Abstract Critical

The Social Art of Paul Klee

Written by Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann

Paul Klee, Fire at Full Moon, 1933, Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany

Paul Klee, Fire at Full Moon, 1933, Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany

In his Theses on the Philosophy of History Walter Benjamin famously rounded upon Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus as the angel of history – eyes fixed on the ever accumulating wreckage of the past, wings caught open, as he is propelled backwards by the unrelenting winds of progress. Possessed by a messianic desire to halt and intervene in the action, he is instead swept into the unseen future.[1] It is a passage that touches on the fecundity of Paul Klee’s graphic work as a catalyst to imaginative response, even as the strength of the prose delimits the angel’s flight – chaining it to the author’s wider meditations on historical materialism. The dangers of cooption notwithstanding, the angel’s presence in a text which rallies forcefully against historicism points towards the shortcomings of the Tate’s recently closed retrospective. Not only was Benjamin’s angel missing (along with the rest of Klee’s post-war host), but following on from the Tate Britain re-hang – and once more under the banners of high corporate sponsorship – the exhibition veered uncomfortably close to uncritical historicism. With the only declared organizational principle derived from Klee’s sequential numbering system, the works unfolded in a relentless firing line, with little to no cohesive attempt at communicating the proposals of the selection or the wider historical situation.

Whilst on the surface such returns to chronology may seem to be an accession to those of us who lamented the arbitrary nature of the Tate’s thematic groupings (and in reality are perhaps little more than convenient structures to mask the complex wrangling of loans and rotations), the rigid chronologies irk for familiar reasons. Forgoing historical interpretation for the mustering of ‘a mass of data to fill the homogenous empty time’,[2] we are left without a comprehensive, or even stated, theory of history. Nowhere do we sense the seizing of historical structure as a ‘chance in the fight for an oppressed past’,[3] no judgment is made as to Klee’s relevance to the present moment (beyond vaunting his status), no historically underplayed parts of his career are overtly highlighted and no criteria of selection are put forward. Instead, hollow paeans to Klee’s unbounded creativity, obscure reference to his ‘sophisticated approach to composition’ and token timelines multiply across the walls like the anaesthetized sales tools of investment consultants. Throughout Klee is presented as an eternal but ill-defined genius.

Paul Klee, Steps, 1929, oil and ink on canvas, 520 x 430 mm. Moderna Museet (Stockholm, Sweden)

Paul Klee, Steps, 1929, oil and ink on canvas, 520 x 430 mm. Moderna Museet (Stockholm, Sweden)

Leaving aside the perhaps inevitable contradictions inherent in a logo emblazoned, blockbuster retrospective in the early 21st century, the exhibition presented further tensions. If the sheer volume and inventiveness of Klee’s output would seem to recommend him as a giant of modernism, on a par with Picasso, his work sits much more awkwardly within both our historical reconstructions and, more pointedly, the cavernous post-industrial halls of Tate Modern. To extend the (perhaps unfortunate) comparison, following Clement Greenberg, ‘Picasso’s works move about in the world; they take place among other events and objects. Klee’s live in a more fictive medium and require of the spectator a greater dislocation’. [4] Relating this (somewhat vaguely) to both manuscript painting and the Dutch-German bourgeois tradition – as opposed to Renaissance wall-painting, as continued in Picasso (presumably via the French Salon) – Greenberg touched on how the aura filled halls of Tate Modern consistently undermined the sort of concentration demanded by Klee’s work. Compounded by the vast quantity of work assembled and the lack of any attempt to situate it within a firm historical context, the absorption and speculative involvement required by each work made the experience of the exhibition an exhausting one – and one which inadvertently made clear the divergence of Klee’s practice from contemporary modes of display. Klee’s are fundamentally domestic objects – they cry out to be possessed, engaged with intimately and over extended time, and are, as such, more than usually unsuited to the endless stream of public procession in which status is today conferred.

