Feats of Klee

…an ordering of images
a search for the hidden sense
an illumination of visions in the mind –
such is, to me, his art.

– Antonin Artaud, “A Painter of the Mind,” (1923)

The Swiss-born German artist Paul Klee created more masterpieces in the closing years of his life than most artists do in their primes. Diagnosed with “scleroderma,” which is today called “sclerosis,” his resolve hardened along with myriad symptoms of his disease, and he raged against the dying of his artistic light. Near the end he had trouble lifting his arms, trouble walking, bronchitis, arthritis, as if his struggle to speak the language of pure perception as an artist intensified the closer his fatal disease brought him to vision’s closure.

In their new biographical survey, Paul Klee: Life and Work (Hatje Cantz, € 48.00), Christine Hopfengart and Michael Baumgartner liken Klee’s productivity to Picasso’s late flourish. “Klee’s creative intensity was wrung from his illness, and represented the tangible result of his persistent will to live,” they write. “Like Picasso, whose artistic activity increased in a final surge, Klee too worked ceaselessly against the clock, and his drive to visually express himself grew steadily until shortly before his death.” He wouldn’t let the blank canvas have its way with him.

From 1937 to 1940, when he died, Klee created hundreds of works — mixed media paintings, watercolors, drawings — gradually increasing, after a year away from work to deal with newly diagnosed illness, from 489 works in 1937 to 1253 works in 1939. While most of these works were drawings, the “impressive” lot included, “Revolution of the Viaduct,” thought to be a middle finger salute to Hitler and his miens; “Harmonized Region,” a black and white interweaving of shades reminiscent of his early fugal period; “Conch-Still Life II,” a delightful rendering of his surrealist pseudo-symbolism; and, his final expressionist painting,”Death and Fire.”

Paul Klee is in many ways a typical survey of the artist, the authors scrupulously careful to avoid the pitfall of veering off into culture wars or politics. These days, we might hold that against the writers, but I myself was happy enough just to keep it a straightforward narrative of a man’s life as an artist and eschew the distractions. The result is a deliberate focus on Klee’s artistic development — one which is quite interesting in the richness of his choices growing up, as well as the unusual influences that helped him work his art.

One of the amazing things about Klee’s life, which the authors spend some time exploring and cross-referencing throughout the text, is the fact that he was a “skilled” violin who, along with his wife Lily, an excellent pianist, regularly played in chamber ensembles and sought out orchestral gatherings (his son, Felix, was also a skilled musician). This was such an important feature that Hopfengart and Baumgartner include in the volume a painting of Klee playing violin, painted by Alexandra Korsakoff, a Russian emigre friend. He wrote in his diary,

As time passes I become more and more afraid of my growing love of music. I don’t understand myself. I play solo sonatas by Bach: next to them what is Böcklin? It makes me smile. [p.14]

Felix remarks that his parents would sometimes “play chamber music all day long, as if truly obsessed.”

Musical lines and Bach’s fugues (especially) would later be incorporated into his visual art in ways that led to his unique take with images. Early in his career, when Klee was experimenting with etching on glass treated topside with ink and underside with a white coat of paint, he would scratch out line drawings, playing white against black in new ways. For example, quoting again from his diary, the authors point to this ‘play’ in one of his etchings:

One more thing may be said about The Comedian: the mask represents art, and behind it hides man. The lines of the mask are roads to the analysis of the work of art. The duality of the world of art and that of man is organic, as in one of Johann Sebastian’s [Bach] compositions. [p.172]

There’s almost a synesthetic sense at work here that rivets the viewer to this line-whispering that is part of the dialectic between Bach and Klee.

Of course, as Hopfengart and Baumgartner point out, Klee was not the only artist looking, around the fin de siecle, for a unifying concept to tie all art altogether. More than one artist — to this day — has been influenced by the rapturous complexities of Bach’s fugues. Here. the writers tell us,

He incorporated an increasing number of musical terms, such as “tonality,” “polyphony,” “harmony,” or “rhythm,” into his artistic vocabulary, and he created works with titles that reference concepts of music theory, such as “Fugue in Red.”

An interesting reciprocal interpretation of Klee’s work can be heard to excellent effect in “Fugue in Red” from Paul Klee: Painted Songs.

Early on, Klee conjures up some similarities to the life of Vincent Van Gogh, in a couple of ways. As indicated, he had another avocation had he chosen to pursue it — musician, Van Gogh started out wanting to be a couple of other things rather than a painter — writer, and then, when that became impossible, an evangelizing minister, and, after his passion for it was rebuked, he settled for being an artist, selling one measly painting in his lifetime. (See my review of a recent Van Gogh biography.)

The other thing they had in common was a visionary sense of color, each ‘evolved’ the palette in unique ways. Van Gogh moved in a transformative moment in his personal and artistic journey from a black and white world toward an Ezekiel-like glimpse into the sometimes phantasmagorical wheel of color to which we’ve become accustomed in Van Gogh’s work. Klee experimented his entire life with transformative ways of presenting color, whether in his expressionism, surrealism, or cubism. In his Preface to Paul Klee: The Thinking Eye: The Notebooks, critic Giulio Carlo Argan compares Klee to DaVinci:

The writings which compose Pauk Klee’s theory of form production and pictorsi form have the same importance and the same meaning for modern art as had Leonardo’s writings which composed his theory of painting for renaissance art. [p.11]

And again, one recalls the importance of Van Gogh’s letters to his brother, Theo, which have proved so enlightening to his understanding of his work and experiments in color.

