Klee Rules

Posted on Wednesday, April 27, 2011, under , ,

Seeing Paul Klee’s paintings first hand is a great experience. The current exhibition at MOMAK (National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto) entitled ‘Klee: Art in the Making’, has been beckoning for weeks. I finally made it this past Sunday, at first having to wait for a hailstorm to clear off – it rained for the best part of the afternoon.

There is so much music and rhythm in Paul’s work. The paintings are beautiful in their duality: on the one hand intuitive, poetic, spiritual; on the other organized, orderly, architectural. Someone described Klee’s drawings in Pedagogical Sketchbook as ‘creative arithmetic’ — nicely summed up. The MOMAK exhibition, as the title suggests, sheds light on the actual process and methods Klee used to produce his art. The methods were paramount to him: from 1911 onwards, Klee kept an ongoing list of his works as each entry included, beside a title, a detailed description of the techniques used. In this Klee was a fanatic: the earliest entry relates to the work from 1883, when he was only four years old. Klee documented this "working process" with photographs of his atelier in various periods (spot Klee in his Bern studio, 1926), and even marked certain paintings as "Sonderklasse (Special Class)", ‘keeping these works at hand to use as models to reflect on’. Klee’s techniques were varied, and the exhibition outlines them into four distinct parts, evidently following Klee’s own categorizations:

Process 1: “Ölpause — Oilpause” (sketches colourized, only slightly modified)

Process 2: “Zerschnitten/Neukombiniert — Cut/Reassemble”

Process 3: “Teilstücke — Parts” (“non-symmetrical balance”)

Process 4: “Recto/Verso — Two-sided Sheet” (IR scans reveal the underlying images, which seem to have little to do with the painting itself, apart from a possible thematic inspiration — one such very spare painting has a background drawing of what looks a heavily tattooed Hell’s Angel-type fella with a mean-looking mutt on the leash! How progressive is that!)

The above methods are not unlike how a modern poet, especially one equipped with a word-processor, might compose verse. I recall an interview with the poet Hugo Williams in the ‘Horizon Review’, in which he was asked about the materials he uses to write with — here is Hugo’s answer:
A pen, which never leaves the house; a beautiful Parker. After that I type it out, then handwrite it, and it goes back and forth from typing to writing until I’m happy with it. One thing I do sometimes is type out individual units, bits that stick together. Very often I find though that I don’t know what order things are in, so I have to find that out by getting a beginning and an end. Then, to find the middle bits, I make strips of paper with the text and move them around on a desk. I suppose that’s what people do with computers but I just do it on the desk.                       

Another important work from the MOMAK exhibition is Klee’s Tightrope Walker (1923). The whole drawing is hovering, like its protagonist, between the tragic and the comic. The work has been commonly interpreted as a metaphor for a precarious existence of a modern man, yet Klee used this particular piece for an even more important end: to demonstrate his dynamic concept of space and perception. In the aforementioned Pedagogical Sketchbook Klee’s tightrope walker with a bamboo stick is ‘emphatically concerned about his balance. He calculates the Gravity on both ends. He is the scale’ (p. 42). As he walks the balance is alternately disturbed and restored, left to right, right to left. Klee uses this elegant metaphor to allude to the subjectivity of human perception. As Sibyl Moholy-Nagy explains in her introduction: ‘Man, precariously balanced on two unstable legs, uses optical illusion as a safety device. Horizon as concrete fact, and horizon as an imaginary safety belt that has to be believed in…’ (p.10). Indeed, Klee shows us another example:

asking if the representation of the house wall is incorrect. He concludes that it is not incorrect logically (as the lower windows are larger perspectively since they are closer to the eye), but are incorrect phychologically, because ‘every creature, in order to preserve his balance, insists on seeing actual verticals projected as such’ (p.41). Klee’s idea of balance is non-symmetrical though. It is achieved through the ‘equalization of unequal but equivalent parts’. Here is Klee’s illustration:

As Moholy-Nagy puts it: ‘The purely material balance of the scale finds its counter-part in the purely psychological balance of light and dark, weightless and heavy colours’ (p.10). Klee thus challenges our conventional perception, ushering us into the world of metaphysical and spiritual — his invitation to approach art intuitively. This ‘transition from observation to intuition’ defines, as Moholy-Nagy suggests, Klee’s deepest axiomatic wisdom: TO STAND DESPITE ALL POSSIBILITIES TO FALL! Sounds cool. I should hang this up above my writing desk.

Klee’s concepts and speculations are no less fascinating than his paintings. Having so far only scratched the surface, I will keep probing and investigating. Expect further musings on Paul Klee. To wrap this entry up, here is a 4 minute video of Klee’s few paintings as they drift in and out of a low-key jazzy tune. The beauty of juxtaposition.

April 27, 2011

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