Paul Klee lived from 1879 to 1940; he is one of the most original and inventive artists of the 20th century. Klee excelled in small exquisitely painted canvases which show his inspired use of color, his wit and the joyous spirit of his art.
Perhaps more than for any other great modern artist Klee's art remains triumphantly inexplicable. The movement of his compositions often seems closer to music than to visual art. Klee believed in the spiritual well-springs of artistic creativity; the depth of his art is a never-ending source of inspiration to those who follow in his footsteps.
Klee began by drawing mostly in black and white, specializing in etchings, in the Symbolist and Expressionist traditions, with an original blend of fantasy and wit. His style ranged freely between abstraction and figuration; but his work is almost always immediately recognizable.
His small canvases have often been likened to the work of children because of their apparent simplicity and extreme unpretentiousness. Nothing could be more misleading. Klee was a magician of the pen or the pencil, a skillful draftsman, a master.
In 1914, the bright desert sunlight in Tunisia transformed his vision as it had Delacroix's and Renoir's before him. From then on, the contribution he was to make in color was a revelation of inexhaustible variations and permutations, of melody and harmony, probably unequalled in variety. His subsequent production was prolific, amounting to more than 8,000 pieces.
The variety of Klee's imagery confounds categorization. Many great artists of this century have been touched by the magic of Klee's inventions. He continuously reminds us that line can be used not only to describe the shapes of things, but also to draw attention to the act of making the line itself.
He indulges in a type of metaphysical wit, creating illusions of reality with drawn lines and then employing some device to let the viewer in on a private joke: the artist is not too sure whether the image he draws is out there, somewhere inside him, or created by unseen hands. Thus the play between the objectivity and the subjectivity of Klee's images becomes the real image the viewer sees.
Paul Klee is radically original, and consistently exhibits a 20th century type of psychological insight. He devised strategies for the artistic imagination. Like most great masterpieces, his works are always remarkably economical.
He was also an excellent teacher and writer on art.
The Richard Doetsch-Benziger collection is among the small number of older Klee collections. The collection was begun in 1912. In the greatest harmony yet without attracting attention to itself, the collection was enriched year after year, always faithful to Klee's art of which it reflects the thousands of adventures right up until his death in 1940.
Richard Doetsch-Benziger is a founder of one of the first Klee societies which enabled him to work in tranquility at a time when he was appreciated only by a small circle of fans. More than one plate in the Richard Doetsch-Benziger collection carries the personal dedication of Paul Klee.
With only a year's age difference between he and Klee, Richard Doetsch began collecting ex-libris around 1900. From there he went on to books -- princeps editions of classics, bibliophile impressions, illustrated books, or hand-bound books. Everything that was made to be handled and placed at eye level. So when Richard Doetsch began collecting paintings -- around 1912 -- he was particularly interested in small and manageable sizes.
For Klee he was a god-sent collector. Because, with the exception of much more imposing paintings rendered between 1938 and 1940, Klee remains, since the medieval illuminators, the greatest master of the miniature. This is why attracted Richard Doetsch not only in the visual sense but also in the tactile sense: he loved the palpable preciosity of Klee's work, its immediateness, and the variety of its craftedness.
This collection contains -- aside from the graphic works, etchings and lithographs -- 24 oil paintings, 9 ouaches, 26 watercolors, 4 pen drawings, and 6 crayon drawings, making a total of 69 original pieces.
The complete Richard Doetsch-Benziger collection was first shown at the Fine Arts Museum of Bale from June 9 to July 8, 1956. A catalog containing small reproductions documents each work on display. Klee's pieces are numbered from 140 to 208. Many Klee pieces in the Richard Doetsch-Benziger collection have already been reproduced in color, some of them in their original sizes. Two booklets are entirely devoted to this collection.
The present exhibit offers ten lithographs of oils, watercolors and gouaches from the Richard Doetsch-Benziger collection, all of them in sizes not too distant from the originals. The lithographs were produced in 1957 in an effort to make available to the public certain pieces which were not reproduced elsewhere.