Paul Klee, Static-Dynamic Intensification, 1923, watercolour and transferred printing ink on laid paper with gray and green gouache and black ink mounted on light cardboard, 381 x 261 mm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Paul Klee, Static-Dynamic Intensification, 1923, watercolour and transferred printing ink on laid paper with gray and green gouache and black ink mounted on light cardboard, 381 x 261 mm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The awkwardness with which Klee occupied the large public halls of Tate Modern, provided a reminder of the long-running debate surrounding the perceived ‘privateness’ of the work. Greenberg located the matter in the receptive modes outlined above, and the contrast between absorbing ‘easel painting’ (of which he saw Klee to be one of the last great defenders) and projecting ‘mural painting’ (soon to be allied with the Abstract Expressionist mode). But, in the standout essay of the exhibition catalogue, Annie Bourneuf shows that contemporary German criticism situated the privacy of Klee’s painting at a more explicitly social level.[5] As Wilhelm Hausenstein wrote in a 1919 survey of Expressionism, the ‘subjectivity of Klee’s art is so elusive that it threatens to end the inalienable concept of artistic publicness’. It was a threat with which many felt uncomfortable, (from Dadaists to conservative Munich critics) and which left Hausenstein ‘neither able nor willing to give a generally valid norm of judgment; his drawing is so subjective and so full of fundamentally problematic features that it is impossible to measure it against objective and general criteria of art’.[6]

Whilst this perceived subjectivity was most often used by contemporary critics as the basis of reproach, by 1921 Hausenstein had inverted the terms of debate, highlighting it instead as one of the central pillars of defence in his monograph on the artist. A socialist art critic and later politician, Hausenstein began his writing career as one of the few leftist supporters of Expressionism, maintaining that these ‘best sons of the bourgeoisie’ were forging the path towards a new collectivity of spirit. However, in the wake of the First World War (a ‘travesty of collectivism’), and the 1919 assassination of Kurt Eisner, Hausenstein began to turn against Expressionism and view Klee’s intense subjectivity as in tune with the age – ‘truly, the subjective is not the highest. But it is in this suspicious moment the only thing … It is unthinkable that art, if it is to have the significance and beauty of logical consistency, could in this epoch appear otherwise than as Klee’s drawing, the limits of which lie in the span of the excess of his subjectivity’.[7]

Hausenstein’s characterisation of his epoch as one of disintegration, disorder and individualism is, Bourneuf suggests, derived from Saint-Simon’s division of history into ‘organic’ and ‘anarchic’ epochs – Klee’s art is seen to represent the shattered, individualist dissolution of the latter. This scheme combines Hegelian metaphysics with a widely voiced late 19th century lamentation of the decline in cohesive style as an attribute of a declining culture (‘Culture is above all a unity of artistic style and all manifestations of the life of a people’ – Nietzsche).[8] Nevertheless the approach contains the seeds of the more materialist critique set out in Meyer Schapiro’s 1937 essay Nature of Abstract Art.[9] In Schapiro’s text, however, the widespread withdrawal of art into subjective realms from Impressionism forward is not traced with regard to a periodic zeitgeist-impelled circular unravelling, but rather, to the historically conditioned shift in artists’ relation to the broader social moment under capitalism, resulting in an ‘extreme subjectivism’, and a turn away from nature. 

Schapiro’s essay touches upon some of the fundamentals of Klee’s art, without – it must be said – focussing upon him directly. Yet, the extremity of Klee’s subjectivism is contestable. If his withdrawal from a collective style, a frequent indeterminacy of ‘meaning’, a disregard of the norms of perspective, a separation and exploration of formal elements and indeed the artists own withdrawal to Bern from 1901-1908 must have presented a challenge to the contemporary notions of ‘artistic publicness’, it nonetheless deviates significantly from the model of withdrawal which Schapiro notes, for example, in Kandinsky. Klee did not posit his abstraction or formal development in opposition to the material world, or as an expression of some ‘inner necessity’, but instead, pursuing figurative and abstract modes throughout his career, seems to have reached a critical understanding of Schapiro’s later insight that it was ‘not that the processes of imitating nature were exhausted, but the valuation of nature itself had changed’.[10] Whilst this change is most commonly perceived as a devaluation, I think that Greenberg revealed the seeds of a more nuanced interpretation when he observed that, in Klee’s art, ‘it is not that nature is not imitated faithfully enough but that nature and the external world are assigned a different role than formerly’.[11] Though Greenberg went on to assert that the primary value of Klee’s art (be it abstract or figurative) lay in its abstract qualities, looking back from our current vantage point, I feel that this view jeopardizes our historical understanding of Klee’s position. 

