Paul Klee's Art

Paul Klee was not childish, despite frequent comparisons between his art and that of children...

... At the Phillips Collection, where 80 works by the Swiss-born modernist were exhibited this fall (they are now at the Menil Collection in Houston, through January 14, 2007), the link with children's art was made explicit by an adjoining room filled with the sort of masterpieces proud parents affix to refrigerator doors. A few of these are delightful - my personal favorite is A Visit to The DIA [Detroit Institute of Arts], by 11-year-old Gregory Stafford, which shows dinosaurs strolling through an art museum, gazing at paintings and sculptures of dinosaurs much like themselves. Rarely have I seen such eloquent tribute to art as mimesis - in the words of the German scholar Wilhelm Worringer, "The criterion of judgment to which we cling as something axiomatic, is, as I have said, approximation to reality."

Most child artists fail to achieve anything like an approximation to reality, but we forgive them, because we assume their failure is not deliberate. For example, the jump ropers in seven-year-old Mikako Sugai's Skipping have limbs curved like rubber hoses, with no discernible joints. We smile, because we expect that one day soon, young Mikako will learn how to draw elbows and knees. But what about Klee's The Angler (1921), in which a sketchy little man teeters on the edge of an even sketchier pier, holding what appears to be a lead-weighted fishing line? His limbs are also curved like rubber hoses. Plus his face is distorted by an X on the forehead, a double mouth, and a reversed ear. And both this fishing line and the leg of the pier trail off in a bluish haze that deepens to indigo on all sides.

Is The Angler a thwarted stab at realism? Jawohl! decreed Adolf Ziegler, president of the Reich Chamber of Visual Arts, when commissioned by Joseph Goebbels "to select and secure for an exhibition works of German degenerate art." In the summer of 1937, 16,000 modernist works were seized from German museums and collections, and The Angler was one of 650 chosen for the Entartete Kunst ("Degenerate Art") exhibition that toured Germany and Austria for the next four years. In that notorious show, which attracted 3 million viewers, the works were displayed alongside scrawled inflammatory slogans, and in some cases, photographs of deformed or visibly deranged individuals. Seventeen Klees were included as examples of "idiotic art" spewed out by a "primitive" mind mired in "disorder" and "confusion."

Eerily, Klee's angler looks as though he could see this coming. Alone on his shaky pier, in a faint glow surrounded by darkness, he grimaces as he drops his line into the void. By 1921, when Klee made this picture, he was already quite successful. His work had been shown at two cutting-edge galleries in Munich and at the new Société Anonyme in New York; two scholars had written monographs about him; and American collectors such as Arthur Jerome Eddy and Katherine Dreier were starting to buy. (The support he received from Americans, and from Germans living in the States, notably Emmy "Galka" Scheyer, is the focus of the Phillips exhibition.) Nineteen-twenty-one was also when Klee began teaching at a new, experimental arts and crafts school in Weimar called the Bauhaus. Founded in 1919 by the architect Walter Gropius, it bobbed like a white-and-beige cork on wave after wave of political chaos and economic catastrophe, relocating to Dessau in 1925 and then to Berlin in 1932, where in July 1933 it was finally sunk by Hitler.

From Bauhaus to Our House, Tom Wolfe's hilarious send-up of modernism's impact on American architecture, aims many a barb at the "white gods" who emigrated to the United States in the 1930s. To Wolfe, it was a disaster when figures like Marcel Breuer (inventor of tubular steel furniture), Josef Albers (painter of squares), Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (progenitor of nine-tenths of the Ikea catalogue), and Mies van der Rohe (father of Glass Box Row, otherwise known as Sixth Avenue) became idols to the "savages" in "colonial" America. All the more striking, then, to read Wolfe's admiring take on Gropius's arrival: "Gropius had the healthy self-esteem of any ambitious man, but he was a gentleman above all else, a gentleman of the old school, a man who was always concerned about a sense of proportion, in life as well as design. As a refugee from a blighted land, he would have been content with a friendly welcome, a place to lay his head, two or three meals a day until he could get on his own feet, a smile every once in a while, and a chance to work, if anybody needed him."

Of course, as Wolfe notes, Gropius stepped into a good gig as head of Harvard's Graduate School of Design. Yet unlike certain of his peers, Gropius was not an egomaniac out to clone himself. Rather he was a prudent man whose leadership style resembled that of Duke Ellington: recruit the top talent and give them their heads, up to a point (the trick being to find the point). By his own testimony, Gropius sought "men who would work, not automatically as an orchestra obeys its conductor's baton, but independently although in close cooperation." This laid-back style may help to explain why Klee stuck around for seven years, despite never really buying into the program stated in the Bauhaus Manifesto: "Let us create a new guild of craftsmen, without the class distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist. Together let us conceive and create the new building of the future, which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity and which will rise one day toward heaven in the hands of a million workers, like the crystal symbol of a new faith."

Ignoring these grandiose aims, Klee devoted himself to the demanding, apprentice-style craft workshops that were the Bauhaus's chief distinction. As a fine artist, his job was to lecture on such hands-off, "formal" topics as geometry, volume, colour, and design. But he never scorned the hands-on, "practical" side. In the bookbinding workshop he plumbed the mysteries of paper, ink, and glue; in the weaving workshop at Dessau, he learned about dyes and textiles from masters like Gunta Stölzl. The results can be seen in such lovely works as Arabian Song (1932), painted with thinned oils on rough jute and evoking not only the beauty of a veiled women (whose eyes look directly at you) but also the actual fabric of her chador.