Loosely woven gauze with ragged edges, stretched over cardboard sometimes covered with chalk and sometimes not. The surface is divided into smaller colored surfaces of various shapes: rectangles, triangles, circles and rhomboids. Here and there smaller circles, triangles, crosses, drawn with a fine brush, and on the right hand toward the bottom, a fir tree.
This deft play of forms is answered by a clear and laughing sonority which unites the shades of the chromatic cycle: blue, green, yellow, orange, red, violet, with particularly rich nuances in the yellow and red color fields.
All of the colors have been lightened with chalk and, in some places, mixed to make gray and brown. Black lines appear here and there in opposition to the surface and the colors.
In the landscape, a human element drawn with fine black lines: a little boy, arms and legs spread out like a puppet. To the right, the motif of the cross asserts itself in black, while to the left, a tiny star balances the cross and contrasts with it. Even youth is not pure felicity.
Finally in the middle at the top, another dimension -- formal and spiritual -- crowns the composition: triangles suddenly broadens the immediateness of the child -- its joy and its toys -- to incorporate the more serious future of man.
Horizontal cardboard covered with chalk applied with a spatula; the relation is 3 to 4. The color, in places, barely covers the chalk background. The whole surface is divided into rectangles -- generally horizontal -- bordered with fine black lines cut here and there into triangles by a diagonal, or bordered by an ascending arc.
Certain compartments have a dot structure, others have verticals and parallels, while still others have diagonals crossing each other. But everywhere the structure of the chalk underlayer remains perceptible.
At the very top, slightly left of center, two opposing diagonals in the shape of a roof; underneath, three brush strokes in the form of a cross on a light background evoke the image of windows lit at night in some garden pavilion.
At the top, right of center, brush strokes suggest by their horizontal-vertical disposition a kind of wall.
As for the color, the dominant tonality is a nocturnal blue-green -- sometimes cooled into a clearer blue, sometimes darkened into a blue-black, sometimes lightened to a yellow-green, or warmed to a violet-red.
Here and there in black on a light background are plant figures: two in the shape of leaves, two in the shape of trees. A forest green softens to a midnight-blue disposed in geometric layers.
Horizontal watercolor paper with ragged edges; the slightly striped quality of the paper favoring a horizontal disposition. The chromatic theme is of the highest sobriety: between black and white, a few nuances of lighter and darker gray, lighter and darker brown.
Cool tones and warm tones are mixed over and over again, and stand in perfect equilibrium. The whole surface is subdivided and covered in rectangles, triangles, circles and leaf-like shapes.
The contour of each shape seems delicately washed with water. Each shape has been submitted to multiple rhythmic repetitions. The elements of human construction -- rectangles and triangles -- and of organic growth -- circles and leaf-like shapes -- are intermingled and in balance.
With these elements in place, a figurative association comes to mind; we see a garden. What is a garden? A place where the elements of human construction and the elements of organic growth are in balance.
Here Klee introduces another formal theme: brown grass is drawn with a finer brush, grey plants look like dots; here and there, leaf veins and petals.
All of these drawing motifs are soberly distributed over the entire surface. As a final point, cheerfully planted on the edge of some flower-bed, a small clover seedling: "Klee". "Klee" in German means "clover".
The sonorous fullness of a vertical format, a 3 to 2 relationship. This is Klee's favorite formal theme and, once again, he handles it superbly: the contrast between a background of diffused colors and delicate linear figures.
At the top left and bottom right, a deep blue lightens to a blue-green in the median zone which rises diagonally. The linear motif alludes to a figure: one has the impression of seeing into an aquarium where a light ray is shining through. In the light, fish of various shapes and sizes are assembled.
The continuous line which closes in on itself could rightly be considered the fundamental motif of Klee's drawing. The essential part of all of his art seems to be a variation on this theme. Such a line can capture so many elements of the outer world and the inner world. The contour of a living being -- plant, animal or human -- is a protection of its inner frailty against hostility from the outside.