For Klee, as for many artists who followed him, art is not merely representational, it is existential and goes to the core of being. Again, Argan points out,

Since art brings into being, albeit only through what is termed the visible, a cosmic awareness of reality, there is no moment or aspect of being which can be considered foreign or irrelevant to the experience which is acquired in artistic creation. [p.11]

Klee fully embraced this relationship with Being. His work deconstructs, re-aligns, does stuff that Picasso succeeds with in his cubist dimensions but brings what he knows from music and its mathematical roots.

The left-handed Klee (an orientation often “corrected”) was encouraged to remain that way by his grandmother, with whom he lived for a while as a toddler, and who was the first to see his lefty childish doodles as potential gifts from God in the making. Klee had an arch view of the world even then, drawing clocks with all the numbers scrunched up on one side or stick figures that had attitude. Maybe the best example of his twistful thinking during the early years was his “Girl with Doll” (1905) [below] whose energy erupts from below (look at the pretty mountain, Mama, then BOOM it’s a volcano Yeow). In this reverse-glass drawing, the authors tell us, “Klee shows children not as ideals of bourgeois propriety but as small untamed beasts.” Damn, reminds me of what one of the Google execs said to Julian Assange when they visited under house arrest at the beginning of his now 10-year ordeal at the hands of the State.

Paul Klee, “Girl with a Doll” (1905).

Klee’s musical training and instincts drew him to Bach’s fugues and the sense of cascading being, frames of reference pouring out of itself, like clones slightly varied, or replicants, or viruses. The “Fugue in Red” above is one example among many that depict this sense of released energy, if you can only crack the surface with a good whack of reverse engineering logic and perception. His work with concentricity and flow, color and shade, led probably quite naturally to what he came to refer to as “perspectival distortions.” Even before we’ve looked at an example of Klee’s work in this area, most of us can “see” such distortion when we look at an image that has color separation corrected by wearing 3D glasses. Maybe that’s what Klee expects with his watercolor, “Dream City” (1921), a synthesizing gaze from the viewer.

Paul Klee, “Dream City” (1921).

Klee’s play with lines and mechanics and expressionism and surrealism seem to come together in his famous early avant garde watercolor, “The Twittering Machine” (1922). One thinks Duchamps, Picasso, mechanical design. The work comes from his period at the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany. Looking to support a wife, Lily, and the time and space required to pursue his art, Klee accepted an offer to teach at the Bauhaus. Though he worried that teaching would take time away from his real work, he longed, as artists do, for the economic and domestic stability that would make his pursuit sustainable (many an English teacher has gone into the profession believing it would buy them time to be a writer, LOL). It worked out well for Klee though, as it helped him delve into theory, which went into his teaching and resulted in the aforementioned ‘genius’ notebook, The Thinking Eye.

Paul Klee, “The Twittering Machine” (1922).

And Klee took the teaching seriously, even if it wasn’t his first passion. The authors tells us that

Characteristic of Klee’s teaching was its grounding within a cosmic, holistic system and its connection to considerations of worldview, science, and philosophy. Also typical was the fact that Klee was never dogmatic, but instead sought to foster independent judgment on the part of the students.

That’s probably the first thing anyone would say about Klee’s work: “There’a a wholesomemness under that surreality that wants to jump from the pot onto your sipping spoon. Soupçon!” Ja?

But, what’s more, the authors invite us to believe that students were wont to see Klee as almost a Zen master, at time, in his standing deliveries:

One of his lessons was entitled “Drawing from Leaves after Nature with Consideration of the Articulating Energies of the Veins.” Klee’s students consistently described his teaching as factual and thorough, but also as “a work of art in itself.”

Damn. You wouldn’t want to know what my English students said, although one girl, who consistently stood too close (think Sting), did say, “Maybe you should stick with writing.” (Gulp) One imagines that he was tuned in to his charges, ala “Girl with a Doll” (see above).

The authors interest us in hor d’oeuvres of Klee’s life in Dessau after the Bauhaus was virtually shut down by an unfriendly incoming government that chose to seriously reduce its funding. In Dessau, Klee got close to fellow artist Wassily Kandinsky, though, we’re told the two maintained a distance addressing each other as “Sie” instead of “Du.” Though we’re told that Lily was not happy in Dessau, Klee’s reputation did begin to flourish and his work became more recognizable and saleable. Through an important art dealer, Alfred Flechtman, he saw his work exhibited in Paris, and America as part of The Blue Four (Paul Klee,

Lyonel Feininger, Alexei Jawlensky, and Wassily Kandinsky). Later, he formed The Paul Klee Society, which further enhanced his value to the public.