In many ways the opening of the exhibition in 1913 offered a fast-track to the most revealing moments of Klee’s reorientation, between what in a diary entry of that year he defined as ‘Art – Nature – Self’.[12] Although it could also be observed that, as with other centennial embraces of 1913 as a kind of ‘year zero’,[13] this beginning denied access to the explorations on which the mature career was founded. Absent is the biomorphic flow of form and visual association in 1904’s Inventions series, as is the slow separation of line, tone and form across the work of the early 1910s. It is more regrettable, however, that the nominal attempt to pull out sequences of Klee’s art (in fact rather few and far between in the show) did not highlight the series which immediately preceded the exhibition’s breathtaking opener When God Considered the Creation of the Plants (1913). Looking through the second of the five-volume catalogue raisonné on the artist (a format in which the historicism of Klee’s sequential numbering system has an undoubted value), one notes that When God… emerges from a body of works in which the self-promoted mythology of the artist as God (a convenient and repeated trope for the hagiographic cultivation of genius in which the show partakes), may be less pronounced, but the extent of Klee’s broader interests are more clearly revealed. Working through the titles of the immediately preceding works tells its own story: Song of Lamentation, Before the Resurrection, Collapse, Berries, Sound of Fanfares, Helplessness of the Adversaries, Factory, New Construction, The Clock, Old Town, Piano Light on a Desk, The Stars Above Things.

If in When God Considered…  pen and ink washes, networks of hatching and arrayed pictographic foliage, all seem ready to form into a new constellation of the world, the series as a whole – made a year after Klee’s visit to Paris and at a time of deepening connection to the emergent pan-European avant-garde – reveals a widespread engagement with diverse aspects of the existent world. Merging the excitement (and terror) of new construction methods, with subjects whose range of reference stretches from the everyday to the celestial, the formal to the biblical, and the industrial to the bucolic, the series registers the extent to which Klee’s ‘path to abstraction’ was not made in unqualified isolation and retreat from the material realm (as for example, Kandinsky’s predominantly rural spiritualist fantasising could be seen), or even from a mystical recreation of the self as God (to which When God Considered… may lend credence). Rather, he developed a searching engagement with the world – in its social, material, mythological, expressive and private manifestations – alongside a radical approach to the formal elements of picture making. It is a fusion that seems worth rescuing from both formalist and Marxist accounts.

The breadth of Klee’s interests can, I believe, be related to TJ Clark’s recent reading of Picasso.[14] For Clark, the opening up of the compressed internal ‘roomspace’ of cubism in Picasso’s works of the 1920s  embodies or parallels a wider Nietzschean rejection of internalization: ‘the outside has really come to them, in from the window. It has touched these objects … They have become outsides. Outsides are all they are. Internalisation, to use Nietzsche’s great bad word, cannot lay a hand on them.’[15] For all the talk of Klee’s privateness, it seems notable that from the outset he too rejects the dual internalisations of ‘roomspace’ and ‘inner necessity’. Most explicitly in Opened Mountain of 1915, for example, the interior shafts of the mountain, or at least their abstracted tubular forms, are opened up to become outsides – whether the outside has come to them, or they to it, here they are, bursting out of the mountain and against the limits of perspective. (Klee returned to mineshaft imagery several times over these years.) Often less explicit in their rejection of internalisation Klee’s moves into abstraction are nonetheless characterised not so much by retreat, as by expansion – across the boundaries of subjective intuition and objective fact. Throughout the 1910s Klee’s art pursues formal exploration in contact with a wide range of external spaces – both real and imagined – from sunken cities to North African cityscapes.

Paul Klee, Redgreen and Violet-Yellow Rhythms, 1920. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1984 (1984.315.19) Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Source: Art Resource/Scala Photo Archives

Paul Klee, Redgreen and Violet-Yellow Rhythms, 1920. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1984 (1984.315.19) Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Source: Art Resource/Scala Photo Archives

Not all of Klee’s work, of course, partakes so apparently in the overthrow of ‘internalisation’. Running through the best works of the exhibition, however, there remains an expansive vision of what a painting could be or do; a balancing between subjective intuition and objective reality, between figuration and abstraction, between diverse modes of visual communication, between ‘self’ ‘nature’ and ‘art’. In Translucencies Orange-Blue, for example, (for me the highlight of the exhibition), we are held by spatial complexity and fluid indeterminacy, between the sensation of light, form and colour, wash and substance, even as the strange emergent geometries look ready to merge into signs or figures. Our attention is split between seeing the painting as a landscape, or as a composition originating in colour harmonies and the joyous flow of materials. Redgreen and Violet-Yellow Rhythm, 1920, once more takes us on a tour of architectonics with floating chasms of space opening from a network of interlocking geometries and recessive whites. Pictographic trees nestle lightheartedly in the cracks between subdued but effervescent colour harmonies. It is at once a distinctly urban, symbolically rural and shockingly abstract scene. In the aquarium studies of the 1920s the gravity of the picture plane is overthrown, a new mode of abstract and constructivist method announced, and once more a renewed consideration of the material world advanced. Exotic River Landscape, 1924, expands such gradated fields alongside the presentation of a water system which flows from sky, through the tributaries and estuaries of a mountain, past a school of fish towards to a remarkably funny flock of cartoonish birds, which stand on top of and merge with the ground, replete with quizzical expressions and stumbling chicks, all to the musical accompaniment of a maestro pianist. To such works could be added the psychological nuance of The Protector (1926), the sheer hilarity of They’re Biting (1920), the historical dimensions of Bewitched Petrified (1934) or the soft evening light and monolithic form of Fire in the Evening (1929). Such work is not a devaluation of nature, nor purely abstract in interest.

