Paul Klee and the Art of the Fragment

By: Robert Brown
"All art is a memory of age-old things... whose fragments live on in the artist"
Paul Klee, quoted in Will Grohman, Paul Klee, London, 1954, p. 381

The “creation of a work of art” Paul Klee said, “must… be accompanied by [a] distortion of the natural form. For, [only] therein is nature reborn” (Paul Klee, One Modern Art, London, 1954, p. 19). Art, “does not repeat the visible,” Klee famously insisted, but instead it “makes visible” a deeper, hidden reality known, unconsciously perhaps, only to the heart and soul of man. This “deeper” reality is a mysterious and primordial realm, often rendered by Klee as a magical landscape full of ambiguous symbols, pictorial metaphors and archetypes reminiscent in some respects of the domain of the “collective unconscious” imagined and championed by his contemporary, and fellow Swiss-German, the psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung. Both Klee and Jung, (who was himself an artist), saw the process of creation as a psychological journey. For Klee, who often described drawing as “taking a line for a walk,” the creation of a work of art was the result of a meditative and near-mystical practice in which “our beating heart pushes down, down to the primitive depths [until] what is produced by this movement called a dream, or idea, or fantasy [where] certain curious things become a reality, the reality of art, which widens life more than seems possible…[by ignoring] ...what we see more or less with our senses, but [making] visible the things we watch in secret” (Paul Klee, from a lecture given in Jena in 1924, cited in Hans Jaffe, Paul Klee, London, 1971, p. 28). Ultimately, the “ur-reality” that such a process revealed was one that, in the hands of an artist of Klee’s extraordinarily fecund imagination and genius, had the ability to resonate with such power that it instilled in the viewer a profoundly poetic and often deeply moving sense of universal truth and ancient wisdom.

August Macke and Paul Klee in front of a mosque in Tunisia, 1914. Collection of Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern. Photo Credit: HIP / Art Resource, NY

“I am, after all, a poet” Klee once noted in this regard and, as many of his works in The David M. Solinger Collection demonstrate, the unique pictorial vocabulary that this most literary of artists devised was one that often actively attempted to fuse the worlds of the visible and the legible into a revelatory new pictographic language. Executed either between 1918 and 1919 or between 1929 and 1931, the five outstanding works from David Solinger’s collection are ones that effectively bracket the twelve years that Klee spent teaching at the Bauhaus. Klee’s Bauhaus years (1920-31) were ones in which his art often reacted to and occasionally ironized the increasingly Constructivist principles advocated by the school. In contrast, the five very diverse paintings in this sale are each prominent examples from some of the most lyrically inventive and more poetic periods in the artist’s career, made during periods when Klee was freer to pursue what he once described as his own “poetic-personal idea of landscape.”

Each work, executed in a range of differing styles and media over an always carefully prepared ground, is a testament to the extraordinary versatility of the artist and to the depth of variation that runs throughout his oeuvre. Klee was an artist who could apply his vision to almost any pictorial style and his art is virtually unique in the history of early Twentieth Century modernism in that he is probably the only leading avant-garde figure to have allowed his work to roam freely between the organic and the geometric, the constructive and the intuitive, the figurative and the abstract and, as in a work such as Reste eiener Burg for example, between the purely linear and the completely chromatic. It is also for this reason that Klee’s work was to prove such a major influence upon a whole range of different and often diametrically opposed art movements, back in a time when art had movements. Expressionists, Dadaists, Constructivists, pioneers of abstraction, Surrealists and the emerging Abstract Expressionists of the New York School all either claimed Klee as one of their own or acknowledged the importance of his example.

Wassily Kandinsky, Landscape, 1913. Image: State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg/ Bridgeman Images

Outside of the faculty of the Bauhaus, Klee tended to avoid belonging to any group aesthetic or movement. Yet, alongside his friends Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky, Klee had been a member of der Blaue Reiter in Munich before the war. Among the first from outside this elite circle of pioneers to claim him as a master were the Zurich Dadaists. “In his beautiful work,” one of them wrote, “we saw the reflection of all our efforts to interpret the soul of primitive man, to plunge into the unconscious and the instinctive power of creation” (Marcel Janco “Creative Dada” in Willy Verkauf, ed., Dada: Monograph of a Movement, New York, 1957, p. 40). Other Dadaists, such as Max Ernst and André Masson, who were soon afterwards to associate themselves with the Surrealist movement, learned to develop from Klee’s example a more spontaneous form of automatism that would go on to underpin much Surrealist art, but to which Klee himself never subscribed. Most significantly perhaps, the innately poetic, broken-form, sign-language art of fragmentation that Klee developed between 1916 and 1920 proved a decisive influence upon the direction that Joan Miró’s work would take throughout the 1920s.