Out of this Dessau period came a notable movement toward abstract symbolism and a kind of mysticism of order. In a step backward (to go forward again, of course) he returns to the incandescence and resonance of his fugal years by imbuing subjects in experimental colors or blends. This quality is perhaps best depicted in his famous painting “The Goldfish” (1925). As the authors describe it,

As if illuminated from within, the depicted subjects emit a phosphorescent glow against a deep black background that sometimes oscillates into red or blue. Space and time seem suspended in the iridescent colors of this twilight realm.

Strangely, the painting reminds me of a David Attenborough episode on the Sahara featuring the blind Golden Catfish in sluices beneath the sand.

Paul Klee, “The Goldfish” (1925).

In 1929, Klee received an offer from the Düsseldorf Academy — by way of postcard — inviting him to apply for a position there. A postcard! And it was most welcome. He gladly moved there from Dessau. For the first time a while he breathed the fine air of higher culture again, after years among the well-meaning provincials. Now, in Düsseldorf, “He was thrilled by the high quality of opera on offer, and there were many performances that he went to see several times so he could give careful consideration to their interpretations.” Jesus, he was happy. And, the authors tell us, he mingled with the better class of locals “As a member of the crème de la crème of the Düsseldorf cultural scene.”

If he found more intensity in Dessau than elsewhere, in the Big D he found broadmindedness even where he least expected it. He writes in his diary,

Even if everyone isn’t a genius in Düsseldorf as they are in Dessau, one senses the atmosphere of artistic saturation and feels at home. Even the conservative minds have an intense interest in progress; some of them are more honest than the modernists and that’s why some are interesting.

Klee was in full swing in Düsseldorf, comfortable and settled, and so was Lily. (He also found his son Felix a theatre gig there.) Oh Happy days!

But then the Nazis came and blew out the candles on the fuckin’ culture cake. Hitler and his posse started pointing fingers (you and you and you, kommen Sie hier jetzt und schmoochen meinen Ring). Oh, Klee was empört:

Klee detested Hitler—but his disapproval resulted not just from political opposition but also, and most of all, from his condescension, as artist and intellectual, toward primitive demagoguery and populist lust for power.

And the hatred for art not Aryan (all because they rejected his still life of “roses” in art school, und jetzt die pout und still lives everywhere, and there in the bunker he just couldn’t pull the trigger of his Goethe gun) was soon directed at Paul Klee and Jews in general and his “degenerate art” was put on display in exhibition inviting disdain and streams of pee-pee from pouting Nazis. Among his works they found Piss-Christ repulsive were “Around the Fish” and “his print ‘The Saint of the Inner Light,’ (1921), was juxtaposed with a painting by a mental patient and ridiculed as the expression of psychological decay.”

Paul Klee, “Around the Fish” (1926).

Finally, with mounting pressure from the Nazis in his life and work, Klee felt that he had to leave Germany as they moved inevitably toward a movement that would result in World War II. He fled his Vaterland and returned to his Mutterland, Suisse, and settled in Bern. In his final years after he became seriously ill, Pablo Picasso stopped in to see him. The authors tell us that though not disagreeable to each other during the visit, they weren’t mutual admirers some critics have painted them as. The authors write,

the two artists… had little to say to each other, and their encounter was marked by respect, but also by a certain reserve. Klee admired the audacity of Picasso’s radical distortions and large-scale compositions, but maintained a critical distance toward his drama and Mediterranean pathos.

Probably Picasso influenced Klee more than the other way around.

One of the fun side trips that develops out of reading Hopfengart and Baumgartner’s Paul Klee is the allusion his notebooks and their value, but also, within those notebooks are the collection of his poems known as Some Poems, widely available for free (here) and at Archive.Org. That Antonin Artaud, author of The Theatre and Its Double and creator of the Theatre of Cruelty, is included here with his paen to Klee as a kind of Introduction to the poems is suggestive of the French and German avant garde circles Klee was welcome in. As with the musical renditions of Klee’s work, these poems add extra “lines” of value to an appreciation of his work. Here’s an excerpt from “Individuality”:

Enter an ancestor, prophetic;
enter a hero, brutal
a rake, alcoholic, to argue
with a learned professor.
A lyrical beauty, rolling her eyes
heavenward, a case
of chronic infatuation enter a heavy father,
to take care of that,
enter a liberal uncle – to arbitrate….
Aunt Chatterbox gossiping in a comer.
Chambermaid Lewdie, giggling.
And I, watching it all,
astonishment in my eyes.
Poised, in my left hand
a sharpened pencil.

This is a wonderful example of the artist’s reposed distancing from the objet ‘d’art that human commerce can seem to “thinking eye.”

Paul Klee: Life and Works is a clear, straightforward account of an artist’s life and development. It’s journalistic rather academic or overly analytical and allows the reader ample mental space to move the pieces around at his or her own pace and way, in keeping with the theme of individuality at work. Politics is underplayed, Klee’s art is the prize we eye. It is, as you’d expect from an art book, chock full of images of his work, and is a good reference to anyone planning attending an exhibit or looking further into Klee’s work. I highly recommend the volume to both historians and other cultural wonks and dalliancers.


John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.