Paul Klee, Comedy, 1921, Watercolour and oil on paper  support: 305 x 454 mm  on paper, unique. Tate. Purchased 1946

Paul Klee, Comedy, 1921, Watercolour and oil on paper support: 305 x 454 mm on paper, unique. Tate. Purchased 1946

It is this freedom of a distinctly early 20th century range of reference that underwrites Klee’s best work. He merges musical harmony, poetic juxtaposition, humour, evolving structural concerns and free-flowing association, in a balance of what he might have termed classical and romantic modes. The fusion challenges both formalist and materialist histories, but will not be illuminated by uncritical paeans to creativity. Pursued outside of the boundaries of any particular avant-garde tendency (and Klee seems at his weakest when you feel such tendencies most directly encroaching – in his Harmony of the Northern Flora (1927), his feathered pointillism, constructivist parodies such as Jumper, 1930, or the slightly grotesque and overscaled surrealism of Still Life with Crucifers, 1925), there is undoubtedly a degree of privateness in Klee’s relation to the world, and in the way in which the works engage the viewer. In this they foreshadow a century in which cranky individualist theories of art took succour in the delightful combination of insight and vaguery of The Pedagogical Sketchbook. But his is, nonetheless, a social art, which belongs to its historic moment in more than just its individualism. Schapiro reminds us that in the ‘Renaissance the development of linear perspective was intimately tied to the exploration of the world and the renewal of physical and geographical science’. Similarly we may posit that in his renegotiation of communicative modes, his exploration of the world’s external structures alongside man’s fragmented psyche, his shifts in scale between the microcosmic and macrocosmic, and his broad range of historical reference Paul Klee’s art is intimately tied to the multiple progressions of human knowledge in the last century. Accepting the dangers of relying on Klee’s writing, his oft quoted pronouncement that ‘[t]he contrast between man’s ideological capacity to move at random through material and metaphysical spaces and his physical limitations is the origin of all human tragedy’, seems to rest enchantingly upon a central tension of not only his work but the century which bore it.

Paul Klee, Park near Lu, 1938. Zentrum Paul Klee

Paul Klee, Park near Lu, 1938. Zentrum Paul Klee

It is perhaps the fusion of startling eloquence and frequent obfuscation detectable in Klee’s extensive writing that has led to the common focus on his unbridled ‘creativity’, and individual genius. In assessing his legacy, however, it seems worth underlining that his particularity can be traced most concretely through a deep-reaching, cogent and thorough realignment of his art’s relation to the world. Beyond romantic self-expression, or classicist reduction, Klee’s achievement was a generous and searching consideration of his tools of production and the means by which they could register his relation to the world – in both its subjective metaphysics and material form. In this, his rigour, and critical awareness should be stressed above his role as a creative mystic. If Greenberg is right that Klee took his privateness rather for granted,[16] perhaps Klee’s work shows us that so too did Greenberg, and many others. For if his works are no doubt privately desirable bourgeois objects, which engage the viewer on an individual basis (Death of Marat, they are not) their relation to the viewer exceeds these limits – not by formal projection, or political reference – but rather by historical importance. Klee’s abstraction (as his figuration) presents a monument to the tensions of the age in which it was produced. It involves a complex valuing and distrust of history, a poetic expansion of art’s remit alongside a formalist research of production; the decline of tradition is shown alongside a broadening enrichment of reference.

The recent exhibition made discoverable (without stating) the rigour of Klee’s art, but left its position within the movement of art across the last century woefully unexplored. It is this combination of rigour and historical agency that may well have allowed Benjamin, the famous detractor of artistic aura and questioner of speculative immersion – to look up from his desk as he penned his essays, and feel at one with his absorbing, bourgeois, quasi-religious possession.[17]  Klee’s angel, like his other work, takes its place within the ‘socialisation of the means of production’,[18] expanding art into a new and historically conditioned dialectical embrace between the self and the world. It highlights the contradictory relation of the subjective and objective worlds, whilst rejecting ‘inner necessity’ and formal self-sufficiency. It is, therefore, for all its bourgeois privacy, a social and communicative art, whose historical importance far exceeds the cult of Klee.