The Bauhaus at Dessau, designed by architect Walter Gropius in 1926, pictured in 1930. Photo © Getty Images.

Klee’s own artistic epiphany had come about in the years just before the First World War on his first encounter with the colorful prismatic cubism of Robert Delaunay and this was augmented soon afterwards by a trip he took to Tunisia with his friend August Macke. These decisive encounters ultimately led to Klee discovering his own cubist-influenced form of fragmentation—one in which he effectively began to dismantle the cohesive pictorial language of the German Romantic tradition and then whimsically reassemble it into new, illogical, anti-rational but surprisingly evocative, constellations of poetic form.

In an age in which philosophical figures like Ferdinand Saussure and Ludwig Wittgenstein were beginning to dismantle language in their own search for meaning, Klee too, was, in his own way, breaking down the structures of pictorial language into its constituent parts and then throwing their syntax into the air in order to create a spectacular, new and mysterious visual repertoire of signs, cyphers and symbols. All this was done on Klee’s part in the hope of reinvoking the more primal relationship that had once existed between word and image. He had been inspired in this attempt at establishing a primordial unity between writing and drawing by the example of the Chinese pictograms he had discovered in Hans Heilmann’s 1905 anthology of Chinese poetry and also, in a more lyrical form, by the writings of the German poet Christian Morgenstern whose Galgenlieder for example, may well have inspired Klee’s great 1919 oil in this collection Landschaft mit Galgen.

Paul Klee, Salon Tunisien [Verkehr Auf Dem Boulevart Tunis], 1918. Sold Sotheby’s London, 21 June 2017, Lot 48. Art © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

It was “out of” the pictorial fusing of such “abstract” constituent parts and “elements,” Klee wrote in his Creative Credo of 1920, that “a formal cosmos is ultimately created independent of their groupings as concrete objects or abstract things such as numbers or letters [and]which we discover to be so closely similar to the Creation that a breath is sufficient to turn an expression of religious feelings, or religion, into reality” (Paul Klee, Creative Credo, 1920). The three paintings from 1918 and 1919 in the Solinger Collection are all differently arrived-at executions of this same principle in which words and images, signs and symbols are whimsically intertwined with one another to create a sequence of holistic mental landscapes in which poetic images and forms fuse into one another in a manner that appears to visually echo and articulate the random process of thought.

In Ruinen mit Styliten for example, with its rather comic group of pillar-saints proudly holding their crucifixes and standing, like acrobats, atop an undulating sequence of columns, this desert landscape is punctuated by a sequence of rising and falling forms and a seemingly random series of numbers and letters that float through and between them. Here, the watery, rising forms of the saints’ ionic columns appear to echo those of desert palms or sprouting founts of water and even the body of a giant naked woman who also appears, for no apparent reason, at the right-hand side of the painting. With the jumble of large printer’s-block-type black letters visibly disrupting the rhythm and lyricism of this flow of loosely similar forms, a disjunctive sense of rational thought—of words, numbering systems and even sound, (in the form of language) is introduced into the picture. Such honoring of the reasoning power of letters, numbers and perhaps also the printed word, is also elevated into what can only be thought of as a humorous extreme of “cool Romanticism” in Klee’s other 1918 painting from this collection; the equally enigmatic Gedenkenstein für N. In this red watercolor executed on a chalk ground bordered with strips of silver paper tape, Klee literally unveils a Caspar David Friedrich-like scene of twilight centred around a memorial stele dedicated to the mysterious letter “N”.

Caspar David Friedrich, The Abbey in the Oakwood, 1809-10. Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

As Cathrin Klingsöhr-Leroy has written of such pictures, in these “fairy-tale paintings, Klee referenced, or perhaps satirized, the Romantic envisaging of the landscape as a ‘devotional image’ in which nature is felt as a mysterious presence, wrought with wonder and magic” (Cathrin Klingsöhr-Leroy, “Paul Klee, Paths in the Image: Constructions of Time” Paul Klee: Construction of Mystery, Munich, 2018, p. 89). Nowhere is this aspect of Klee’s art more apparent than in his spectacular Landschaft mit Galgen of 1919—a work that, in recent years has become one of the most “written-about” of all Klee’s early paintings.[1] This landscape, comprised of fragments of words and imagery seen wandering through and then becoming a part of the scenery it punctuates, is itself a kind of fragment, having been executed on a partial strip of canvas that Klee had evidently managed to salvage from somewhere during the austere years at the end of the First World War. Sometimes these strips had been torn from the wings of crashed airplanes in the Gersthofen airfield where Klee had been stationed between 1917 and 1918.

