Friday, December 18, 2009

Colour possesses me

It’s the anniversary of Paul Klee’s birth today. What a painter, and not a bad diarist either! ‘The main thing now is not to paint precociously but to be, or at least become, an individual,’ he wrote in his diary aged 21; but, by his early 30s, he was telling himself: ‘Colour possesses me. It will always possess me. That is the meaning of this happy hour: colour and I are one. I am a painter.’

Klee was born in Munchenbuchsee into a family of musicians on 18 December 1879, 130 years ago today. He studied art at the Munich Academy of Fine Art and then travelled to Italy several times before settling in Bern in 1902. In the year 1906, he married Lily Stumpf, and they moved to Munich where, the following year, they had one child, Felix.

Klee’s first solo exhibition, in Bern, came in 1910. Soon after, he met Wassily Kandinsky, who opened his eyes to colour, and other avant garde artists, though it is suggested that colour only became central to Klee’s art after a trip he took to Tunisia in 1914 with August Macke and Louis Moilliet. Further exhibitions followed, even through the war, though in 1916 he was called to serve in the army. Being employed as a clerk and in painting aeroplanes, he saw no front line action.

Subsequently, Klee taught at the Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau. In the mid-1920s, he published his now famous Pedagogical Sketchbook, which then was essentially a teaching tool for his Bauhaus students. Among his notable exhibitions of this period were those in New York, at the Société Anonyme and the Museum of Modern Art, and a first major show in Paris at the Galerie Vavin-Raspail. With the emergence of the Nazis, Klee returned to Switzerland, but developed scleroderma, a debilitating disease, in 1935; and he died in 1940. A large number of his paintings left behind in Germany were confiscated by Hitler’s regime. A lot more biographical information about Klee can be found at Wikipedia or Zentrum Paul Klee, in Bern, or Moma.

Klee began keeping a diary while still a teenager in 1897, and he seems to have continued doing so until the end of the First World War. But it was not until the 1960s that his journals were edited by Felix Klee and published by University of California Press as The Diaries of Paul Klee, 1898-1918. For several links to extracts from the book see The Diary Junction. Here, though, are a few short extracts.

1901
‘My mirror probes down to the heart. I write words on the forehead and around the corners of the mouth. My human faces are truer than the real ones.’

3 June 1902
‘The main thing now is not to paint precociously but to be, or at least become, an individual. The art of mastering life is the prerequisite for all further forms of expression, whether they are paintings, sculptures, tragedies, or musical compositions.’

March 1906
‘To emphasize only the beautiful seems to me to be like a mathematical system that only concerns itself with positive numbers.’

16 April 1914 (in Tunisia)
‘Colour possesses me. It will always possess me. That is the meaning of this happy hour: colour and I are one. I am a painter.’

6 March 1916
‘Singing instructions are no longer given by the clear-voiced sergeant, but by Corporal Bruckner. A neat man with a slight squint that doesn’t look bad. First we all read the text together, then he sings the first stanza, fearfully off-key, so that our ears cringe. Then we sing it. Today we learned a horrible piece of trash called Flag Song. I am living with apes. I realize this seeing them take this unadulterated rubbish with such seriousness.’

6 December 1916
‘A battalion from the Somme marches up with music, an overwhelming sight. Everything yellow with mud. The unmilitary, matter-of-fact appearance, the steel helmets, the equipment. The trotting step. Nothing heroic, just like beasts of burden, like slaves. Against a background of circus music.’

21 February, 1918
‘This week we had three fatal casualties; one man was smashed by the propeller, the other two crashed from the air! Yesterday, a fourth came ploughing with a loud bang into the roof of the workshop. Had been flying too low, caught on a telephone pole, bounced on the roof of the factory, turned a somersault, and collapsed upside down in a heap of wreckage.’

January/February 1918
‘Everything vanishes around me, and works are born as if out of the void. Ripe, graphic fruits fall off. My hand has become the obedient instrument of a remote will.’

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