“Art,” Paul Klee (1879-1940) once observed, “does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.” It’s a fair description of Klee’s rich and diverse body of artworks produced during his forty year career. Just looking at his phenomenal output of some 10,000 artworks tells a fairly accurate history of Modern Art, as Klee adopted, studied then discarded the ideas and forms of the twentieth century’s major artistic movements—Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Abstraction and the Bauhaus school.
Klee became a great artist, and was also a poet, writer, composer and musician, but he could have been just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill traditional painter had he not had a startling epiphany in his early twenties, circa 1900. He was studying painting under artist Franz von Stuck in Germany. Klee excelled at drawing but was deeply frustrated and dissatisfied by his lack of aptitude as a painter. He felt unable to express himself, to move beyond mere reproduction. One day, he was browsing through his old belongings in the attic when he chanced upon paintings he had made as a child. There in front of him was what he was desperately trying to achieve—immediacy, vibrancy, and color.
Klee later wrote:
Children also have artistic ability, and there is wisdom in there having it! The more helpless they are, the more instructive are the examples they furnish us; and they must be preserved free of corruption from an early age.
It changed his approach to painting and so began the career of one of the twentieth century’s most influential artists.
Everyone’s seen a Klee painting—they’re forever appearing on greeting cards or postcards or posters. His work is ubiquitous because he kept developing and changing as an artist while maintaining a very personal vision. When collected together in a gallery, the variety and power of each of his paintings demands close attention “like reading a book or a musical score.”
‘Park near Lu’ (1938).
During his life, Klee wrote down his theories and ideas about art in various notebooks. In particular two volumes of lectures he gave at the Bauhaus gymnasiums during the 1920s—The Thinking Eye and The Nature of Nature—are “considered so important for understanding Modern Art that they are compared to the importance that Leonardo’s A Treatise on Painting had for the Renaissance.”
Pages from the ‘The Thinking Eye.’
If that wasn’t grand enough of blurb for a book jacket, the renowned art critic, anarchist and thinker Herbert Read (1893-1968) declared Klee’s notebooks as:
...the most complete presentation of the principles of design ever made by a modern artist – it constitutes the Principia Aesthetica of a new era of art, in which Klee occupies a position comparable to Newton’s in the realm of physics.
The reason these notebooks are so valuable is perhaps best described by Klee himself who claimed when he came to be a teacher he had “to account explicitly for what I had been used to doing unconsciously.” Published posthumously in 1956, these two volumes have been uploaded by Monoskop and made available as downloadable PDFs. Volume One: The Thinking Eye and Volume Two: The Nature of Nature.
Klee wrote some 3,900 pages of notebooks during his life. These have been uploaded by Zentrum Paul Klee are available to view in their entirety here—though a knowledge of German will certainly be advantageous.
Below: Paul Klee—The Silence of the Angel a visual journey through the work of the great twentieth century artist.