A portrait sketch: five stories about kids and games in Paul Klee's life and work
Paul Klee never stopped being a child, even when he became a responsible and caring father himself. When compiling his own catalogue raisonné, the artist included his first childhood works, starting from the age of three. He urged contemporary artists to seek the truth in the halls of ethnographic museums and look into the nursery in search of artistic revelations. Infantilism was the most common reproach Klee heard from the serious art critics. And terribly serious Nazis called Klee’s paintings childish doodles and cleared the German museums from them.
Klee attached great importance to childhood memories and games. He carefully recorded the scraps of his fantastic infant dreams and first discoveries in his diary, which he began writing at the age of 19. Klee recalled that when he was nine years old, he came to a restaurant owned by his uncle, sat down at a marble table and closed his eyes. He was drawing his fingers along the carved patterns of the tabletop until these lines formed into strange shapes and unseen creatures in his imagination.
Staying alone in his room, Paul invented ghosts and demons, and then saw them come alive. He saw them becoming material as they peered into the window of his room.
For an adult Paul Klee, art will become the only possible way to make his fantasies real. In his first theoretical article published in 1920, the artist claimed that each picture was the unique reality. "Art does not reproduce the visible, but creates it," Klee wrote.
Paul Klee kept a diary of his son Felix’s growing up from the first day of his life. The first teeth, the first words, the first steps — he wrote down in the "Felix's Calendar" all the moments of his development, his own observations, and unintelligible abracadabra of his son. For eight years in a row, Klee traveled to Switzerland with his boy for the holidays, spending there the whole summer. Felix’s mom, Lily Stumpf-Klee, used to join them just for a couple of weeks and leave for Germany to work. When two-year-old Felix got seriously ill, his father carefully filled out the calendar with notes about the temperature, doctor’s visits, and prescribed medications. He had not leave the baby’s bed until Felix fully recovered after the operation.
Paul Klee. Acquaintance with the Miracle. 1916
Paul Klee. Goffman's Tale. 1921
It was a time when responsibilities in the Klee family were distributed in an outrageous manner for the beginning of the twentieth century: dad did all the housework and raised his son, and mom gave piano lessons and earned money. But things are going to change when Felix is five years old: 1912 will be a turning point for his father. He will meet with the artists from the Blue Rider association and after many years of the forced creative isolation, he will finally take part in a large exhibition.
This does not mean at all that from now on Paul Klee will thoroughly pursue his own career and will relinquish the parental concerns to his wife. By the ninth birthday of Felix, Paul will have prepared the most important gift — eight dolls for their home theater. And in the next ten years there will be 50 of them.
14-year-old Felix became the youngest student of the famous Bauhaus School, where his father taught, and then he ran a theater. And the serious critics were insistently searching the roots of Paul Klee’s "infantile" art in those times when the artist changed diapers, fed his son with porridge, and babbled over his cradle.
Photo: Paul Klee and his son Felix, Bern, 1914. Source: szeifertjudit.com
The dolls by Paul Klee.
Like a child, Klee experimented with the medium and techniques. In the annotations to his paintings you will rarely see the standard "oil on canvas" or "watercolor on paper" inscriptions.
An art critic and columnist of The Guardian Adrian Searle wrote after his visit to Klee’s grandioso exhibition: "The experience of looking at a great many Klees at one go is like eating too many chocolates; there can be something about Klee’s paintings that is a bit like confectionery. They can be smooth, crumbly, toothsome, enamel-like, over-rich and overwrought."
Paul Klee in his workshop. Weimar, 1924. Фото: www.fsff.de
Klee’s workshop really resembled a culinary workshop or an alchemical laboratory. The homemade brushes, curved pieces of wire for scratching a picture, fancy tools made of razor blades, pieces of sackcloth, jars of plaster, glass, toothbrushes, knives, wood, cardboard, figures cut from paper, and homemade frames were laid out in a perfect order, worthy of a scrupulous scientist. He glued fabric onto cardboard, scratched the top paint layer of the paintings to make the underneath layer visible, stitched and primed the canvases, scratched the images on the glass, invented non-existent hieroglyphs, painted with chalk over watercolors, and sprayed paint.
Everything should have been at hand, because for Klee every picture was an adventure. And no one knew where the road would lead each time. It was better to have the right thing at hand.
Klee allowed even cats to participate in the process of creating paintings. And especially cats. Fritz, Bimbo, Mitzi, Nuggie, Skunk — there was always a cat living in the Klee family. Cats appeared in his letters and diaries, they walked around his workshop and observed the world from the window of his in Bauhaus. Klee joked that it was useless to hide anything from him, as his beloved cat sees everything and would tell him everything.
One day a young collector from America knocked on the artist’s door. He arrived without warning, but with recommendation. The visitor was impressed: not only did he realize in advance that he was about to visit the most revered artist in Germany and the teacher of the famous Bauhaus, he also happened to get to the house when someone was masterly playing Bach on the violin. The American did not dare to interrupt the play and knock until the last sounds were heard. When Klee opened the door, the American student was already expecting to meet at least a celestial being.
Stumbling, the guest told the artist that he would like to buy one of the works. Klee led him to the table with watercolors and offered to choose. One sheet was still wet, the paints did not have time to dry. And suddenly a cat jumped onto the table and started to walk across the watercolour. The American tried to stop the cat, afraid that he would leave a paw-print. But Klee is said to have simply laughed, and told him to let the cat wander as he liked. ‘Many years from now, one of your art connoisseurs will wonder how in the world I ever got that effect', he explained.
Photo: Paul Klee with his cat Skunk (Fripouille), photograph by Felix Klee. Source: www.nzz.ch
In the Bauhaus school Paul Klee was called Buddha and Saint Christopher. This was what the Bauhaus student Anni Albers recalled. She attended Klee’s classes and was one of many students who considered his genius to be absolute, and his ability to combine mathematical, abstract with natural, intuitive — a rare gift. Klee was an idol. The students nicknamed him Buddha for unshakable calm, and Saint Christopher — for the tremendous inner strength that allowed him to bear "the whole burden of the world." According to the legend, St. Christopher was a man of great height, who once helped a little boy to cross a stormy stream. He raised the baby on his shoulder and stepped into the water with him. But with each step, his little load became harder, and when it turned out to be unbearably difficult to walk, Saint Christopher was afraid that they would drown together. And he heard the child’s words: "I am Christ, your King, and I carry with you the whole burden of the world."
Anni Albers was sure that Saint Christopher was the most accurate image for Paul Klee, the person who seemed to be impregnable, wise and incomprehensible. Klee was very earthly with his love for the world, plants, animals, objects, geometry, schemes, drawings, and at the same time he lived in other worlds, never ceasing to invent and revive demons since his very childhood.
Author: Anna Sidelnikova
Title picture: Paul and Lily Klee in Dessau, 1933. Source: www.entretantomagazine.com