[1] Walter Benjamin (1940), Theses on the Philosophy of History, in Illuminations, Fontana Press, 1992

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] Clement Greenberg (1941), Art Chronicle: On Paul Klee, in Clement Greenberg, The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 1, 1988, The University of Chicago Press, pp 65-73

[5] Annie Bourneuf, An Art of Privacy? Wilhelm Hausenstein on Paul Klee, in Paul Klee, Making Visible, Tate Publishing, 2013

[6] ibid

[7] ibid

[8] see Max Haxthausen, Paul Klee, Wilhelm Hausenstein, and the “Problem of Style

[9] Meyer Schapiro, 1937, Nature of Abstract Art, First published in Marxist Quarterly

[10] ibid

[11] Clement Greenberg (1941), pp 65-73

[12] Paul Klee, The Diaries of Paul Klee 1898 – 1918, Ed. Felix Klee, University of California Press, 1968, p. 287

[13] see for example MoMA’s Inventing Abstraction

[14] TJ Clark, 2013, Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Gurenica, Princeton University Press. For a summary see Malcolm Bull, Pure Mediterranean, London Review of Books, v. 36, no 4, 20 February, 2014

[15] ibid

[16] Clement Greenberg (1941), pp 65-73

[17] Benjamin purchased Angelus Novus from a 1921 exhibition.

[18] Walter Benjamin, (1934) The Author as Producer

  1. John K said…

    I never knew Klee’s art or thought was so profoundly simple or illuminating No wonder the Bahaus was initially so quick to snatch him up. Nice mix shown of his work.

  2. Matthew Collings said…

    Sorry I meant to type 1919, and one of the group of works I had in mind was With the Violet Pentagon, from that year.

  3. Matthew Collings said…

    The works in the show seemed profoundly abstract, maybe addressing or interpreting some kind of notion of reality, but as art does, whether it’s abstract or not, or as in Klee’s case, abstract, semi-abstract, cartoonish, graphic, typographical, etc etc — in any case it does the interpreting or metaphor-creating via very narrow abstract means. Calling this a formalist idea is just to express hostility about that narrowness. It’s fair enough, after all, not everyone has a feel for how art is made,they want to think about things that come more naturally to them to think about — come more naturally to everyone: history, society, etc. Musical making, rhythm, placement, colour unity, transparency etc, these are pretty boring issues, or disappointing ones, unless you’re into them. But they’re what one saw in the show. Benjamin’s essay is great of course but it doesn’t say anything about either the picture it addresses (or takes as a platform for addressing something else), or Klee generally, really — surely? The Greenberg essay is very accurate and careful about many things in Klee, making the reader feel something is actually revealed about things that were already felt to be worth thinking about, regardless of what anyone said about them (that is, they didn’t need explaining.) The differences of intensity between groups of works throughout the show didn’t matter, I felt, so much as the marvel of there being so much intensity at all. Groups of little yellow and black watercolours from the c1913 period, with wonky chequerboard layouts and arrow forms, seemed the like the great heights of anything in art. In any case it was great to look over at one of the wall notices from looking at these rhythmic yellow and black arrangements, and see the quote from Klee from a 1918 letter about socialism being the right climate for such things.

  4. Patrick Jones said…

    Not sure of the date sequence of comments,but I will clarify my comments for Ben,who writes incredibly well and deserves more feedback.My epiphany and reverie at the Paul Klee exhibition was non-formalist in essence.I found myself transported to my 1st year in art school,at 17,in wonder.Only painting and sculpture could encapsulate the complexity of experience offered by moon,woman ,sea ,dream ,night.Day jobs on building sites,claustrophobic family penned me in ,while Art released.I was struck how looking at a painting in the late afternoon,while capitalism roared on outside,was so particular and perfect.I even enjoyed the occasional Tate script,which I usually ignore.I turned from the painting and Klee described modern mans predicament of being able to fly in the imagination but being trapped in the body.The other viewers that afternoon ,at the Tate show ,were not professional artists but amateur evening class watercolourists and they were loving it,enthusing loudly .My private experience was humble also,being made aware of good arts universality.

