. McEvilley is an expert in the fields of Greek and Indian culture, history of religion and philosophy, and art.

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Dino Buzzati
Dino Buzzati
Dino Buzzati was an Italian novelist, short story writer, painter and poet, as well as a journalist for Corriere della Sera. His worldwide fame is mostly due to his novel Il deserto dei Tartari, translated into English as The Tartar Steppe.

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Monochrome Painting
Monochrome Painting
Monochrome painting is an influential modernist genre that aims at the exploration of one singular color and its various hues within a single pictorial surface. It has proven to be a durable idiom of contemporary art from the middle of the twentieth century onwards.

Modern Art Information Monochrome Painting
Neo-Dada
Neo-Dada
Neo-Dada refers to works of art from the 1950s that employ popular imagery and modern materials, often resulting in something absurd. Neo-Dada is both a continuation of the earlier Dada movement and an important precursor to Pop art. Some important Neo-Dada artists include Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Robert Morris and Allan Kaprow.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Neo-Dada
Nouveau Realisme
Nouveau Realisme
Nouveau Realisme (New Realism) refers to an artistic movement founded in 1960 by the art critic Pierre Restany and artist Yves Klein during the first collective exposition in the Apollinaire Gallery in Milan. Pierre Restany wrote the original manifesto for the group, titled the "Constitutive Declaration of New Realism," in April 1960.

Modern Art Information Nouveau Realisme
Performance Art
Performance Art
Performance is a genre in which art is presented "live," usually by the artist but sometimes with collaborators or performers. It has had a role in avant-garde art throughout the twentieth century, playing an important part in anarchic movements such as Futurism and Dada. It particularly flourished in the 1960s, when Performance artists became preoccupied with the body, but it continues to be an important aspect of art practice.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Performance Art
Marcel Duchamp
Marcel Duchamp
The French artist Marcel Duchamp was an instrumental figure in the avant-garde art worlds of Paris and New York. Moving through Dada, Surrealism, readymades, sculpture, and installation, his work involves conceptual play and an implicit attack on bourgeois art sensibilities.
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Alexander Rodchenko
Alexander Rodchenko
Aleksander Rodchenko was a Russian artist, sculptor, photographer, and graphic designer. Concerned with the need for analytical-documentary photo series, he often shot his subjects from odd angles - usually high above or below - to shock the viewer and to postpone recognition. He was one of the founders of Constructivism and Russian design; he was married to the artist Varvara Stepanova.
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Joseph Beuys
Joseph Beuys
Joseph Beuys was a German multi- and mixed-media artist best known for incorporating ideas of humanism, social philosophy and politics into his art. Beuys practiced everything from installation and performance art to traditional painting and "social sculpture." He was continually motivated by the belief of universal human creativity.
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Pop Art
Pop Art
British artists of the 1950s were the first to make popular culture the dominant subject of their art, and this idea became an international phenomenon in the 1960s. But the Pop art movement is most associated with New York, and artists such as Andy Warhol, who broke with the private concerns of the Abstract Expressionists, and turned to themes which touched on public life and mass society.
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Martial Raysse
Martial Raysse
Martial Raysse is a French artist who was a member of the Nouveau Realisme group. Fascinated by plastic, he plundered low-costs shops with plastic items and developed his vision hygiene concept - a process that showcased consumer society.

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Cesar Baldaccini
Cesar Baldaccini
Cesar Baldaccini, usually called César, was a noted French sculptor. Cesar was at the forefront of the Nouveau Realisme movement with his radical compressions (compacted automobiles, discarded metal, or rubbish), expansions (polyurethane foam sculptures), and representations of animals and insects.

Modern Art Information Cesar Baldaccini
Daniel Spoerri
Daniel Spoerri
Daniel Spoerri is a Swiss artist and writer born in Romania. Spoerri is best known for his snare-pictures, a type of assemblage or object art. He was one of the original signers of the manifesto creating the Nouveaux Realistes art movement.

