She Bellows. We Play
Paul Klee's Guide to the Hither and the Yon
Paul Klee has been aptly compared to the Merops, a bird well known to Greek mythographers if not to modern science, a bird which can fly upward like any other bird, into the mysterious cosmos, but it flies backwards, so that its eyes are always fixed on its home, the Earth.
Klee paintings, and there are hundreds and hundreds of them, always have a touch of the celestial, they hint a peep at unknown secrets of the universe. But if you, the spectator, suspect you are hearing the beat of angelic wings, you are also aware that this angel is facing you with the mischievous grin of a gnome out of a Swiss forest.
Klee is commonly thought of as a Swiss painter, but he was technically a German. He was born, raised, spent half of his life and died in Bern, but his request for Swiss nationality was never granted in his lifetime. His father was a German who came to Bern to teach music, and when as a young man he had to confront the choice which all aspiring young artists had to make in those days - study in Paris or study in Munich? - he chose Munich. He spent 35 productive years working in Germany, and his ways of thought and his ways of expression were deeply rooted in the German tradition.
German thought and the methods of communicating it are, as Mark Twain and others have pointed out, deeply influenced by the peculiar structure of the German language, specifically the German sentence, with its all its array of subordinate clauses and subsidiary phrases maneuvering with great precision in various directions till the very last word, the verb, pulls them all together with a thunder-clap. A Klee painting beats a striking resemblance to such a sentence, with the final verb left out. It is constructed with a carefully balanced relation of part to part. The eye of the viewer in firmly directed from side to side, from center to edge, back and forth as line wriggles into line, colors blends into color, all bound up in a blatantly logical structure. But what is the man trying to say?
If the message is ambiguous, it is not for an lack of effort to explain it. Klee filled more than 2,500 pages of notebooks with his theories of art, all neatly illustrated by diagrams. He catalogued virtually all of his work, except for some academic sketches, beginning with drawings he made when he was 4 years old and ending a few days before he entered the hospital to die. There are more than 9,000 paintings and drawings in the catalogue, and they almost all have titles, titles which Klee regarded as integral parts of the work and which often provide a key for at least starting to understand them. The titles are a mixture of description and suggestion, and they are generally meant to startle. They can be broadly funny, as when what looks like a pin-striped banker in pink pajamas floating through a pink sky is labeled The Creator. At their best they have a delightful tingle of inevitability. How else could you possibly describe four birds, with their beaks open to heaven, perched on a wire attached to n insubstantial crank, than as a Twittering Machine?
A typical painting of the late 1920s is called She Bellows, We Play. The "We" is fairly easy to interpret: a tangle of lines toward the center of the canvas seems to represent a trio of frisky little dogs. The dogs are us: they stand for the whole human race as it dizzily plays out the game of life. Who, however, is "She?" She is a larger animal, vaguely bovine. She may be just a cow, but for someone steeped like Klee in mystical philosophies. she is more likely a sacred cow, perhaps some goddess out of an ancient religion, like the Egyptian Hathor, and what she is bellowing would then be the precepts of divine law. But her relationship to dogs is left deliberately unclear. She has turned her backside to them and perhaps she is deliberately bellowing a spiritual message out to the empty indifferent edges of the Universe, leaving less elevated sound for us dogs..
If you step far enough back from this painting,,both "We" and "She." drawn in thin black lines, tend to fade away until they disappear entirely in a pattern of color patches, reds and blues and creamy grays, which seem to be gently receding and advancing in a kind of non-Euclidean space. Does this imply that, at the farthest levels of awareness, all things human and divine are swallowed up in an overall pattern that is undifferentiated and meaningless? Or is it simply, as some authorities maintain, that Klee's technique had not yet evolved to the mastery of his later years when he drew in thick black lines which swim in and out of the color patches and there is no danger of any detail disappearing from view? The answer, as in most questions dealing with Klee, must be left in abeyance, in a mist of ambiguity.