Still eyes and shimmering fins! What a marvelous theme for the most audacious variations on a simple form. Add to this the contrast of colors: blue-green water, warmer tones for the fish whose bodies seem slightly toward the red.
Rough canvas bag with a ragged edge at the bottom; narrow format with a 1 to 4 relationship already suggesting a disposition in horizontal strata. The whole width of the scene is articulated in three zones.
The central zone is divided in two and also stratified from top to bottom in horizontal lines. The left half of the central zone reads from bottom to top: at the very bottom, four empty lines, then two lines with triangles, another line with triangles, a line with half-circles alternately decorated with dots or empty, and then a line with some sort of fabric or suspended nets.
The right half of the central zone reads from bottom to top: at the bottom, three empty lines, then a line with rectangles, a line with triangles and brown dots, a line with half-circles, and another line with hanging fabric.
The left zone, at the very bottom, is empty; then a line with more open circle arcs, a line with rectangles, a line with triangles, a line with vertical lines, and the top, once again, empty. The right zone has three diagonals going up toward the right with a horizontally stratified rocky mountain leaning against it.
The image of a multi-leveled city with its domed and gabled roofs appeared long ago, leading, to the left, toward a sort of Ponte-Vecchio and, toward the right, to a mountainous desert landscape. Everything is like a geometrical structure, except, at the right, the organic shape of an isolated tree.
Cardboard covered with a chalk background intentionally applied irregularly with a spatula -- the undercoat with a pale brownish red, the top coat with a grayish-white.
The earthly aridity shows meager vegetation: engraved with a hard instrument, two trees with leaves inscribe themselves in the chalky tender background. The whole is covered with a slightly larger loosely woven piece of gauze embedded here and there in the layer of chalk.
The impression of a drought and of aridity grows. Yet the tree on the left with a few more ramifications has a bit of yellow coloration, and the background at the bottom, in the center, has a few yellow-green touches.
To the organic forms -- tree, bird, serpent -- are opposed the geometrical constructions of man seen as reddish-brown and purple stripes -- but only as isolated pieces, as if they were merely the remnants of some former more complete structure, the bars on a garden gate, for example.
However, in one place, these bars rise to form a capital M, a sort of monumental portal. There must be something unusual here, if we are to judge by the exclamation point on top of it. Perhaps we could once see the carriage of the noble family M as it entered and exited through the gate. But now the fence has been run down for a long time and only a few weeds grow between the dried-up trees.
Fine ragged-edge canvas bag; narrow vertical format with a 5 to 2 relationship. Divided into five color fields with the help of three vigorous black lines, the interior line cutting the tableau more or less horizontally, the two upper lines crossing asymmetrically in diagonals.
The lower and higher fields are in a cool noble red, the second from the bottom, grayish-green, and the two triangular fields, pale pink. Scattered throughout the four larger surfaces, shapes vigorously surrounded in black: at the bottom, they are geometrical and crystalline, in the center, germinating and evocative; at the top, a stem, a calyx and a flower.
In the major triangle, toward the left, a small square; in the red field above, toward the right, a small circle.
Three elementary realms: at the bottom, inorganic and geometric; at the center, organic and germinating; above these two zones latent with life, at last visible and uncovered, the organic zone where everything flourishes and fades. All of that layered with a touching equilibrium.
Painted on newspaper, on an advertising page running crosswise. Klee already sees a formal suggestion in these multiple compartments of various shapes and sizes, as well as a human "theme"; assembled there without any relationship of significance, these elements are circumstantial neighbors.
We attribute to chance any event which, having within itself its own causal determination, comes and interrupts from the outside our little personal causal chain. Thus, the place occupied by such and such an advertisement is accidental only to us. And scanning a publicity page, we feel as if we are wandering in a labyrinth of accidental events.
