Ford Crull on Paul Klee, the Magician

Ford Crull on Paul Klee, The Magician
May 2, 2018
Original article published on Dec. 15, 2014 at Painters on Paintings.

For me the truly amazing thing about Paul Klee was his incredible ability, constantly, to search out new pictorial ideas and yet simultaneously to create a unique, individual expression – and to work on these many ideas at the same time. I don’t believe there has ever been an artist so incredibly diverse in their total oeuvre. This was not limited to just his imagery, but also included his willingness to try a myriad of unusual techniques to achieve his enchanting pictorial stories.

As early as junior high school I fell in love with the magical quality of Klee’s paintings. Works such as Dance you Monster to my Soft Song! (1922), and The Twittering Machine (1922), betray an imagination that knew no bounds. At first glance, there exists an almost childlike innocence in the imagery, but the remarkable structure, technique, and sophisticated drawing exemplify an artistic intelligence that foresaw so much of what was to come.

His working methods fascinated me. It drove me nuts trying to figure out that “ink transfer” technique. I tried everything I could and read everything I could about how he did it. My attempts just didn’t look right. I gave up trying to copy him, but I still wanted to understand my obsession with these works.

This was the moment of the Bauhaus, where visionaries such as Gropius, Kandinsky, and Moholy-Nagy were fashioning futuristic work that is still not only relevant but imitated by many and unsurpassed in ingenuity. I defy anyone to deny that Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet, if newly created today, would be at the forefront of invention.

I was always fascinated by how Klee could jump between so many so-called “styles”, all at the same time. His works anticipated so many -isms and artists to come. I can’t help assuming that Keith Haring drew his mature style from such works as Intention (1938). Many of his paintings predate the movements they speak to, such as Drummer (1940) and its relationship to Abstract Expressionism, and Ancient Sound to Color Field and Pop Art. His important lecture at Jena in 1924 contains the basic theories of most of the art of the 20th century. The well-known Pedagogical sketchbook, published at the Bauhaus, was also fundamental in establishing the terms of the new styles of art that were forming.

Yet it was the sense of his incredible inner life that was so clearly enunciated in the work. He had no limits as to where his imagination could go. From Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: “Perhaps no other artist of the 20th century matched Klee’s subtlety as he deftly created a world of ambiguity and understatement that draws each viewer into finding a unique interpretation of the work.”

For myself, I was fascinated by his use of symbols and numbers to portray a dream-like quality. Paintings such as Flower Myth and Vocal Fabric of the Singer Rosa Silber resonated strongly with me as my aesthetic identity developed. Whether a blessing or a curse, I found later in life that my obsession with numbers and symbols had a name: synesthesia. I have often wondered if he was also bound to its dictates. Letters and numbers always had specific genders, personalities, colors, and emotions for me and Klee’s work unconsciously translated this sensibility.

Introspection, meditation, and experiment. These traits defined and allowed Paul Klee to become a transcendent and significant artist not only of his time but with a relevance that is absolutely timeless.