Two other works on jute, Gaze of Silence (1932) and Angst (1934), also look at you, if less directly. Gaze of Silence offers a stylized eye painted in green, brown, and gold, which conjures thoughts of an owl, a masked man, or some other being with a cool, steady, disconcerting gaze. Angst, painted in pale gouache on jute coated with chalk, is more dynamic: the eye shrinks to the left while glancing back (with a red vertical slit of a pupil) at amoeba-like tentacles clutching at it from the right. Some of the tentacles contain arrows, a favorite hieroglyph of Klee's, which indicate both motion and threat. Mostly the eye appears trapped, bound to the clutching tentacles by a sort of ligament. The image is that of a mind trapped by its own fears.

When Klee made these evocative pictures, he was no longer at the Bauhaus. Gropius departed for England in 1928, and his successor, the Swiss architect Hannes Meyer, was a Marxist who steered the Bauhaus toward strictly functional design, mass production, and the scientifically proven need of the proletariat to live in sterile, featureless housing projects. Three years later, Meyer took a group of students to Moscow to help Stalin build the modernist future, but the Leader of Humanity preferred the Socialist-Classicist ("wedding cake") style, and Meyer was deported in 1936. The buildings he bequeathed to Dessau and East Berlin are so ugly, even the Bauhaus-Archiv Museum of Design describes them as "void [sic] of any creative component," "angular," "poor in detail," and having "quite a parsimonious appearance."

Both Stalin and Hitler hated abstraction and loved representational realism. Because of this, the former got a good rap after the war, the latter a bad one. In the 1940s, when New York was the art capital of the world and abstract expressionism the triumphant style, art lovers were exhorted not to look for recognizable images but to focus on formal elements like color, scale, paint quality, and (Clement Greenberg's obsession) "the illusion of three-dimensional space on a flat surface." Artists who cared about subject matter were considered less "advanced," and many fine representational painters and sculptors were shut out of the booming art market. Today, of course, the art market has boomed itself into senile dementia, with the world's number one artist (according to ArtReview Magazine) being Damien Hirst, the aging YBA (Young British Artist) best known for his 1990s installations featuring animal carcasses and maggots.

Before I say something verboten about degenerate art, let us return to the Third Reich. It's worth noting that only 23 of the surviving pieces from the Entartete Kunst exhibition are totally non-representational (16 of them by Klee's friend Wassily Kandinsky). Toward such art, the official charge was "sheer insanity." More severe were the attacks on works with recognizable but unacceptable subject matter: prostitutes, non-Aryans, the horrors of war, corrupt officials. (These subjects would have been taboo even if rendered in the approved stilted academic style.) Severest of all were the attacks on "barbarism of representation," meaning "conscious disregard for the basics of technique," "garish spattering of color," and "deliberate distortion of drawing." These sins were not redeemable by inoffensive subject matter - indeed, some of the worst venom was hurled at landscapes, still lifes, and religious pictures done in the style of expressionism, fauvism, cubism, or some other "ism" that got up the Führer's nose.

Why did the Nazis make such a fuss about art that was neither fully abstract nor fully representational? Could it be that they understood, albeit perversely, that ordinary people often enjoy such art? What do untutored museum-goers say when confronted with a totally abstract piece by Kandinsky or Pollock? Usually something like "Look, there's a face," "That is definitely a horse," or "I heard he was diagramming his own brain waves." Told not to play these guessing games, museum-goers get frustrated. Why can't the damn artist offer a hint, a clue, something for us to grab onto? Give us that, and most of us will accept, even relish, large amounts of what the Nazis dubbed "distortion." Especially if it looks beautiful.

Klee understood this, which is why his titles are user-friendly. Every museum-goer knows what it's like to read arrogantly obscurantist titles like Hegemonic Aurora, Convolution XIV, Up Yours, and the ubiquitous Untitled. Visit a Klee exhibition, and you'll feel welcomed by helpful, often witty titles like Little Regatta, The Twittering Machine, Sketch in the Manner of a Carpet, Conjuring Trick, Arches of the Bridge Stepping Out of Line, Lonely Flower, and The Sick Heart. What these titles represent is a burning desire to communicate what lies hidden beneath outward appearances - a motive very far from obscurantism. And it is this desire to make visible what is invisible, not some imagined freedom from the rigors of art-making, that forges the true link between Klee's art and that of children.

Klee was interested in children's art because he occupied the middle ground between representation and abstraction. Children occupy that same ground, for two reasons: perceptual freshness and technical incapacity. But unlike countless postwar art educators, Klee did not think that the way to preserve the freshness was by prolonging the incapacity. No art without craft, was his credo. As he explained in a 1924 lecture, "Our pounding heart drives us down, deep down to the source of all. What springs from this source - whatever it may be called, dream, idea, or fantasy - must be taken seriously only if it unites with the proper creative means to form a work of art." (Emphasis added) By "proper creative means," he did not mean fingerpaint.

Even though Gropius's successor Hannes Meyer had no use for what he contemptuously called "the individual emotional activity of an artist," Klee stayed at the Bauhaus until 1930, at which point he took what he hoped would be a secure job at the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts. But in 1935 he was fired and forced to flee with his wife Lily to his home town of Bern, Switzerland, where he lived until 1940, suffering from schleroderma but producing an amazing body of work. When he died at age 60, the world was plunged in war, and it hardly seemed as though one individual's painstakingly wrought little pictures (most of them less than two feet on a side) would end up towering over the grandiose cultural projects of Hitler and Stalin. But mercifully (and with a little help from Klee's American friends), they did.

Paul Klee in America is at the Menil Collection in Houston, October 6, 2006-January 14, 2007
This review first appeared in the Weekly Standard.

October 13, 2006 4:50 PM |



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