Modern Art Information Daniel Spoerri
Conceptual Art
Conceptual Art
Conceptual art describes an influential movement that first emerged in the mid-1960s and prized ideas over the formal or visual components of traditional works of art. The artists often challenged old concepts such as beauty and quality; they also questioned the conventional means by which the public consumed art; and they rejected the conventional art object in favor of diverse mediums, ranging from maps and diagrams to texts and videos.
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Blue Monochrome
Blue Monochrome

Title: Blue Monochrome (1957)

Artwork Description & Analysis: This is one of Klein's first monochromes featuring International Klein Blue. He reported that, at the age of nineteen, he looked up at the sky and realized the infinite, immaterial space surrounding the universe. To depict his vision, he chose to use only one color, a vibrant shade of ultramarine, which he later perfected for use with the aid of chemists. The painting contains no trace of line or imagery, encouraging the viewer to immerse herself in the color alone and to experience its evocations. Symbolic, perhaps, of the sky and the sea, it also had resonances in Klein's own religion, Catholicism, as not only a symbol of the Holy Ghost, but also as the shade traditionally used in the depiction of the Virgin Mary's robes in Renaissance paintings.


Dry pigment in synthetic polymer medium on cotton over plywood - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Le Vide
Le Vide

Title: Le Vide (1958)

Artwork Description & Analysis: To further his artistic vision of the immaterial, Klein created Le Vide (The Void), removing everything from the Iris Clert Gallery except for an empty cabinet. Klein also created a dramatic entrance for the opening ceremony, in which visitors were welcomed into the empty room. Regarding the work Klein stated, "My paintings are now invisible and I would like to show them in a clear and positive manner..." Although the stunt might be read as part of Klein's ongoing interest in mysticism and "the void," like much of his work it might also be read in a slightly contradictory manner, as a political attack on the traditional art object and the gallery system that supports it.


Installation with cabinet - Displayed at the Iris Clert Gallery, Paris

Le Saut dans le Vide (Leap into the Void)
Le Saut dans le Vide (Leap into the Void)

Title: Le Saut dans le Vide (Leap into the Void) (1960)

Artwork Description & Analysis: This controversial photomontage was constructed by Klein by collaging his falling body onto an image of a street. From a young age, he had stated that he possessed the power to levitate, here, we see him attempting to defy gravity. The physicality of the performance might have been inspired in part by Klein's judo training, but it might equally have been inspired by his attitudes to earlier artistic evocations of what he regarded as "the void." Speaking of a still life by the Russian Suprematist Kazimir Malevich, he once wrote, "Malevich was actually standing before the infinite - I am in it. You don't represent or produce it - you are it."


Photograph by Harry Shunk; performance by Yves Klein at Rue Gentil-Bernard, Fontenay-aux-Roses, France - Originally published in Dimanche - Le Journal d'un Seul Jour by Yves Klein

Venus Bleue (Blue Venus)
Venus Bleue (Blue Venus)

Title: Venus Bleue (Blue Venus) (1960)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Here, Klein applies his signature International Klein Blue to a plaster cast of the famous Venus de Milo sculpture, pushing the monochrome into the three-dimensional field and establishing a relationship between the infinite cosmos and the human form. By appropriating the famous Greek sculpture and painting it IKB, Klein gives the dated masterpiece a kind of kitsch, commercial appeal, making it a precursor to Pop art (as Klein was at first an enthusiastic member of France's Pop movement, the Nouveau Realistes.) But the piece also prefigured his use of live nude women to create his Anthropometries series.


Pigment on plaster - Edition of 300

Relief eponge or (RE 47 II)
Relief eponge or (RE 47 II)

Title: Relief eponge or (RE 47 II) (1961)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Although Klein is best known for his blue monochromes, he also used gold and red, which, together with blue, he regarded as representing the theological mystery of the Trinity. In this and related pieces, Klein used gold to direct the public to the cosmos; he believed that gold was symbolic of the absolute, divinity, and infinite space. Here he moves beyond the flat surface of a canvas by attaching a natural sea sponge and earthy pebbles to create a textured relief. The gritty quality, resembling a cratered planet, might also be intended to evoke the surface of the moon.


Sponges, pebbles and gold leaf on panel - Private Collection

Anthropométrie sans titre
Anthropométrie sans titre

Title: Anthropométrie sans titre (1961)

Artwork Description & Analysis: After concentrating on the monochrome canvases, Klein made a new departure with his signature IKB color, using nude models as his brush. In the Anthropometries series, he covered nude females in blue paint and had them press, drag, and lay themselves across canvases to create bodily impressions. The piece was inspired in part by photographs of body-shaped burn-marks on the earth, which were caused by the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Klein crafted this idea into a performance piece, hosting a formal event where guests observed the nude models executing the piece. Although the events could be at times comic and bizarre, the resulting pictures represent a fresh and vivid approach to the idea of figurative painting, and one darkly influenced by the threat of the Cold War.


Oil on canvas on paper, resin - Musee Cantini, Marseille,France

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.