Praising Paul Klee in his short, brilliant “Eulogy” published six years after the Swiss artist’s death in 1940, the French Surrealist painter André Masson writes in the present tense. Not surprisingly: it is often in the present tense that artists refer to the artists who are their masters, since the work is constantly alive, and the artist is subsumed in the work. When Masson (teaching us Klee’s work as he eulogizes him) remarks that Klee “communicates what is communicable in a secret, he does not disdain to teach,” he is in part referring to Klee’s role as a master of the Bauhaus in Weimar and then in Dessau, Germany. What Masson says of Klee is to be borne out by evidence Masson never saw but intuited from glimpses: the corpus of Klee’s voluminous teaching notebooks, recording a decade and a half of his teaching the principles of form-making, primarily at the Bauhaus. The notebooks and other pedagogical writings, posthumously edited by Jürg Spiller with the help of Klee’s widow, were originally published in German; later they appeared in English in two volumes, brought out by George Wittenborn, called The Thinking Eye (1961) and The Nature of Nature (1973). These large books comprised a few freestanding essays, a selection from Klee’s Bauhaus lectures (for a number of years he lectured for two hours weekly), his diagrams, problems he set his classes, subsequent discussions of their solutions, notes transcribed by students, and, finally, throughout the volumes, apposite Klee pictures set directly alongside the discussion of their structural basis. The recent republication of these long out-of-print volumes restores to us the opportunity to overhear how Klee taught “what is communicable in a secret.”1

After twenty years of studying these volumes, I now think that Masson (who, with his stipend from his dealer, Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, never had to teach) if anything may have understated the importance of Klee’s teaching, both to us and to the painter himself. Without the 1920 invitation from the Bauhaus masters, without the decade of relative security in his teaching position there—and possibly too without the pressure on Klee to teach as much as he did, to the point of diverting his attention from his own work—there might not have been so sustained a statement of the structural basis of abstraction as these notebooks give us. For what drove Klee to reveal what is explained and illuminated in these volumes was not only the ever-present, familiar mystery of his own work (which most artists try to explicate at some time or other) but also the continual appearance in his classrooms of relative beginners to woo. Klee’s interest in his students—his love for them, one might say—is almost totally disinterested, inseparable from his love for painting and his engagement with its most fundamental problems. The notebooks have been marvelously edited to reflect the meandering, spiral path of Klee’s thought as he goes back over ideas that reappear and reappear; they should not be read straight through. Klee often spoke of the work of art as a work of becoming or genesis; in these pages one does not see the student results of Klee’s teaching; one feels them, instead, as the presence of sparks struck off the sharp flint of his mind. Potentiality itself was his inspiration, in the classroom as in the studio.

Klee had already, almost a decade before beginning to teach at the Bauhaus, taught himself the fundamentals of an art of metaphoric abstraction. Probably many more people have read his popular early diaries (which end in 1918) than have read the teaching notes; there in his diary entries they could find a rather Faustian young expressionist in search of a structural expression that could embody his warring impulses toward classicism and romanticism. By 1918, Klee had already written a draft of an essay which he called his “Creative Credo,” on which he based some of his early courses at the Bauhaus. Published in a book of artists’ writings during his first year at the Bauhaus (and included as part of the expository core of The Thinking Eye), this is an astonishingly lucid parable about drawing as the foundation of Klee’s oeuvre. “Told” as a drawing-in-progress, the “Creative Credo” should be taken as a sort of summum-before-the-fact of Klee’s lifework as an artist-teacher; it is the key that unlocks the door to Klee’s mature work. Whether one merely reads it, or reads it and draws what Klee draws (as I have done with my own students), the “Credo” gives the reader not only a hands-on experience of Klee’s teaching method but also a precise literary version of the process by which Klee created his pictures.

In the main section of the essay, the artist invites the reader to “take a little journey to the land of better understanding”—the land of metaphor, in fact. The conceit of the journey proceeds by the matching of each of the graphic similes with its equivalent in words; for example,

On the other side [of a river] we meet a man of like mind, who also wants to go where better understanding is to be found. At first we are so delighted that we agree (convergence), but little by little differences arise (two separate lines are drawn). A certain agitation on both sides (expression, dynamics, and psyche of the line).

The little journey (it takes up only about a page and a half of text) is as dazzling a shower of periphrasis as an eighteenth-century poem; Klee throws out a metaphor and then weaves one side of it into another metaphor.

