Paul Klee

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

A painter and graphic artist of genius, Paul Klee was also highly accomplished in other matters. He played the violin in the Bern orchestra. He was a writer who has left us Pedagogical Sketchbook (1953) and The Diaries of Paul Klee, 1898-1918 (1964). He was an important art theorist.

Klee was born in 1879 at Müchenbuchsee, near Bern, Switzerland. His father was German, his mother Swiss. Both parents were musical, his father teaching music to support his family. As a child Klee was precocious, exhibiting a talent for drawing, writing, and music; as a teenager he evidenced a dislike of conformity to tradition. Upon graduation from secondary school, he announced his intention of becoming a painter and chose Munich over Paris as the best place to study. After some preparation at a school in Bavaria, he became a pupil at the Munich Academy in 1900. He began his study under the noted Symbolist painter and sculptor, Franz von Stuck; among his fellow students was the Russian Wassily Kandinsky, held by some to be the originator of abstract art. Von Stuck was a traditionalist who demanded that all of his beginning students first acquire a thorough knowledge of anatomy and master drawing before taking up painting. Klee revolted against such standards and withdrew from the academy in 1901, resolved to pursue his own course of self-instruction.

A devoted concertgoer—his favorite composers were Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Richard Wagner, and Richard Strauss—Klee met his future wife, Lily Stumpf, at a concert. Having left the academy, he paid a visit to Bern, but he soon left for a tour of Italy with his sculptor friend, Herman Heller. In Italy he was particularly impressed by the work of the Renaissance masters Sandro Botticelli, Michelangelo, Pinturicchio, and Jacopo Tintoretto.

Klee returned from Italy in 1902 to live in Bern. In 1905, he visited Paris where he viewed with favor the work of the American painter James McNeill Whistler and that of the French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Returned home, he married Lily Stumpf in 1906. The newlyweds set up housekeeping in Munich. Lily taught music while Klee continued his self-instruction in art, going to school, as it were, first to the Impressionists Claude Monet, Renoir, and Alfred Sisley, then to the Postimpressionists Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, and Henri Matisse. By the spring of 1911, he believed that he had discovered his own independent style.

As a result Klee allied himself with the artists of Der Blaue Reiter, a loose circle of German expressionists which had been formed by Kandinsky and Franz Marc aided by August Macke. Klee’s joining with the Blaue Reiter circle was his way of announcing to the world that he was now ready to take his place among the European avant-garde. In 1912, in the Blaue Reiter Almanac, a catalog prepared for the first Blaue Reiter exhibition, the group set forth its aims: “to show, in the variety of forms represented, how the inner desire of artists realizes itself in multiple fashion.” The book contained a varied collection of images: children’s drawings, Bavarian folk paintings on glass, old German woodcuts, theater masks, shadow puppets. The idea was to show how freely creative an artist could be when unfettered by the formal naturalist tradition of Western art. The first exhibition opened in Munich in December, 1911, and ran through January, 1912. In 1913, it was moved to Berlin, and then to several other cities. Klee took part in this second exhibition in Berlin.

It is at this point that Carolyn Lanchner’s huge book begins, with Ann Temkin’s essay, “Klee and the Avant-Garde 1912-1940.” Temkin, a curatorial assistant at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, examines Klee’s development from the time that he joined the Blaue Reiter group in 1912 to his death at Muralto-Locarno in 1940. Klee’s exposure in the 1913 exhibition not only brought him a measure of recognition but also enabled him to sell some of his work. In April of 1914, Klee, together with his artist friends, Louis Moilliet and Macke, spent a dozen days in Tunisia, a country bordering on the Mediterranean Sea. Although his stay there was brief, Klee was much affected by it. He returned home feeling that he and color had become one. On August 1, however, World War I broke out, and it was not long before he was required to serve in the German army. He served throughout the war without injury or sensational incident, although his friends Macke and Marc were both killed. After the German defeat, Klee rented a studio in Munich and continued his artistic career.

During his stay in Paris in 1912, Klee was introduced to the work of the Cubist painters, whose movement was exemplified by Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and Georges Braque’s Nude (1908). Cubism was a way of regarding objects as simple geometric forms and arranging them arbitrarily in space. The movement aimed to wed poetry with painting: The Cubist technique incorporated text as an integral part of a picture’s composition. Conversely, the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, a leading supporter of the movement, wrote what he called “calligrames” in which he arranged his poetic lines to form a visual image of the object he described in his text.

This mixing of text and picture prompted avant-garde critics to think of the structure of a picture as analogous to that of language. They began to speak of a painter’s “language,” of his “personal voice”; of his “vocabulary,” “grammar,” and “syntax”; and of the “lyrical” or “poetic” quality of his style. Temkin maintains that “the conjunction of painting and poetry speaks directly to a central axiom of Klee’s aesthetic: the insistence that ’space is a temporal concept,’” and she points out that Klee disagreed with the German philosopher and dramatist Gotthold Lessing, who declared that literature is a temporal art, whereas painting is confined to static representation.

According to Temkin, Klee’s “first attempt to fuse fully the concept of poem and painting was a cycle of six watercolors of 1916 based on Chinese poetry,” which was then popular in intellectual circles. Ezra Pound published his Chinese translations in Cathay in 1915. Chinese painting was also a subject of strong interest. People were impressed that in China scholar-painters practiced wen-jen-hua, or “literary men’s painting.” In such painting, a literary text in the form of a poem was commonly introduced into the composition of the picture. Although Temkin is correct in her belief that the Chinese artist sought a stylistic balance between the painting and the placement and calligraphic style of the literary text, she is in error in asserting that these aesthetic dispositions have any bearing on the meaning of the words, which simply had to be an appropriate commentary on the scene depicted. People of Klee’s day were misled as well to think that Chinese ideograms are exclusively pictorial in nature; actually, only a small percentage of them are so constructed.

To be sure, as Temkin indicates, Klee was strongly attracted by the Cubist effort to link language with picture. She writes, “Klee was a vital participant in this exploration of the verbal possibilities of plastic art and the plastic possibilities of poetics.” Indeed, she herself, like many another modern critic and historian of art, adopts the metaphor of picture-as-language for rhetorical purposes: Such comparison, which uses the vocabulary of one discipline to explain another, can be an effective method of exposition and is certainly au courant; employed as leitmotif, its recurrence ties together and unifies a discourse which would otherwise be simply chronological in its development.

Given the capacious imprecision of the label “avant-garde,” such a unifying theme is indeed valuable. Temkin notes, for example, that the Dadaists and, later, the Surrealists felt a close kinship with Klee and praised his art. The mocking nihilism of the Dadaists and the programmatic irrationality of the Surrealists, with their emphasis on dreams and the unconscious, can justly be described as avant-garde, yet incongruously placed under the same umbrella is another movement, radically at odds with Dadaism and Surrealism, in which Klee was an active participant and not merely an “influence”: the Bauhaus movement.

The Bauhaus was a school of architecture and the applied arts, founded in 1919 by architect and furniture designer Walter Gropius. Originally based in Weimar, the school was moved to Dessau in the mid-1920’s. Klee, who was hired as an instructor in 1920, enjoyed an extremely productive period while affiliated with the Bauhaus. The purpose of the school was to establish a better relationship between the arts of design and the industrial...

(The entire section is 3634 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Apollo. CXXVI, July, 1987, p. 66.

Booklist. LXXXIII, June 1, 1987, p. 1485.

Choice. XXV, September, 1987, p. 106.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, May 31, 1987, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXI, February 20, 1987, p. 64.

The Spectator. CCLVIII, June 13, 1987, p. 39.