Paul Klee and his paintings
Paul Klee made the following entry in his diary in June 1902: "Imagine quite a small formal motif and attempt a concise rendering of it; naturally not by easy stages but straight-away, in other words, armed with a pencil. That anyhow
is a real action, and small reiterated acts will yield more in the end than poetic frenzy without from or arrangement... I'm learning from scratch, I'm beginning to build form as if I knew nothing at all about painting. For I have
discovered a tiny undisputed property: a particular kind of three-dimensional representation on a flat surface"
Klee was twenty-three at the time; his poetics were vague but already he was laying the foundations on which, in pursuance of his goal, he gradually raised the constructions of his imagination. And yet, so specific a statement of his aims, at a time when contemporary art had scarcely begun to achieve a vision of its own, takes on an extraordinary importance in retrospect, in so far as it seems to anticipate, by so many years, certain ideas which lie at the origin of some of the most recent trends of art. His words, in fact, lay stress on the importance of the act, and therefore on the human reality of the artist, who is enabled to exteriorize himself, to realize himself ("realize" precisely in the sense of making real), in the empirical experience of action. We need not be led astray by Klee's express desire "to know nothing at all about painting." His emotion sprang from a direct approach to objects, to nature, an approach bordering at times on a happy abandonment, indeed on a boyish vein of satire, but always this close contact with things had its origin in a deep plenitude made up of mature human passions and expressed with an absolute mastery of the painter's medium, a medium which always formed an integral part of his artistic experience. Klee himself in later years was very explicit on this point: "The legend of the childishness of my drawing must have its origin in those linear pictures in which I tried to combine the objective representation of, let us say, a man with a pure presentation of the linear element... Besides, I don't want to render man as he is, but as he might be."
From the outset, the problem was that of interpreting, freely and naturalistically, the reality and essence of man. Without evading the issue, of course, but on the other hand without limiting his own poetic world to such an
interpretation. And his contacts with contemporary experiments in painting proved to be fruitful for Klee inasmuch as they helped him to achieve independence with respect to the purely contingent vision of reality; in this he stood
in full agreement with the main trend of art in Europe of his time. "Not unlike James Joyce," writes Carola Giedion-Welcker, "he was an individualist, remaining aloof from all artistic alliances." The comparison is apt and telling.
Like Joyce, Klee seems to create his language independently of any tradition and, above all, outside of any known modality. Syntactically and lexically, his language has an original modulation of its own, which takes account of no
pre-existing rule but only of its own immediate necessities of expression. It must not be forgotten, however, that the formulation of this language was rendered possible by a European climate of inquiry and investigation, which
inevitably affected the collateral experiments undertaken by Klee. Notwithstanding the desire expressed in 1902 to "build from as if I knew nothing at all about painting" - and obviously the painting he repudiated was that of a
European tradition which had become burdensome and stultifying - the fact remains that Klee's training and development as an artist took place in the most European climate possible. Not even the war could succeed in destroying this
community of ideas and research work, if not of achievement, and the Bauhaus for example, of which Klee became an active member, arose precisely as a united effort of fraternal collaboration in the European sense; it might even be
said that it was the last attempt to save a Europe committed, unconsciously and irrationally, to its own destruction.
Spontaneously, out of an inner necessity, Klee moved in the direction leading to complete autonomy of pictorial language, free from any naturalistic reference of too urgent a nature, because the very objects he presents lose the value of naturalistic forms and assume rather a fantastic quality. And driven by the same necessity to isolate and create forms, the artist at times achieved an absolutely geometrical formulation of his compositions.
