Commentary on Klee
From Robert Hughes, "The Shock of the New"
"Transcendentalism was the common interest of the painters who formed the Expressionist group known as Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) in 1910. It was also a deep_set part of Bauhaus thought and practice, for nothing could be further from the truth than the idea that the Bauhaus represented some kind of logic opposed to the world_transforming aspirations of Expressionism. When Kandinsky taught at the Bauhaus, so did a Swiss artist named Paul Klee. And though Klee was not a Theosophist he was, like Kandinsky, devoted to an ideal of painting that stemmed from German idealist metaphysics.
"The monument of Klee's obsession with this metaphysics was a singular book, The Thinking Eye, written during his teaching years at the Bauhaus _ one of the most detailed manuals on the "science" of design ever written, conceived in terms of an all embracing theory of visual "equivalents" for spiritual states which, in its knotty elaboration, rivalled Kandinsky's. Klee tended to see the world as a model, a kind of orrery run up by the cosmic clockmaker _ a Swiss God _ to demonstrate spiritual truth. This helps account for the toylike character of his fantasies; if the world had no final reality, it could be represented with the freest, most schematic wit, and this Klee set out to do. Hence his reputation as a petit_maître.
"Like Kandinsky, Klee valued the "primitive," and especially the art of children. He envied their polymorphous freedom to create signs, and respected their innocence and directness. 'Do not laugh, reader! Children also have artistic ability, and there is wisdom in their having it! The more helpless they are, the more instructive are the examples they furnish us ....' In his desire to paint 'as though newborn, knowing absolutely nothing about Europe,' Klee was a complete European. His work ferreted around in innumerable crannies of culture, bringing back small trophies and emblems from botany, astronomy, physics, and psychology. Music had a special influence on him. He believed that eighteenth_century counterpoint (his favourite form) could be translated quite directly into gradations of colour and value, repetitions and changes of motif; his compositions of stacked forms, fanned out like decks of cards or colour swatches, are attempts to freeze time in a static composition, to give visual motifs the "unfolding" quality of aural ones _ and this sense of rhythmic disclosure, repetition, and blossoming transferred itself, quite naturally, to Klee's images of plants and flowers. He was the compleat Romantic, hearing the Weltgeist in every puff of wind, reverent before nature but careful to stylize it. Klee's assumptions were unabashedly transcendentalist. 'Formerly we used to represent things visible on earth,' he wrote in 1920, 'things we either liked to look at or would have liked to see. Today we reveal the reality that is behind visible things, thus expressing the belief that the visible world is merely an isolated case in relation to the universe and that there are many more other, latent realities ...'
"Klee's career was a search for the symbols and metaphors that would make this belief visible. More than any other painter outside the Surrealist movement (with which his work had many affinities _ its interest in dreams, in primitive art, in myth, and cultural incongruity), he refused to draw hard distinctions between art and writing. Indeed, many of his paintings are a form of writing: they pullulate with signs, arrows, floating letters, misplaced directions, commas, and clefs; their code for any object, from the veins of a leaf to the grid pattern of Tunisian irrigation ditches, makes no attempt at sensuous description, but instead declares itself to be a purely mental image, a hieroglyph existing in emblematic space. So most of the time Klee could get away with a shorthand organization that skimped the spatial grandeur of high French modernism while retaining its unforced delicacy of mood. Klee's work did not offer the intense feelings of Picasso's, or the formal mastery of Matisse's. The spidery, exact line, crawling and scratching around the edges of his fantasy, works in a small compass of post_Cubist overlaps, transparencies, and figure_ field play_offs. In fact, most of Klee's ideas about pictorial space came out of Robert Delaunay's work, especially the Windows. The paper, hospitable to every felicitous accident of blot and puddle in the watercolour washes, contains the images gently. As the art historian Robert Rosenblum has said, 'Klee's particular genius [was] to be able to take any number of the principal Romantic motifs and ambitions that, by the early twentieth century, had often swollen into grotesquely Wagnerian dimensions, and translate them into a language appropriate to the diminutive scale of a child's enchanted world.'
"If Klee was not one of the great formgivers, he was still ambitious. Like a miniaturist, he wanted to render nature permeable, in the most exact way, to the language of style _ and this meant not only close but ecstatic observation of the natural world, embracing the Romantic extremes of the near and the far, the close_up detail and the "cosmic" landscape. At one end, the moon and mountains, the stand of jagged dark pines, the flat mirroring seas laid in a mosaic of washes; at the other, a swarm of little graphic inventions, crystalline or squirming, that could only have been made in the age of high_resolution microscopy and the close_up photograph. There was a clear link between some of Klee's plant motifs and the images of plankton, diatoms, seeds, and micro_organisms that German scientific photographers were making at the same time. In such paintings, Klee tried to give back to art a symbol that must have seemed lost forever in the nightmarish violence of World War I and the social unrest that followed. This was the Paradise_Garden, one of the central images of religious romanticism _ the metaphor of Creation itself, with all species growing peaceably together under the eye of natural (or divine) order."