Ambiguity was his natural element, and he played in it the way a dolphin plays in water. He saw everything in terms of opposites trying to coexist. It was the artist's job to understand that every up implies a down, and to bring them together in some kind of harmony. "The demoniacal," he wrote in his diary, in the unfortunate oracular tone that infects the prose style of so many modern artists, "shall be melted into simultaneity with the celestial, the dualism shall not be treated as such but in its complementary oneness...For truth asks that all elements be present at once." He put it more engagingly in a lecture to his students at the Bauhaus in which he explained how lines of different character might be made to converge. He drew a firm slightly curved line that had little loops at the ends, then he drew a random squiggly line twisting back and forth across it. This, he said, was "rather like the path of a man with a dog running free."
None of the students objected that what he drew was rather like the path of a man with a dog on a leash, and while the dog's apparently random movements were irrevocably controlled by the leash, the man was free at any moment to walk or leap or crawl in any direction he wanted. But of course Klee was thinking of an orderly Swiss-German man like himself who, if he took a walk, knew exactly where he was going.
Orderly man and anarchic dog found themselves in complementary
oneness inside Klee himself, though sometimes it is hard to believe that there are not two separate Klees staring out at us from his photographs. In some of them he is mystical and wild-eyed, vaguely oriental (and he did like to claim that he had Saracen blood), and this is the Klee who is so far-ranging, playful and unorthodox on canvas. In others he looks like a typically solid squarehead bourgeois, Klee the good family man, the respectable conventional citizen. "Shall I never lead any but an inner life?" he asked despondently in his diary. :"As for outside, shall I always walk my way in discreet, average fashion?"
Nothing could have been more discreet and average than his outer life. There is probably not another famous painter who offers less anecdotal material to his biographers. He was a conscientious student, who was briefly tempted by a musical career, but preferred to become a conscientious painter. He worked at his art virtually every day of his life. He traveled to Paris, Italy, Tunis, Egypt. He spent almost three years in uniform in World War I, and he was a dutiful,, if bored soldier who noted that he was a better marksman standing up than lying down when his helmet got in the way, but he never had to fire his gun in anger, the nearest he got to action was painting camouflage on airplanes. He taught school for ten years. He never joined a party and never took part in any overt political activity. In his voluminous diaries, external events flow on in an atmosphere of unalleviated grayness, Klee goes hiking in the Alps, Bulgaria collapses, a friend's wife commits suicide - the tone remains the same.
In his early days in Munich, Klee appears to have investigated sex with the same conscientious assiduity which he later applied to the theory of colors. But once he married the pianist Lily Stumpf and settled down, he was a model of middle-class monogamy. His son Felix remembers how in the early days, when Lily was supporting the family with her music lessons, he would go trotting along with his father to do the shopping. And his father would do the cooking too, sometimes stirring the soup abstractedly with paintbrushes.
He liked his little jokes, and there are photographs of him clowning for the camera. He was also a learned man who could read the Greek tragedies in the original. He formed friendships with many of the leading painters of his generation: Vassily Kandinsky, August Macke, Robert Delaunay, Franz Marc. The death of Marc at Verdun struck him, he said, like lightning. But when he came to write down his feelings about this closest of friends, Klee sounds curiously detached.: "His noble sensuousness with its warmth attracted many people to him," he wrote in his diary, and went on immediately to speak of his own lack of any such warmth: "What my art probably lacks is a kind of passionate humanity. I don't love animals and every sort of creature with an earthly warmth....In my work I do not belong to the species, but am a cosmic point of reference."
While the outer Klee was going about his Earthly duties - supporting a family, signing contracts, cannily judging the art market, preparing lectures - the inner Klee remained faithfully at that cosmic point of reference. It was a perfectly natural place to be for someone like Klee, who was well versed in German literature and felt a special bond to the writers of the Romantic school who flourished and suffered in the early years of the 19th century. Like them he believed in a universal duality, and like them he lived in a perpetual tension between the Diesseits and the Jenseits, the Hither and the Yon. The Diesseits is the sorry stuff you see outside your window, the "sticky mud of the world of appearances." Out yonder is another brighter world, the one where the chaos of appearance rearranges itself into a higher reality, in a haze of total affirmation.