We cross an unploughed field (area traversed by lines), then a dense wood. [My companion] gets lost, searches, and once even describes the classical movement of a running dog. I am no longer quite calm either: another river with fog (spatial element) over it. But soon the fog lifts. Some basket-weavers are returning home with their carts (the wheel). Accompanied by a child with the merriest curls (spiral movement). Later it grows dark and sultry (spatial element). A flash of lightning on the horizon (zigzag line). Over us there are still stars (field of points).

Drawing is the means by which all things are made comparable to one another.

At the end, this Proustian journey turns out to have taken place—of course—in memory, and before sleep, “memories . . . come back to us. . . . Spots. Dots. Smooth surfaces. Dotted surfaces, shaded surfaces. Wavy movement. Constricted, articulated movement. Countermovement. Network and weaving. Brickwork, fish-scales. Solo. Chorus. A line losing itself, a line growing stronger (dynamics).” Klee had found his means; he shows us here what Wallace Stevens observes: “Poetry is almost incredibly one of the effects of analogy.”

If the “Creative Credo” is virtuosic, a bravura performance, the teaching style that Klee developed during the Bauhaus years, reflected throughout the notebooks, shows us a Klee who is methodical, thorough; perhaps a bit—Swiss? German?—in that regard. In a letter quoted in the Introduction to The Thinking Eye, Klee writes home to his wife, Lily, that he has completely written out a forthcoming lecture so as not to say anything “irresponsible”; he assigns formal problems with long titles. Although this style may have come to be associated with the Bauhaus pedagogical style that spawned American art-school curricula, neither the substance nor the importance of Klee’s pedagogy ought to be attributed to the nature of the Bauhaus itself. I think the programmatic holism of the Bauhaus must have worn on this man, who in another letter home wearily describes his being obliged to start off by teaching bookbinding. Klee’s was a large intellect, almost entirely devoted to the problems of painting. Painting absorbed him profoundly, and what he has to teach is a more profound and complex outgrowth of his own work than would be possible with lesser teachers. Unlike many of those who have taught ostensibly “Bauhaus”-based courses in basic design, Klee himself did not give problems or discuss issues that could not yield good, even great pictures: there was, in his class, no such thing as an exercise per se. Out of painting—his own painting— arose classroom problems out of which, in turn, could arise complex and full works of art.

Artistic procedure represents the prehistory of the primal scene enacted in the studio: through his procedure, the artist arranges to imagine, to conceive.

Artistic procedure represents the prehistory of the primal scene enacted in the studio: through his procedure, the artist arranges to imagine, to conceive. In the studio classroom, the artist-teacher sets procedure for his students so as to help them arrive at pictorial structures. All pictorial structure is a way of mediating between the flux of the world—as seen or imagined—and the flat surface of the blank page or canvas. Whenever and wherever artists have found ways to measure the physical and psychological distances between themselves and the object, the object has become the subject; we name different pictorial structures still life, landscape, figure painting after their subjects.

Klee, though, expressed complete agreement with Kandinsky’s dictum that in their new expression, “the work of art becomes the subject.” In the form-world to which Klee introduced his students, he sets forth neither things (usually associated with representation) nor no-thing (sometimes associated with abstraction) as the subject of the work of art. Klee’s procedure, unlike that of other artist-teachers, requires neither the room with the still-life objects arranged in it for students to contemplate weeks on end, nor the totally blank white rectangle of canvas onto which students are asked to “improvise” rapidly, avoiding contemplation in order to arrive at some essential form. Although the first of these two versions of artistic procedure may be more productive, the two are not so far apart as they may seem; the fixity with which the artist positions himself vis-à-vis the world is the key condition of such procedures.

How unlike other artist-teachers Klee was becomes apparent with the very first word—“chaos”—with which the editor has chosen to open The Thinking Eye. (The implication is that Klee began his course this way.) Here is Klee’s idea of “first things” for the student artist: “Chaos,” Klee writes, “as an antithesis is not complete and utter chaos, but a locally determined concept relating to the concept of the cosmos.” What daring there is in this formulation! Klee’s language is abstract, but not empty: by beginning with chaos, he introduces an idea of procedure in which no actor is in an absolutely fixed position. In fact, Klee acts as an artistic Copernicus: he inverts the positions required for the act of creation, so that it is the artist himself who moves, and finds himself indeed in motion in relation to the motion of the rest of the earth—most often, most productively, in opposition to it. The motion of the artist is defined, not as the empty gesture of the wrist or arm but as the movement of the eye, that is, a shift in one’s view of things. As Klee wrote in the “Creative Credo”: “Now the relativity of visible things is made clear.”