In such paintings as this, with its central, L-shaped sign standing in for “gallows” of its title, Klee has, as Michel Foucault has pointed out, effectively uncovered a new pictorial dimension. Through Klee’s fusion of writing and pictorial language, the “established ‘sovereignty’ of an established hierarchy in art” has, Foucault argued, been “abolished.” When “boats, houses, persons are at the same time recognizable figures and elements of writing... [and] are placed and travel upon roads or canals that are also lines to be read …the intersection, within the same medium, or representation by resemblance and of representation by signs…presupposes that they meet in quite another space than that of a painting” (Michel Foucault, This is not a Pipe, Berkeley, 2008, p. 33).

Paul Klee, Hauptweg und Nebenwege, 1929. Museum Ludwig, Cologne. Image: Rheinisches Bildarchiv Cologne / Sabrina Walz / Art Resource, NY. Art © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Klee’s poetically transformative use of such fragmentation and the fragmented image during this period was to continue to develop throughout his years at the Bauhaus. From the creation of fantastical abstract architectures to a series of “magic-square” paintings, line and form roamed ever-more freely. Signs, symbols and ciphers, for example, were increasingly abstracted and interspersed with geometric forms such as circles and triangles that emulated the “romantic” presence of moons, stars and arrows indicative of movement or direction in a “poetic-pictorial” dimension in which all the building blocks of image-making were given their own autonomy.

In 1929, towards the end of his time at the Bauhaus and after a Christmas journey to Cairo and Upper Egypt, Klee embarked upon the creation of a new series of works executed in another style thought to have been inspired by aerial views he witnessed of the irrigated fields of the Nile delta. In these works, of which Die Farbige of 1929 is a shining example, a sequence of horizontal compartments of color generate the spatial field of the picture while a series of simple borderlines disrupt its patterning in such a way that they outline the vision-like image of a woman emerging from its color. This style, which would culminate in Klee’s large-scale oil painting Hauptweg und Nebenwege of 1929, played an intricate game with the relationship between line and form that Klee was soon afterwards to break down even further into what he described as “polyphonic” fields of color in a series of mosaic-like pictures that he made immediately after leaving the Bauhaus.

A selection of catalogues and books about Paul Klee from David M. Solinger’s collection. Photo: Visko Hatfield

In 1931, Klee took up a professorial position at the Dusseldorf Academy. He spent much of this year living between his family, still residing in Dessau, and at the Academy in Dusseldorf, working on a different series of paintings in each city. In Dessau, according to his son Felix, Klee’s work maintained a “more severe constructive style,” while in Dusseldorf he embarked upon a more lyrical and playful, but also extremely time-consuming, series of new, “Pointillist” pictures of which Reste Einer Berg is a classic example.

These “Pointillist” pictures, which Klee sometimes referred to as “Divisionist” works in order to distinguish them from the Neo-Impressionist “pointillism” of Seurat, are ones that to some extent mark the furthest point to which Klee’s fragmentary aesthetic would travel. A picture such as Reste Einer Berg, for example encompasses and articulates many of the recurrent themes in Klee’s work from the time of the First World War onwards. Now making use of an almost digitalized, near-binary technique, the picture is a lyrical composite of isolated fragments of broken line and individual dots that together combine into a shimmering, fairy-tale-like image of the ruins of a castle set into a radiant and pulsating landscape that is alive with color. Both magical and yet also somewhat banal, this “crop of dots,” as Klee sometimes referred to such works, is an eloquent testament to the creative power of the artist to breathe life into even the simplest of forms and motifs. With its imagery of ruins coming to life it is also a magnificent articulation of Klee’s belief that all art is a memory of age-old things, dark things, whose fragments live on in the artist.”

[1] A lengthy discussion of this painting opens Annie Bourneuf’s Paul Klee: The Visible and the Legible, Chicago, 2015, pp. 1-6 and Kathryn Porter Aichele has also written extensively about the picture, drawing a close parallel between it and Christian Morgenstern’s poem Der Mond from his Galgenlieder. (Gallows Songs)

See:Kathryn Porter Aichele Paul Klee Painter/Poet Rochester N.Y., 2006, pp. 96-100

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