Here and there, we come up against impenetrable barriers, a final point, a stop sign. It is not a question of relaxing in a park according to whimsy. The promenade undoubtedly begins at the bottom left, in the innocence of rose and sky blue, but soon the signals of dead-end roads multiply. The tonality adjusts itself to harmonize with black, brown and blue.
The two figures to the bottom left at the entrance to the tableau are just like signs in a world of signs; they are small and overwhelmed, like children facing the supremacy of black signals.
Rough golden-brown canvas bag with irregular edges. Background in a diffused blue-green surrounding two lance-like forms opposed in a diagonal. A bluish-white covers the interior leaving uncovered in brown a central fishbone and a few lateral fishbones.
This motif -- central and lateral fishbones -- can evoke, by association, the image of a tree or a leaf inside the lance-like form.
But on each side, two dots in deep blue, acting as eyes, and, at the other end, two reddish-brown semi-circles, acting as tail fins, indicate that Klee opted for the resemblance to a fish.
The dorsal fishbone is the main support of fish -- like man's skeleton. Klee published in 1940, the year of his death, a leaflet on fish where everything is excruciatingly skeletal. Two years earlier, the same motif maintains the apparency of a smile.
Canvas cut irregularly on the right and straight on the left; vertical format narrowed to 3 to 1. The background is covered with a luminous and pure yellow.
On the interior edge, a red horizontal line and two red dots; at the upper edge, a horizontal violet line.
In between the two, numerous small gray spots. Some larger than others, gray, black, red, which trouble and break the serenity of the immaculate yellow background.
But at the top, the heavy threat of a large black round spot, similar to a storm cloud, still hovering, although at the point of bursting, and burying everything in darkness. Facing the imminence of danger, apparently benign, but hitting the target on the mark, the word of acceptance.
All art possesses historical continuity which can only be fully understood when viewed in its entire context often spanning thousands of years.
For example, the work of many contemporary artists is very much like Cro-magnon art produced more than 50,000 years ago. Other examples resemble Sumerian art from around 6000 years ago. Still other forms of modern art, such as modern primitivism, resemble medieval illuminations.
What is it about these pieces that ties them together and makes them part of the same tradition? One of these elements is their abstract quality.
In the history of ornament and in the arts of primitive and prehistoric peoples, all kinds of abstract and near abstract designs are common. The fret motif of the Greeks and the interlace ornaments of the Scandinavian and the Celtic tribes, the geometric abstraction of form in African, Oceanic and early Chinese sculpture and the Arabic use of calligraphy for decoration -- all are familiar examples of one or another kind of abstract art in the past.
The term "abstract" has a negative connotation. In common language it means to remove, to take away. In this sense, all art is abstract to some degree. However accurately in detail a painter may attempt to describe a portion of nature, inevitably some minute particle of reality will escape his observation; or he may, consciously or unconsciously, "abstract" it from his representation in the interests of clarification, that is to say, art.
Flemish and German realist painters of the 15th and 16th centuries were artists of this kind. Renaissance Italians practiced another type of abstraction, a synthesis of abstracted forms in order to present an ideal face or landscape in nature.
This synthetic abstraction was an inheritance, in part, from the Greeks and since the Renaissance has been practiced by all artists trained in the so-called academic tradition. Sir Joshua Reynolds in the tenth of his Discourses went so far as to call this method the "science of abstract form".
While abstract are is not a new phenomenon, it must be emphasized that it has never until the 20th century played a particularly dominant role in the history of Western art.
One distinguishing characteristic of the realist and academic painter in this Western tradition is that both address themselves to "nature", the one particularizing, the other generalizing his observations as much as he sees fit.
Twentieth-century abstract art, on the contrary, in its purest states, at least, removes itself completely from all references to traditional aspects of nature or conventional ideas of subject matter.
At one extreme, this "pure" abstraction becomes an art of precisely coordinated geometrical shapes and spectrum colors. This might be called the classical or intellectual pole. Elements of the intellectual pole can be seen in the work of Paul Klee, for examples, in his use of geometric shapes, lines, triangles, squares, and circles, and his precise use of color.