It is certainly true that Klee's steady course of development from his early figurative paintings to his experiments in abstraction - and for him abstraction did not necessarily preclude a figurative image - was in many ways similar to Wassily Kandisnky's parallel course. Yet it must be borne in mind that between Klee and Wassily Kandisnky, even within the limits of similar taste, there were notable difference. Wassily Kandinsky is distinguished from Klee in this, that for him it was impossible to revert to a concurrence, even a posterior, of the created form with its phenomenological aspect: the reaction to what he himself called materialism, and which at bottom he identified with the whole previous history of art, came as a deliberate rejection of apparent reality. The Stimmung of the moment, concord with a given psychic atmosphere, was enough, Kandinsky felt, to lift art and the artist above material contingencies into the Geistige, the spiritual. But this yearning for intensity and sublimation was still part and parcel of Romanticism; Kandinsky, that is to say, had reached the critical juncture of romantic idealism, but he showed no interest in going beyond that point. On this account his lesson was learned more easily than that of Klee, who, having gone beyond, has an importance whose full scope has yet to be realized, and which has come to bear on the most recent trends of non-figurative painting. Indeed, in Klee the absolute freedom of the sign appears as a configuration of the world from which, however, the sense of human society is by no means excluded, and the will to create is at the same time a will to participate in the social life, indeed is a necessary contribution to the life of contemporary society.
For Klee, then, the problem of reality is more complex. For him there can be no question of a short and simple repudiation of it. Nor, moreover, can it be immobilized and suspended in space and time, cut off from sensations, as it is in the concept of constant reality expressed and realized by Mondrian in conjunction with the experiments of the De Stijl group. It may be said, on the contrary, that for Klee reality is never motionless and therefore never constant. It resides, first of all, in the works of art and not in the relationship of the pictorial image with the external image - this may be included but is not indispensable - but on the other hand it involves all the rational and irrational activity of the artist, his visual experience and his psychic experience, and is thus the exteriorization and plastic realization of the active complexity of the individual, without excluding any moment or any sensation; in a word, it is subject to a continuous variation which, though determined by experience - experience of acts, of feelings, of perceptions - cannot be reduced to a two-dimensional neo-plasticism (Mondrian), even less to the rejection and negation of materiality (Kandinsky).
In the handling of pure graphic and pictorial means Klee found the fully coherent expression that most closely approximated to the modalities of his world, and to his capacity for living and feeling in that world. some have spoken of "fables" in connection with his painting, but the word fails to apply when taken to mean merely an avenue of escape, a dream of life that does not exist, a means of evading the reality of one's own condition. This can have no bearing on an experience so whole-heartedly entered into, and so closely bound up, historically and dramatically, with the crisis of a whole civilization. The very cultural tendencies with which Paul Klee allied himself, first a certain type of Jugendstil, then Expressionism, later his private form of Surrealism, and even the assimilation of as much of Cubism and Neo-Plasticism as could serve his purpose, go to show how deeply rooted the artist was in his own time, and how exact a correspondence there was between his means of expression and his human situation. Yet no sign is arbitrary, no color is applied by chance, no image is fanciful; all are real forms, of a reality which undergoes no imposition from without, which may or may not have a connection with naturalistic reality, but which is always autonomous.
German Expressionism, above all that of the Brucke group, was the last filiations with Romanticism. The Expressionism of the Blaue Reiter was the focal point of the crisis of Romanticism, its final consequence and the initial reaction against it. Paul Klee, in all his experience, maintained this reaction, steadily and consistently carrying it toward a repudiation of romantic and late romantic canons. Above all, after the tragedy of First Wall War, it was no longer possible for an artist conscious of his historical position to temporize with what had gone before or to resume the thread of his discourse where it had been broken off. Society was recovering from a crisis which it had prove quite incapable of resolving, and was moving toward an even more terrible crisis, which burst out in 1939, but which had already been acute throughout the thirties. Paul Klee lived through all these years of anguish: the language he worked out for himself, a language of signs, lines and colors, answered not only to the necessities of his imagination, but to the anguish of his conscience. It was a language worked out within the framework of a precise and conscious human condition, that of the dialectical relationship between the artist and society, between man and his history. To give form to all this meant creating one of the most genuine, most representative expressions of art of our civilization.