  5. Patrick Jones said…

    If we could just get back to the Art,Ben has written a terrific piece when compared to the generally scathing piece in the London review of books.There are irritating qualities of baron munch-hausen, swiss fable/ over complication in Klees work.However the qualities I have praised,his obsession with edges,endless improvisation and invention,use of colour make him a great artist .Its not just our appreciation that needs looking at ,its anyones ability to come even close in our time, to his vision.

    • Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann said…

      I agree though Patrick (despite my historically directioned comment below) that it would be interesting and constructive to bring attention back to the works also. In the 1940s Greenberg commented that there were hardly any artists working who did not owe something to Klee (or something of the like). I wonder how his practical example stands today? or if you could verbalize something more of your epiphany – is it a ‘spirit of discovery’ you are referring to or perhaps more about something that seems to be coming out of the Fred Pollock film about the excitement of making things that had never been seen before?

  6. Pete Hoida said…

    BWK here on abcrit has raised some great quibblers – the thanks you get for supplying context, nuanced amplification and exposition with clarity.

  7. Steve Butler said…

    ‘the anaesthetized sales tools of investment consultants’?
    Huh? Are they on an operating table with a sewing machine and an umbrella?

  8. jenny meehan said…

    Wow, I really enjoyed reading this, what an excellent piece of writing. I wish you had written the blurb for the exhibition, I would have enjoyed it far more!.

    I enjoyed the exhibition, but yes, found it dry on the presentation and the chronological ordering added nothing of great interest for me. Artists don’t work in straight lines…well, some do, but creativity isn’t quite as rigid as that. And the paintings are intimate… I wish people putting this kind of thing together would be a bit more expansive. Just one little darkened room or more intimate space would have conveyed something profound in itself. (That would be my ideal way of viewing the work, and I do mean with some light on the work!!!)

    But these things are money making ventures primarily and the way it was done was the quickest and easiest method I think.

    History is important, but not as some grand banner which hangs in the background with paintings hovering some distance in front of it. This is how the exhibition felt for me.

    • davidapthomas said…

      I really like your final paragraph- it’s almost as if curators are too frightened to allow paintings their own significance without hanging onto for dear life to the skirts of context.

      • Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann said…

        This sense of hanging onto the skirts of context is one that (I hope evidently) interests me. The migration of this kind of token context from an accusation leveled at Marxist accounts, to the realities of art market and museum presentations itself seems of some significance. Mixed similes aside I suppose this is what attracted me to the notion of anesthesia with regards to the kind of market style ‘contextualisations’ in which ‘history’ (or dates) become just another means of verifying a work’s timeless eternal value. It represents the numbing of a sincere mode of investigation for the interests of enhancing commodity value.

        An open question – I suppose – remains how to bring history more firmly into such displays. In this it seems certain that increasing links between museums and high finance will not do the job – deepening the sense of an exercise in commodity protection. (your point about Riley’s show seems significant David – how often do we need to have these Klee retrospectives!? – though I am grateful for this one, having missed the last). Nor I don’t think will multipurpose curators on tight time scales. But I would also suggest – perhaps against what you, David, seem to be implying(?) that a sense of historical situation should remain a priority. Any exhibition implies a vision of history – the more conscious curators are of this, the more able they will be to counteract the anesthetizing (sewing machines?) of the (umbrella?) sponsors.

        For all the talk of abstract qualities in past work, Masaccio, Giotto or Titian’s real bite does not (for me) lie entirely within the abstract values but the (admittedly complex) interaction of such abstract (or at least formal) values within the wider historical contexts. It is this awareness that lifts me to reverie in St Jerome’s gravitied, space creating National Gallery foot, or Titian’s rocketship Frari Madonna. An Art Historian’s perspective no doubt – but one I feel is ignored by artists and curators at some peril.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        As a mere artist who often goes about wilfully ignoring art historians at every occasion, and especially, now I come to think about it, when confronted with a bit of art, it would be of great interest to me – and others I’m sure – to know more about the reasons and consequences, in their own right, of your occasional levitations to reverie, which I assume occur in the present tense and despite your best efforts.

      • Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann said…

        Sorry Robin,
        I find it quite hard to disentangle your tone from these lines, and as such my response may not hit the mark. My reverie is no doubt of little interest and perhaps an ill-chosen word. An expanded essay on what I find compelling in Masaccio or Titian is unfortunately beyond my will or ability at present. (I did just write one on Klee though.) Similarly, my suggestion that stripping art of context seems dangerous, was not intended as a slight on artists, but rather to imply that perhaps all three disciplines can learn something from each other.

