Wednesday, December 18, 2019

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, 140 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 the Paul Klee website.

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. Some pages can be previewed at Googlebooks. Moreover, nearly 4,000 pages from Klee’s notebooks are available to view online at Zentrum Paul Klee (although they are all in German). Here, though, are several extracts in English from the published diaries.

‘Thoughts about the art of portraiture. Some will not recognize the truthfulness of my mirror. Let them remember that I am not here to reflect the surface (this can be done by the photographic plate), but must penetrate inside. 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

’My Italian trip now lies a month behind me. A strict review of my situation as a creative artist doesn’t yield very encouraging results; I don’t know why, but I continue nonetheless to be hopeful.

Perhaps from the realization that at the root of my devastating self-criticism there is, after all, some spiritual development.

Actually, the main thing now is not to paint precociously but to be or, at least, to 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. Not only to master life in practice, but to shape it meaningfully within me and to achieve as mature an attitude before it as possible. Obviously this isn’t accomplished with a few general precepts but grows like Nature. Besides, I wouldn’t know how to find any such precepts. A Weltanschauung will come of itself; the will alone doesn’t determine which direction will yield the clearest path: this is partly settled in the maternal womb and is ordained by fate.

As a beginner in this profession I shall not be able to please people; they will ask things of me that any clever young person with talent might easily come up with. My consolation is that the sincerity of my intention will always be more of a check to me than my lack of skill. Starting from an awareness of the prevalence of law, to broaden out until the horizon of thought once again becomes organized, and complexities, automatically falling into order, become simple again.’

March 1906

‘A nice anecdote still survives about the days when Mailer was a high-school student. To punish a teacher, it was decided that somebody had to shit on the handle of his door “before sunrise.” Two strong twelfth-graders raised Mimu to the proper height. But then Thiessing suggested that it would be more practical to produce the coating in a more comfortable position and then somehow to transplant it to the ordained place. But Haller rejected this procedure as too commonplace. He had no pity for the twelfth- graders: the sacredness of the act was to inspire them with the necessary strength.
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)

‘In the morning, painted outside the city; a gently diffused light falls, at once mild and clear. No fog. Then sketched in town. A stupid guide provided a comic element. August taught him German words, but what words. In the afternoon, he took us to the mosque. The sun darted through, and how! We rode a while on the donkey.

In the evening, through the streets. A cafe decorated with pictures. Beautiful watercolors. We ransacked the place buying. A street scene around a mouse. Finally someone killed it with a shoe. We landed at a sidewalk cafe. An evening of colors as tender as they were clear. Virtuosos at checkers. Happy hour. Louis found exquisite color tidbits and I was to catch them, since I am so skillful at it.

I now abandon work. It penetrates so deeply and so gently into me, I feel it and it gives me confidence in myself without effort. Color possesses me. I don’t have to pursue it. It will possess me always, I know it. That is the meaning of this happy hour: Color 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

‘In the morning, arrived at Cambrai-Annex. Pasted on new stickers to Cantimpré, Cambrai’s other auxiliary station. Apparently our destination. We again have more time than we need and stroll off to town, a pitifully miserable, hungry village. Pleasant market. Plenty of endives. Lunch at the canteen in the station annex. Then back to the city, into a pastry shop with cakes and fruit. 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. The drummer outdoes himself. The worn faces convey only a distorted reflection, if any, of the joy of being replaced and sent off to rest.

Had a look at the airplanes below. Waited for a long time and then at last moved on to a little station. Again waited and waited in the waiting room of the main station, among a group of Saxons (brr!). And finally, moved on to another station, to Cantimpré. Here, out in the street at 3 a.m.’

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

‘In the State Gallery, a first glance at things that were already there in the year 1906. My pleasure verges on irony. Owing to the absence of the paymaster, whose wife is critically ill, I am the uncontested master of the office every evening, which allows me to work there at my ease. 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. I must have friends there, bright ones, and also dark ones. But I find them all very “generous.” ’

This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 18 December 2009.

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