The Jenseits is obviously the better place to be, and the true romantic is obsessed with a lifetime longing to get there. But how can he ever do it, given the contradictions of his nature as a man, his combination of "impotence of body and nobility of spirit"? Klee expressed the dilemma in an early etching, Hero with the Wing. The hero stands, noble and bearded, on a pedestal, like a national monument, and he has a great glorious wing rising out of his right shoulder. Unfortunately, not only is his left side wingless, his left arm is broken and held in place by a pitifully thin sling. He may cut a ridiculous figure to the outside world, but his duty remains: he has to fly, though he cannot fly..
Most Romantics tend to fly off helter-skelter for the Jenseits in murky clouds of nonsense. Klee, however, liked to think of himself as a "cool Romantic." who never lost sight of his true condition. Whatever his longing to escape, he remained in contact with the sticky mud of the Jenseits. In his meropsian flights into the Yon, he never lost sight of the Hither. "Do not quite leave the world behind," he said to himself in a diary entry of 1905. "Imagine you are dead; after many years you are permitted to cast a single glance earthward. You see a lamppost and an old dog lifting his leg against it. You are so moved that you cannot help sobbing."
The man who had seen and loved that old dog doing his daily duty could never become a wholly abstract painter. He worked with lines and shapes and colors, but lines and shapes and colors as he maneuvered them into place tended to take the form of objects - sun, moon, feet, fish -or to suggest objects. And these objects, he said, bring a baggage of human feeling with them, they look out at us "serene or severe, tense or relaxed....suffering or smiling." Even paintings with no observable subject, which at first glance are no more than a mass of squarish colored spaces, take on a physical presence, they look like stained-glass windows or animated checkerboards. He may create a work which consists almost entirely of two columns of interlocked and superimposed trapezoids and triangles. He adds a circle at the top and tiny angles at the bottom, which are or might be a head and feet; the painting is suddenly filled with the energy of a passionate human conflict that justifies its title, Dispute.
Klee's early satirical drawings reveal as very sharp observer of the Diesseits. The process of getting his observations into what he could consider a final work of art involved a series of profound transformations. He compared the process to the growth of trees. First come the roots: this is when the artist perceives some sense of order in the "passing stream of image and experience." The trunk is the artist's vision, through which the sap flows upward from the roots. The work of art is the crown of branches and leaves which unfolds to the world.
No one would expect the crown of the tree to be a mirror image of its roots :And therefore, said Klee, the people who accused him of incompetence and deliberate distortion didn't know what they were talking about. He had studied in academies for years and was, as a matter of fact, an exceedingly skilled draftsman. But he had no use for mere skillful copying of surfaces. He preferred to draw as children and madmen draw - ideas rather than any particular member of the species. He himself had been a very precocious child artist and some of the drawings he did in his preschool years in his preschool years rank among the most remarkable works of their kind ever done. Family Outing, which he did when he was four years old, is a typical child product in one sense: it is a linear rendition of a family - father, mother, older sister, younger brother, doll - out for a skate on ice. But the eye for detail, like the bustle on the mother's dress, is quite unusual. Still more unusual is the formal friezelike arrangement of the figures, and even more so is the air of unease, if not of menace, that hovers over the scene and finds its most dramatic accent in the father's huge clawlike hands poised to spring behind the children. This is the work of a very sophisticated, sharp-eyed, witty, slightly malicious child - a miniature Paul Klee, in fact.
