The Diaries of Paul Klee

by Paul Klee
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1538

A diary, or any other autobiographical or biographical material concerning a great artist, has interest for two reasons: the light it throws on the personality of the person who produced the art and the help it gives to the understanding of the artist’s work. Klee’s diaries do both.

There is much that is callow in diary 1, which is not surprising since the notes were written by an adolescent. Klee expresses yearnings and sufferings typical of a youth in the late Romantic period; the entries contain many references to stars, to night, to powerful, inexpressible feelings, to a sense of being divine.

In his reticent way, he is careful to delineate his erotic development. Much of this is standard adolescent randiness—for example, naked girls drawn in the margins of a mathematics notebook. (The editor does not indicate if Klee himself selected the drawings used for illustration.) As is normal for an adolescent who is also a genius, this erotic life seems remarkably deep. He had a profound need for femaleness, to the extent that he records an early fantasy of being a girl so he could wear pretty underwear. He was deeply gratified by the company of women and by looking at them. Entry 380 is a remarkable description of a dancer, anatomically technical in the manner of an academically trained artist and at the same time remarkably evocative of her beauty. He concludes with the characteristic phrase “the beauty and the wisdom of the organism as a whole.”

His behavior with women is both that of a young man alone in a city and that of an artist in bohemia (he records his admiration for Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme, 1896). There are vivid evocations of drunken parties with compliant models, yet not a word is salacious.

With comparable reticence, he records his courtship of Lily. He meets her and is deeply attracted. Later, they meet again. Successive lines of entry 145 read:Now she wants to come and have tea at my place. Later she leaves me in the lurch after the St. Matthew’s Passion. Today she asks forgiveness for this. Thursday, April 4th, she is coming! So much for the picture of my precarious position.

Lily appears and disappears in this fashion. He continues with other women. After he returns from Italy (diary 2), all is settled and they are married. Lily was apparently enough to nourish his need for the female; eroticism disappears from the diary and, later, from his work, although he remained deeply sensitive to the feminine and the female dimensions of life, describing the work of the artist as necessarily both. Interestingly, during the early years of their marriage, he was not able to support the family and she was, so he was totally in charge of the housekeeping, cooking, shopping, and caring for the baby.

Diary 2 is short and highly descriptive, the travel experiences of a trained artist constantly observing his surroundings. While there are a few escapades with models, he is in Italy as an artist, seeing. In diary 1, he is primarily personal and mentions his training usually only to complain about the impossible dullness of his teachers. Italy was the first liberation—an exposure to a landscape quite unlike anything he had known and to a great art that was altogether invigorating and liberating.

He makes many sensitive, even penetrating comments on Italian art, but most important are the few comments that reveal the birth of the mature Klee. In entry 399, he says of the colors at Tivoli, “There is moral strength in such colors. I see it just as much as others do. I too shall be able to create it some day. When?” In entry 403, apropos of Sandro Botticelli, he refers to “a spirituality obtained by play of colors.”

In diary 3, he is back in Bern, a young artist trying to make a living, performing in an orchestra, writing criticism. The first four years covered are allusively narrative: music, visits to and from Lily, gatherings with friends. Then he is married and in Munich, beginning to establish himself and making friends with other great modern artists such as Wassily Kandinsky.

Now, more often there are vivid formulations of his artistic credo in formation, the germs of the great statements of the postdiary period in the 1920’s.Over it all, light, the creation of space through light. . . . Now, my immediate and at the same time highest goal will be to bring architectonic and poetic painting into a fusion, or at least to establish a harmony between them. . Individuality is not an elementary sort of thing, but an organism.

Increasingly there are technical notes, referring to discoveries he makes of his own characteristic artistic means. These are not matters of mere technique but means to realization; he speaks of light as energy, the artist as a modest instrument for the realization of the organic energies of nature.

As he matures as a man, he matures as a thinker. He is arriving at formulations that anticipate his later essays—“Creative Credo,” “Ways of Nature Study,” and “On Modern Art.” It is possible to see the germ of the famous image (in the Jena lecture of 1924) of the artist as the trunk of the tree, deeply rooted in the earth, drawing nourishment from the earth, unable to live apart from this rootedness but putting out leaves and flowers that are unlike the roots. In his maturity Klee was never a representational artist (“Creative Credo” begins with his most famous formulation, “Art does not reproduce the visible but makes visible”), but he never thought of himself as other than representational, since all of his art was rooted in his dialogue with nature.

He mentions, almost in passing, the beginnings of a recognized career. In view of what was going on in his mind, as reflected in the journal entries, his work is all the more striking. He was, in a modest way, painting, but he writes mainly about his etchings, which is what the public knew. These images are grim, tortured, savage portrayals of monstrously distorted forms. Both he and his critics discreetly discuss them in terms of their technical quality, which is very high, not mentioning what a few critics consider: that they are among the most disagreeable works ever made by a great artist.

In the spring of 1914, he visited Tunisia and underwent one of the truly liberating experiences of his life. The time in Tunisia was less than two weeks but the entries are lengthy, full of ecstatic descriptions of the color. Entry 926 concludes: “Color possesses me. I don’t have to pursue it. It will possess me always, I know it. That is the meaning of this happy hour: Color and I are one. I am a painter.”

His Tunisian watercolors were done after his return from Tunis. They are now the mature Klee, brilliant in color but fully realized, controlled. The diary entries, though they include several practical, mundane notes, are ecstatic. He has come fully into his own.

The full verbal formulation of his newly completed understanding of his art came later, but the ideas come tumbling out now. All the themes are present. Creation as genesis lives beneath the visible surface of the work. The work begins from the seed of a formal motif, and it is essential to be faithful to that seed (the maternal imagery is deliberate). “Works as shaping of form in the material sense: the primitive female component. Works as form-determining sperm: the primitive male component.” The erotic component of diary 1, which was, on the surface, simply adolescent fantasy and performance, has here come to realization.

The talk of art is interspersed with ecstatic poetry on the theme of creativity, of the purity of creation, of light and stillness.

In the last entry, 965, the world intrudes. It is 1916. A friend’s wife dies. Marc is killed. Klee is drafted.

Marc’s death “struck me like lightning”; his feelings about it are not discussed further. He comforts Marc’s wife. He receives his call, disturbs his sleeping wife as he cleans up papers, leaves for his encampment.

Diary 4 is a quiet recital of his rather trivial life in the army as a clerk, as an airplane maintenance man. He has free time, or stolen time, and paints. He writes Lily, gets leave, and visits home. He sees friends.

Only entry 1008 reveals what is going on underneath. On guard duty, he reflects about Marc. “One of Marc’s traits was a feminine urge to give everyone some of his treasure.” Of himself he muses: “My fire is more like that of the dead or of the unborn. No wonder that he found more love.”

“What my art lacks, is a kind of passionate humanity.” He does not love living things: “I tend rather to dissolve into the whole of creation. . . . The earth-idea gives way to the world-idea. My love is distant and religious.” He speaks of himself as non-Faustian, cool. “There is no sensuous relationship, not even the noblest, between myself and the species. In my work I do not belong to the species but am a cosmic point of reference.”

Finally, “Art imitates creation. And neither did God bother about current contingencies.”

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