Unreal Nature

January 6, 2015

Only Verbs

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:54 am

… It is an atmosphere without dimensions.

This is from ‘Art Chronicle: On Paul Klee (1870-1940)’ (1942) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 1, edited by John O’Brian (1986):

… After the discovery of oriental and primitive art our eyes were opened to experiences which violated our old habits. [ … ] Once Klee had appreciated this and once he had trained his talent down to the point where nothing was left except the instinctive coordination of eye, hand and material, to which he could surrender almost all decisions in the confidence engendered of a long and very severe discipline — once he had done these things, he was ready to go home and be himself.

… Most pictorial design to which we are accustomed is spatial; that is, the eye travels continuously along a line or a passage of color. But in Klee’s painting design is almost temporal or musical. We seem to be more conscious than is usual in graphic art of something that has to be experienced in terms of succession and simultaneity. (Something very similar is to be found in Hieronymus Bosch’s crowded, wriggling compositions and even in Hobbema’s landscapes.) Klee’s line plays the all-important part in this. It is not a line along which the eye feels its way, but rather a definition of relations — relations of points, line as Euclid defined it. It seems never to enclose or describe a shape or contour very definitely. It hardly ever varies in its width along a single trajectory, it has little plastic feel; we find it hard to say whether it is soft or sinuous, wiry or angular, and so forth. Adjectives do not fit the case, only verbs. Klee’s line indicates, points out, directs, relates, connects. Unity of design is realized by relations and harmonies rather than by structural solidity.

Klee_twitteringMachine
Twittering Machine, 1922

Klee could not altogether accept the flatness of post-cubist painting. He showed his dissatisfaction with the impenetrability of the picture plane — impenetrable in that he could not pierce it by perspective and modeling — by worrying the surface of his canvas, by scratching and patching in, by painting on wood or plaster, by mixing his mediums, by returning again and again to watercolor, in which he could exploit the curl of the moisture-laden paper for the unevenness of surface he wanted. But all this was in the nature of an evasion; it was too mechanical and external, for all that it contributed, to provide a real solution. That had to come from within, that had to be less tangible. Klee attempted to solve the problem with color.

I do not think that Klee’s color has the range of his line. Its register is limited, relatively, to tints: light, tender aqueous, thin. It seldom inheres within definite contours, is seldom thick or solid. Like his line, it hardly defines or describes. It is color that intensifies and fades like light itself, translucent, vaporous, porous. Such coloration achieves a kind of depth, but not one in which “real” events and objects are probable. We see disembodied lines and flushes of color but whether of the real surface of the canvas or in its fictive depths we cannot tell. Lines wander across areas of hue like melodies across their chords; surfaces palpitate, figures and signs appear and disappear. It is an atmosphere without dimensions. This is the brilliance of Klee’s art.

Klee_landscape-with-yellow-birds-1923
Landscape with Yellow Birds, 1923

… Space is flatter in the paintings of Picasso, Miró, Mondrian and the others, yet their pictures seem to inhabit a more actual atmosphere than that to which Klee’s belong. Picasso’s works move about in the world; they take place among other events and other objects. Klee’s live in a more fictive medium and require of the spectator a greater dislocation, a greater shift.

… To distort and neglect the appearances of the objective and external world does not mean necessarily to derogate it. But it happens that Klee was as much as anyone else a child of his time, and expressed its general distrust of objective evidence, commonly held beliefs and attitudes and of the very nature of reality itself. This distrust, this uncertainty, forces the contemporary artist to withdraw into private areas. Mondrian takes refuge among the so-called universal, disembodied, Platonic forms of painting — as private at this moment as any dream world; Picasso pays attention only to his own sensibility. He has a feeling of guilt, however, about his abandonment of nature and tries again and again, in spite of himself, to return to a more “universal” and “human” art.

But Klee was rather complacent about the privateness of his art qua privateness and strove to accentuate rather than diminish it in his most characteristic productions.

-Julie

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