Drawing like this was only one of the paths to the Jenseits. In his uncompromising methodical way, Klee spent years studying all the possible ways of combining, dividing, comparing and contrasting lines. He spent more years studying the ways of shading to replicate any kind of three-dimensional shape. He did not call himself a painter till a visit to Tunisia in 1914, when the discovery of Mediterranean light introduced him to the world of color. He then spent years studying the possible relationships of all the colors in the spectrum. During all these years, he was ceaselessly experimenting with different techniques and different materials. He painted on canvas, he painted on glass, on burlap, on plaster, on newspapers, on wrapping paper, on old tiles fished up out of the river. He painted sharp, he painted blurred. He could change styles from picture to picture because he was not trying to create a style. His program, and for a modest man it was an incredibly ambitious program, was to lay down the laws of art that would fit any style. .
He looked at the art being produced in the 20th century and he found great talent, but also great confusion. Painting was in the state that music had been at the start of the 18th century, it lacked a theoretical base on which to build. Such a base had been given to the world of music by works like Bach's Art of the Fugue and Johann Fux's Gradus ad Parnassum, the textbook from which Haydn and Mozart learned their musical grammar. Bach and Fux had laid down the laws for polyphony, the weaving together of independent voices or melodies to provide ongoing harmonies..Klee, who was steeped in music from the cradle, who played the violin all this life, wanted to find a visual equivalent for Bach and Mozart. A "higher polyphony" that could combine formal perfection with a deep emotional resonance.
There is an obvious difficulty in applying a musical concept like
polyphony to painting. Music exists in time, it moves on from chord to chord and rest to rest, while a painting is a static object fixed for all time on its canvas or wrapping paper. But Klee did not want his paintings to be static objects at all, something that could be taken in at a glance. He wanted them to be dynamic, a field of energy and purposeful activity where the eye of the beholder would be kept busy following the hand of the artist. In the Klee type of painting, the process of painting was more important than the painting itself; or, as he put it, "Formation determines form and is therefore the greater of the two." By properly placing his shapes and colors, by subtly mixing correspondences, reflections, resemblances, recapitulations, he could set up rhythms that could "bring the ego and the object into a resonant relationship that goes beyond optical foundation,"
Klee was an artist who, though he sold well and received much critical acclaim in the last twenty years of his life, was generally regarded by his contemporaries as a peripheral and somewhat eccentric figure. Unlike Picasso or Matisse, or his friend Kandinsky, it was largely after his death that he began to be hailed as one of the giants of modern art. His influence has been enormous. There is hardly an innovation or aberration in the art of the past half century, whether minimal or gestural or conceptual, constructivist or expressionist, op-ish or pop-ish, which does not turn up full grown in Klee paintings done many decades before, neatly concentrated in the small formats he favored. .
While numerous artists have mined his work for ideas, it cannot be said that Klee ever founded a school. For behind the ponderous theorizing and the musical analogies stands a unique personality with a unique vision. From Paleolithic times to the present, artists have journeyed to the Jenseits and returned to tell us what it is like out there, but none of them has brought back a report remotely resembling Klee's.
Many groups and cliques and schools have tried to adopt him. The Dadaists hailed him as one of their own because they thought his work subverted all traditional and rational standards. The Surrealists praised him for finding a shortcut to the unconscious mind, which was for them the center of wisdom.
He taught for ten years at the Bauhaus, the Jerusalem and Mecca of everything that was modern in Germany between the Kaiser's day and Hitler's. And he seems to have got along well with the staff there, though it is hard to imagine a squarer peg in a rounder hole. The founder of the Bauhaus was Walter Gropius, who inspired the character of Professor Silenus in Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall. Silenus is a professor of architecture who sees the central problem of art as the "elimination of the human element from the consideration of form....The only perfect building must be the factory, because that is built to house machines, not men." The masters of the Bauhaus did succeed in fitting a goodly proportion of mankind into concrete boxes. They must have approved of Klee for his diagrams and analyses, and for the problems he set for his students in analytical geometry and spherical trigonometry. But Klee lived in a different universe. The more precise the musical and mathematical formulas he devised for his work, the more the work itself took off in bizarre and unpredictable directions. In the giant machine shop that was the Bauhaus, Klee was a twittering machine.