        I was interested in trying to push this conversation forward somewhat and touch upon what I felt might be some more fruitful lines of enquiry for wider discussion on this site. One of them I felt might be around the limits of an ahistorical approach. Whilst I can accept that, being a practitioner, you have a differing interest in the painting of the past, (and that your insistence upon rigour in looking and describing has taught me a fair bit over the years), I am uncertain of why this has to be asserted in opposition to any acknowledgement of the context in which a work is made and received. To do so seems to endanger your own awareness as a practitioner: your awareness of the limitations of your historical position – derived as it is from a particular historical lineage – but also your understanding of the art of the past, rooted as it too is in its own particular traditions.

        For all Paul Klee’s ‘privateness’ and abstract values, I think that he looked far and wide not just at the world, art or his formal options, but at the particular relations which these areas took to each other within his historical moment. In truth I think you do to, but your writing on this site often seems to polemicise in the other direction – towards an aggressive stripping away – (welcome in its stripping of the frequent thickets of bullshit which emerge – less so in its removal of historical context).

        To be more precise about some of the areas in which I think a purely abstract reading of past art falls down – assuming this was what you were asking for? St John’s foot in Masaccio’s Jerome and John in the NG does not merely create a sense of pictorial space which opens up into the gold, but in doing so gives form to a changing conception of the material world and its relation to the divine figures (I find that exciting). Botticelli’s contour is not just pictorially intriguing when it brings distinct spaces and objects into a close tension with each other (though that it is) – its fuller impact is bound up in the evolution of humanism and religion (in ways I am not qualified to expand upon – but nonetheless do not see fit to deny). And to come back to an example Robert Lindsay used on this site, Titian’s Pesaro altarpiece is, as David Sweet’s comment suggested, a painting about prayer (or at least the relation of those praying to the other figures in the painting). Constable’s care in mapping earthly spaces (to which I, like you, share an attachment)- is also itself historically bound. Why, after all, do you not paint like Constable?

        If not reverie – which I do have in front of works (present tense), but yes do try to pin down a bit more, both as I look and (for better or worse, not quite sure your implication) in the process of writing – then these factors for me place meaning in the works beyond just abstract form – they impact upon my intrigue, interaction and speculations as I look.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        My tone was intended as only very mildly sardonic, in response to the foreseen perils of ignoring art-historical context. I agree it is an interesting area to discuss. And I intended as little slight on art-historians as you did on artists (none, I’m sure).

        Of course, all work is made in a cultural and physical context, and is then seen in a different one, often bearing no relation to the original. I guess what you are saying is that it is important to understand the original one (?) as we view the work from the point of view of ours. I agree it might be interesting; history usually is. But history is as subjective a discipline as any other, and perhaps more so than most. So I don’t know what that would prove… and whilst I’m wondering, I have the evidence of my eyes. Which no doubt everyone will point out is conditioned by my context, etc., etc., ad infinitum.

        I didn’t really get on with the Klee exhibition. I suppose therefore that I was a little disappointed that your essay did not really communicate your insight or enthusiasm in a way that would have made me question the conclusions that I had reached – namely, that his achievements were modest, despite the esteem in which he is held by history. So when you mentioned the “National Gallery foot, or Titian’s rocketship Frari Madonna” (rocketship!), I felt more engaged with your engagement, if you see what I mean. I don’t know what you think of Klee. Was there a few works you thought were fantastic, and if so, why? When I know why somebody else really thinks something is good, and I don’t, that helps. I mean, really helps, as an artist. Actually, practically. Send me your revelations.

        I don’t think, in the end, beyond “interest”, and prior to revelation, that it is worth separating what you (but not me!) call the “formal” from anything else. Paintings and sculptures are all about experienced specifics, not theory (and context is only a theory), which is what I blunderingly tried to say in my essay on “Abstract-ness”. One of my favourite paintings, Rubens’ “Het Steen” in the National, has Mrs. Rubens (ah, but how do I know? you’ll say) being driven at haste diagonally out of the bottom left of the painting on an open cart, in which she sits sideways on to travel, presenting her upper body in three-quarters view. Bad formalist idea, having the cart leaving via a corner of the painting. But her face is turned towards the viewer, straight out of the painting, towards you. Ah, situation redeemed! But then you see by the whites of her eyes that she’s not in fact looking out at you. Oh no! She looks sideways across the painting, back into the view. Situation not just redeemed, but the whole world made majestically coherent!

        Is that formalist? As for context, well, for such a thing I take the context as the whole history of humanity.

      • Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann said…

        Thanks for clarifying. I will look up Hett Steen again – nice description. Yes, I thought there were a lot of very strong works in the show, a number of which I mentioned (perhaps briefly) above. Amongst my real highlights were Translucencies Orange Blue (near impossible to get a colour image online), Green x bottom left and When God Considered the Creation of the Plants – I will try to rethink why for you at some point.

        Your talk of modesty is interesting and chimes with Greenberg’s observation in the above cited essay – “Klee’s real audacity was his unconscious modesty, which accepted and accomplished the task of making an easel-picture out of nothing”. It really is a very lucid essay in general.

        What you say in the last, perhaps slightly throwaway(?) line seems like it might be interesting. Could you expand?

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        …only to repeat that the “formal” and the “human” are indivisible in great art; and at such moments of revelation parochial contexts of any sort are dashed. However, I would agree that those moments are fleeting, and we have to fill in the rest of time with interesting stuff that perhaps better prepares us for such.

        Just so long as all that interesting stuff doesn’t occlude those big moments…

        I would perhaps make this further observation about the debate on the role of context. If context, both cultural and physical, relating respectively to art history and to curation, does indeed play a major role in how we all derive understanding and meaning from art, is that not in fact a strong reason for attempting to uncouple it from the art, as far as is possible?

        Imagine a situation where you see a painting, then go home and read about the artist and why he painted it. You go back for another look, and your view is modified. So goes your argument, that understanding art history will modify and enrich your reading of the work. Then you return home with another book which contradicts the first one. You go back for a third look, but by this time the painting has been moved to a poorly-lit part of the gallery, where you cannot actually see whether what the second book tells you is true or not.

        Far-fetched? Well, something very similar to that has happened to me. And all that time, the painting has absolutely not changed. Whatever the artist did, it has remained so. All the contingencies of how we read the work are down to factors of either interpretation or curation, but those are not embodied in the work, which remains itself. I would have thought that it is our job, if we are serious, to attempt as objective a view of the work as we are able, given those contingencies. It may well be true that one or other of the books, and one or other of the viewing conditions, may be optimum, but we have to make a judgement about that too, if possible, based upon what we have seen for ourselves.

  9. Robert Linsley said…

    Unlike some readers I find this article very interesting. And Klee’s evasion of our categories is very inspiring.

  10. Patrick Jones said…

    I have to admit to have experienced some sort of epiphany in front of a Paul Klee red painting in the show.It reminded me of why I became an artist myself, as the experience he offered was so unwordly but utterly relevant to the spirit of imagination I had as a child reading adventure books.Alas the show has gone but I was tempted to return to try to capture that feeling of standing in front of something so transporting .Yet they werent vague either or cod spiritual ,but rather practical in their construction and reference.i.e collage ,stunning colour and continuous invention.Terrific show and great writing .

  11. davidapthomas said…

    Whereas you might be loading Klee with too much significance, much of which he would have found accidental; I do agree that the chronological rationale in the Tate show had a deadening effect.
    I have a suspicion that the Tate modern do not understand painting of any sort. their show of Morandi’s paintings a few years ago managed to reduce them to insignificance.
    Compare this to the Hayward show curated by Riley which was passionately involved the formal interpretation of the works on her own level.
    They certainly require time and space- I recently visited the Berlin New National Gallery where they had just four Klees on a wall- something that had a far greater effect than all the paintings in the Tate show. As for time, I’m never entirely happy with reproductions so it’s best to find more recent and cheaper paintings to spend time with.

  12. Mary Fletcher said…

    I wrote on trip adviser that I thought there was too much repetitive stuff and no context given, no sense of parallel abstract work by others and elsewhere. The Tate often do this, one male genius, no references to music, politics, dance etc going on at that time,or his life, so its ok if you are aware but you do not learn much beyond what 300 Klee paintings look like.
    I may read the whole article but it also suffers from being so very long.

    • John Holland said…

      “you do not learn much beyond what 300 Klee paintings look like.”

      Well, if that is of so little interest to you, I wonder why you would go to a painting exhibition in the first place?
      I mean, I went to a concert the other day, and I learnt little beyond what a couple of Beethoven sonatas sound like. Pointless.

  13. Zino Pece said…

    I really can’t see what all the fuss is about in this essay. I’m not sure that Klee is that much viewed as private and subjective, I certainly don’t see it like that. It is clear that he very much engaged with his times and other artists of his day. Klee was a private person in some ways. He was influenced by some and himself influenced others. I have mixed feelings about the Tate Modern show. There were some beauties there, but sadly too many important omissions.