The other extreme resolves itself into a pictorial organism made up of interrelated biomorphic forms or calligraphic interlacings. Colors are not necessarily of spectrum purity and are used for emotional effect. This might be called the romantic or expressionist pole. Elements of this pole are also visible in Klee's work in his use of organic shapes -- plants, animals, children and adults -- and symbols of many types.
Between these extremes there are degrees of abstraction which have a greater or lesser relation to the representation of natural forms. As a general rule, the human or animal figure plays an exceedingly small role in any kind of 20th century abstract art. Where reference exists to objects, in between extremes of abstraction, it is more often to inanimate forms, mechanical or architectural. Klee abounded in references to natural forms often characterized by their humorous qualities.
Stated in another way, one may say that both tended to present a life of their own, undiluted by any reference to exterior prototypes.
Why have contemporary artists been led to this approach to art? Why do many artists feel that abstract art is the only viable art of our time? The reasons for the development of abstract art are many; here are some of them.
A common factor running through abstract art is protest. Protect against the established order of traditional perspective, naturalistic space and color, conventional subject matter.
All modern, advance guard art movements have been protests, of course, but abstract art is the most protestant of all. And while abstract art is an art of protest, it is not, like other rebel movements, a mere protest against an immediately preceding style.
It is a culmination of many revolutions dating back to the 17th century. And it contains within itself the residue of many of the points of protest in these past revolutions.
Many excellent studies of Klee's art have been published by Will Grohmann, Carola Gledion-Welcker, Werner Haftmann, among others, who are not only specialists, but great admirers of his. Many of Klee's personal writings have also been published among which are his theory of form and his theory of color.
When are commentaries about an artist's work no longer necessary? Admirers of Klee will probably agree that fresh insight into his art will always be welcome to hep decipher its secrets.
Klee himself has given us the key to understanding him. In the course of a lecture On Modern Art, which was given at the Jena in 1924 and published in 1945 in Bale, Klee formulated a famous metaphor which still seems the most illuminating comment on the nature of his art -- the metaphor or simile of the tree.
"The artist has studied this world of variety and has, unobtrusively found his way in it. His sense of direction has brought order into the passing stream of image and experience. This sense of direction in nature and life, this branching and spreading array, I shall compare with the root of a tree.
"From the root the sap flows to the artist, flows through him, flows to his eye. Thus he stands as the trunk of the tree. Battered and stirred by the strength of the flow, he moulds his vision into his work. As, in full view of the world, the crown of the tree unfolds and spreads in time and space, so with his work. Nobody would affirm that the tree grows its crown in the image of its root . . .
"Different functions expanding in different elements must produce vivid divergences . . . The artist standing at his appointed place, the trunk of the tree, does nothing other than gather and pass on what comes to him from the depths. He neither serves nor rules -- he transmits".
According to Klee, the realm of the roots which corresponds to reality is naturally dominated by formal laws other than those pervading the realm of the foliage which corresponds to art. These two realms of roots and leaves, reality and art, are also those of unconsciousness and consciousness.
The conscious effort of the artist gives shape to works of art. Works of art are governed by artistic talent and the mastery of the tools and media at one's disposal.
For the painter, this means the line with all its possibilities: length, thickness, direction, change of direction; variations between black and white on the gray scale; color with all its possibilities of chromatic cycles: the three primary colors, blue, yellow, red and the three composite colors, orange, violet, green; the combination of gray scale with color; the mixture of the six colors from the chromatic cycle to obtain gray and brown, and the mixture of black with all colors; even the nature and composition of the surface on which the medium is applied and the brush stroke.
It is in the use of these formal means that, according to Klee, "resides the center of gravity of our conscious creation, where our professional activity reaches its densest quality".
"From then on, the mastery of one's talent and tools enables one to confer onto things, by form, a dimension which transcends conscious relations".
