Feat of Klee

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 31

Capable of working on two or three paintings at once, Paul Klee spent a lifetime exploring not only form but also the theory of color. Martin Gayford sifts through the many facets of this polymathic artist

When, early in 1921, Paul Klee gave his first lecture at the Bauhaus in Weimar, he made an unusual entrance, backing through the door into the classroom. Then, according to his colleague, the painter Georg Muche, "without looking at his audience, he went straight up to the blackboard and began lecturing and drawing".

Klee, who was ambidextrous, drew in chalk with both right and left hands while simultaneously speaking in a low voice to the students behind him. His playful sense of humor had got him in trouble at school in Bern, where he drew caricatures in his notebooks and scandalized the authorities with a magazine, The Bug, that he produced with friends. To conclude his Bauhaus lecture, according to Muche, Klee put two arcs on the board, intersecting at one end and just touching at the other. "And this is the fish of Columbus!" he announced; then he left the room.

Paul Klee both was and was not a fish out of water at the Bauhaus. It was an institution dedicated to a new, modernist synthesis of all the arts, the highest expression of which was in architecture. Its director was – not surprisingly – one of the most influential of modernist architects, Walter Gropius.

Architecture was certainly one of the most important themes of Klee's work, and had been long before he joined the Bauhaus. His painting Südalpiner Ort [South Alpine Village] from 1923 – to be sold at Bonhams' November Impressionist and Modern Art sale in New York – is quite characteristic in that way. It is a picture of a place: not one he studied directly from the motif, but one with which he was familiar from his youth and upbringing in Switzerland, where he was born in 1879. It seems to show houses, four-square and sturdy, rising against a mountainous slope. The texture of the surface – and the purplish grays of the color range – suggest winter light, sturdy upland vegetation and a huddle of dwellings.

Klee's temperament and approach, however, were not entirely suited to the Bauhaus emphasis on the collective work of many exponents of varied crafts. Although he taught in the workshops devoted to metal work, stained glass, book binding and weaving, as well as on the celebrated 'preliminary course' – which prepared the students in such subjects as color theory and the relationship of forms – Klee was in essence a painter, and one whose credo came close to the doctrine of art for art's sake. "The picture has no particular purpose," he told his Bauhaus class. "It only has the purpose of making us happy." He believed in art as the expression of an inner creative force: "The artist does not want to reproduce the Lord God... he wants to be that Lord himself."

Far from being collective, his own work was meditative and solitary. The painter Lyonel Feininger and his wife Julia observed Klee at work. For hours he would sit quietly in a corner of his studio, smoking his pipe, "apparently not occupied at all – but full of inner watching". Then he would quietly get up, and "with unerring sureness he would add a touch of color here, draw a line or spread a tone there, thus attaining his vision with infallible logic in an almost subconscious way". One wonders whether, while meditating on Südalpiner Ort in his studio – as well as rhythm, color and form – he was thinking of Münchenbuchsee, the village near Bern where he was born.

Another colleague, Lothar Schreyer, who was in charge of the stage workshop at the Bauhaus, would hear Klee pacing back and forth in the studio above his, a soft sound he initially thought might be the painter's big tomcat, Fritzi. In fact the sound was the result of Klee's tendency to work on two or three paintings at once, moving back and forth between them, "choosing his materials, testing, peering, creating". Schreyer thought of Klee's studio as "the wizard's kitchen". He recalled that "the whole of our Bauhaus in Weimar was a kind of laboratory", but this "was the place where the real magic potions were brewed".

Despite – or perhaps because of – his habit of working on several pictures simultaneously, Klee's work was quite diverse. Paintings from the same period differ in the degree to which they do or do not seem to depict the external world. Famously, Klee proclaimed in 1920, "Art does not reproduce the visible, it makes visible."

Nonetheless, Südalpiner Ort is unusually representational – but not uniquely so. Klee's father was German, and the artist studied painting in Munich. Later in that same year, 1923, Klee went on a three-week holiday with his wife Lily and son Felix to the German island of Baltrum in the North Sea. There he produced 16 watercolors, including some surprisingly representational views of dunes and waves. More often, his work grew out of inner musing on form, color and a deep interest in visual rhythm, connected with a love of music inherited from his parents.

Once, Klee confessed to Georg Muche, he was painting away in his studio, when "suddenly, I don't know why, I had to dance". A painting such as Redgreen and Violet-Yellow Rhythms (1920), in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is a composition of pulsing squares and rectangles of differing sizes and hues. It is as abstract as a Mondrian – except that here and there among the cubes little fir trees grow, giving it a sense of space and place: another Alpine landscape.

Picture of a Town (Red Green graduated) was painted, to judge from the cataloging number Klee gave it, rather later in 1923 than Südalpiner Ort (the former is no. 90, the latter no. 26). It is another colouristic fandango of rectangles, except in this case, a couple are surmounted by semi-circles. It is just enough to transform an abstraction into a faint suggestion of a north African cityscape. Probably, this picture is an echo of Klee's journey to Tunisia in 1914 – one of the formative experiences of his artistic life – just as Südalpiner Ort harks back to his Swiss origins.

In Tunisia, Klee confided to his diary on April 8th, 1914 that his head was "full of the impressions of last night's walk". He got down to work at once on a watercolor of the Arab quarter. "Color and I are one," he declared in his diaries. "I am a painter." At a deeper level he felt he had begun "the synthesis of urban architecture and pictorial architecture".

The germ of this idea had been planted even earlier, when in the winter of 1901-1902, the youthful Klee visited Italy. Looking back, he felt that, although the great buildings of Italy were "utilitarian structures", architecture had remained the purest of the arts. "The easily discernible structure of its form, its spatial organism, has been the most salutary school for me".

This was the level at which Klee wholeheartedly concurred with the architectural emphasis of the Bauhaus. Every painting, he believed, should be in a sense architectural. It was necessary for "a scaffolding of the painting to be built". Buildings, even blueprints, were favorite subjects of his. It was not for nothing that he entitled another of his pictures from 1923, Pictorial Architecture. That's what his pictures always were; but Südalpiner Ort, with its lighted windows in the dusk offers an almost nostalgic variation on that theme.

Martin Gayford is the co-author of Rendez-Vous With Art; his most recent book is Eileen Cooper: Between The Lines.

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