Klee's self-portraits are ironic and self-deprecating. Partly because he felt very strongly the isolation of the modern artist, working alone in his studio, deprived of the recognized role in society that artists of previous ages took for granted. "Uns trägt kein Volk," he said in a famous lecture in 1924, which means something like, "The people are not with us." But he proudly added in the next sentence, "We are a people."
Reaching a people seems to demand at least some of the "highest lyrical emotions" of which he liked to speak. Yet emotion of any sort is about the last word that occurs to people looking at a Klee. For most of his career he was the coolest of Romantics, observing human striving and longing with sympathy, but from a vast meropsian distance. Only rarely does some passion break through to the surface of a work, as it does in Stricken from the List, a face with an "X" drawn brutally across it, which dates from the time when the Hitlerian persecutions were starting and he himself was denounced by the Nazis as a "degenerate artist" and hounded out of Germany.
Only in the late 1930s does a new intensity of feeling begin to pervade his works. These were also the years in which he was dying of scleroderma, a devastating disease which turned his skin into a kind of armor. By 1939 he must have known that he was doomed. In the year and a half remaining to him he crowded in an amazingly copious and varied output, as if he were collecting all his baggage for the great voyage: more than 1,650 paintings and drawings all told. Many of them are full of premonitions, of his fate and the fate of the world. There are disconcerting figures he called "Angels" who are certainly not messengers of happy tidings. The Kettledrummer - death, the drummer - looms with a single menacing eye and an arm raised to strike the note of doom. A Doll on the Road lies, limbs askew, one eye twisted vertically, as if to indicate that all nature is out of whack. The Doomed Labyrinth is just that, dark red fragmentary shapes on a lighter ground, a complex order reduced to chaos. Death and Fire, dated 1940, with its whitish head awry, outlined with thick black strokes against a muddy background, might stand as a curtain-raiser for the years of horror ahead. His Aurochs creatures with the heads low, doomed to extinction, might foretell the fate of Homo sapiens.
But interspersed with paintings like these are others that are full of lively fancy, a positive gaiety. One is called Exuberance. Within a brief period of time he could turn out a painting with an exceedingly gloomy blue moon, and another with a radiant beige moon shining on a set of smiling biomorphs. As he approached the end, the creative process speeded up, he raced from medium to medium and from mood to mood as if he were trying to pack all he had ever learned and felt into a last series of statements. If the statements appear to be contradictory, it is because it takes a flight into the Jenseits to understand them fully.
The paintings increased in size in this final phase. The largest one he ever did (still a modest size by contemporary standards,34 by 69 inches) was done about a year before his death. It is called Insula Dulcamara, which means bittersweet island, and it clearly a meditation on his approaching end. Its color patterns and its odd, undefined, undirected shapes drawn in thick black lines keep a perfect balance between melancholy and gaiety. The biggest of the shapes is presumably the island of the dead, (but it might be a sea serpent risen from some mysterious deep). Is the boat at the upper right bringing souls to the isle or is it ferrying them off to a farther sphere? Is the vaguely human figure on the shore, with its suspicious resemblance to the letter "P," Paul Klee himself? And what does the figure"1" in the foreground stand for? Perhaps it is an affirmation of the endurance of Number One, the individual human ego. Or perhaps like the hero with one wing, it is meant to be pathetic and slightly ridiculous, a claim of unity in a cosmos where nothing really hangs together. A painting by Klee automatically calls up such speculations, along with a realization that there is not one answer. Whatever message may be here is drowned in the visual delight of following the objects, tense or relaxed, suffering or smiting, as they swoop and swirl around the artist's field of vision.
She bellows. We play.
©1987 Robert Wernick
Revised version of an article printed in Smithsonian Magazine February 1987