This dimension "which transcends conscious relations" is, for Klee, the area of invisible roots, of all his 'reserves" of experienced reality.
It takes only a few steps into Klee's world to realize that as far as wealth of experience is concerned, exterior and visible as well as interior and invisible, no other painter of this century has equaled him.
The question which naturally arises here is: what phenomenon transforms the invisible sap of the roots into visible leaves and flowers? How do memories of experiences accumulated in the unconscious pass into the consciousness as it develops an image, an optical creation destined to be read optically?
There again Klee supplies us with the most precise answer one could wish for: by the process of formal association.
Just as a musician develops a theme from his musical materials -- sounds and combinations of rhythms, melodies and harmonies -- so a painter also develops a theme from the infinite resources of optical material available to him -- lines, gray-scale, and color. Both of them concentrate exclusively on thematic development.
"As a theme develops right in front of our eyes, an association might suddenly spring to mind tempting us to take the route of the figurative. For there is no higher formal structure which the imagination is incapable of comparing to some familiar natural formation.
"The painter, with the help of a few good elements, has perhaps just begun a pure construction; he will be pleased to shake it insomuch as every organism consists of contradictions, demands contrasts.
"Sooner or later an association will arise in his mind which he will no loner have to refuse, if it is really justified. This consent to the object incites the artist to such and such an association inseparably related to the reality which he envisions. With a bit of luck, certain attributes will adapt themselves to an, as yet, formally unfinished place as if this had always been their place.
"Thus are born forms which are called abstract constructions and which, according to concrete associations, will be called star, vase, plant, animal, head or figure.
"The product of this development, whether we call it a dream, an idea or a fantasy, should only be taken seriously if, through adequate tools, it integrates itself perfectly into the construction."
So Klee begins each painting or drawing with a formal theme. As he goes along, figurative associations can inadvertently spring from the unconscious and from memories, and once on the level of consciousness co-determine in turn the further evolution of the theme.
Conscious formal construction gives way to figurative associations, unconscious to begin with; this alternating game further blends more and more tightly the formal theme and the figurative theme, culminating with the sap of the roots becoming visible flowers through the "baptism" of a finished painting.
The real key to understanding Klee's work is to experience it in the process of growth and formation, to follow its development, not by beginning with the title and working backwards, but by progressing toward the title.
Klee exerted influence on many great artists of this century. The Surrealists recognized Klee's affinity with them; Andre Breton had mentioned him in the 1924 Manifesto and he was invited to participate in the first collective Surrealist exhibition held in 1925 at the Gallerie Pierre; for a long time they were his lone champions (except for the dealer D.H. Kahnweiler) in France.
The presence of Klee in the 1925 exhibition was a recognition not only of his entirely independent contribution to fantasy art but more particularly, of the importance of automatic drawing in the formation of his images. Klee's automatism developed entirely apart from the influence of Dada or Surrealism (and together with the latter was important in the genesis of the spontaneous art which was to emerge on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1940s).
Though surreal automatism did not derive from Klee, there were moments in the unfolding of Miro's, and to a lesser extent, Masson's and Ernst's, art that were directly touched by the magic of Klee's inventions (his direct influence would prove greater on the first post-Surrealist generations: Wols and Dubuffet in France and the early work of the new American painters).
In reference to the technical and imaginative innovations of Klee, it could be said that he engaged himself in devising strategies for the artistic imagination. These strategies remain tools whose major goal is the creation of art objects.
Klee was generally loved both as an artist and as a human being. Curt Valentin, one of the most prestigious art dealers of the century was one such friend and admirer. Upon hearing of Klee's death, Valentin wrote, "One of my greatest ambitions as a dealer is to go on doing something really serious and important for Klee."
In A Tribute to Curt Valentin, Will Grohmann affirms that "Klee was perhaps the greatest genius in art that our century has produced."
Whether or not Klee is the greatest artistic genius of the 20th century remains to be decided by future generations. However, we can be certain that he was one of the greatest.