The proper subjects of an art such as Klee’s are processes and functions rather than entities. With all other great artists, Klee would say that nature is the teacher: the lessons he draws from it, though, force his students to consider the way nature acts at least as much as the way it appears. One week in 1923, for instance, while teaching “The energy centre, The irritated point as latent energy, Motivation for form-creation and articulation . . . ,” Klee, rather than setting up a still life of apples for the class to draw, poses this problem: “Drawing apples. a) longitudinal section b) cross-section c) spatial three-dimensional drawing. The apple [from blossom to fruit].” In the “Creative Credo,” we find an early version of this assignment: “An apple tree in blossom, the roots, the rising sap, the trunk, a cross section with annual rings, the blossom, its structure, its sexual functions, the fruit, the core and seeds. An interplay of states of growth.”

The whole world, as Klee presents it to his students, is transparent. As a student himself, he had felt the necessity to look literally under the skin: he went beyond the work of drawing from the model and took himself off to the medical-school dissecting rooms, where he drew what he saw exposed by the knife. From that early experience of analysis Klee went on to learn the more crucial lessons of pictorial analysis to be drawn from the skeletal images of Analytic Cubism and the condensations of Fauve color. And, too, he had placed motion, and the time element, at the heart of his form-making, so that in 1923, after he teaches “drawing apples,” he has his students consider his anatomy of the human body: hoping to understand the living rather than the dead body, the body in motion rather than in the stillness of death, he “dissects” not to locate discrete organs but to emphasize the interaction of systems—digestion, blood circulation, muscle movement, and so on. He takes them up one by one, finally to synthesize his human figure as a juxtaposition of them all.

By the time he began his teaching, Klee had already worked out the way such comparative analysis—such metaphoric structure—enabled him to arrive at what he called the “inner nature of reality” in his work. This truth, though essential, was not limited or reductive. On the contrary, in the classroom Klee could prove—using, as he did, his own paintings as examples—that metaphor produces variety. He might have shown, for instance, a “total abstraction” like Blossoming of 1934, where there is nothing but colored squares, alongside Tree Nursery of 1929, with its rows of little trees—both to illustrate the same processes of plant growth. He teaches his students not to close their eyes to any of the serried layers of life—a plant’s root system, the Platz of a small German town, harmonies in music—but, by coming close enough to analyze them, lovingly, endlessly, to subsume them all in pictures. Although Klee is sometimes admiringly spoken of as a sort of Biedermeier botanist, working away in a cozy little room on his little mosses, the notebooks help prove that he is much more than that—Klee the artist-teacher is a morphologist of all reality, teaching us to create forms that may truly be said to be original. The scope of his teaching—by turns psychological, philosophical, philological, practical, art-historical—incredibly, accurately reflects the amazing range of metaphors in his painting.

Organic nature is one of Klee’s favorite subjects for study, but he is a cultured man and a cosmopolite as well: in such paintings as the symbolic still life called Around the Fish (1926) or the little cityscape entitled Town Square Under Construction (1923), students could see other applications of Klee’s paradigm of growth as pictorial structure. If he looks at inanimate nature—architecture, or still-life objects, or even ancient symbols—then, Klee teaches, the artist must show us his faceted relationship to those things. Klee indeed moves “around the fish”—he shows us simultaneously that central creature’s filleted anatomy and its scaly exterior; its parsley bed is ocean growth, its dish also an ocean. Finally the several aspects of the fish add up as do the abstract signs and masks surrounding it: the fish is Symbol. When Klee teaches his students something about architecture, he is not content until he has posed ground-plan against elevation views—which in his Town Square dangle from either end of the same merry line that arabesques through the pictured town.

Klee himself used this essential transparency in some of the richest of his metaphors.

Klee shifts back and forth, in the notebooks, between demonstrations of how form comes into being as a result of analysis and specific instances of the interaction of forces in a work of art. But always, he is concerned to show his students the process rather than one set of specific results. Throughout the panoply of examples he begs them not to “slavishly copy,” he always emphasizes the “pure pictorial relations” from which they can construct the whole world. Analyzing first the basic building blocks of all picture-making, Klee traces the plane back to its source as a point that moved to a line, thence to many lines that configured the plane; he compares the character of the linear energies that resolve into a triangle with those that result in square or circle; then he further pursues the concept of the outer contour as a result of the inner energies of the form; and vice versa. When Klee proceeds through the dialectic process to synthetic form, he often asks the students to imagine the skin or surface of two separate forms as glass. The better to see the interpenetration of the two: the product of this fertilization is a new, composite form bearing the traces of both parents. Klee taught this fundamental principle of transparency very early on in his courses—thus he passed on his own first lessons in structure, from Robert Delaunay’s 1912 Windows that turned the Cubist scaffolding into abstraction. Klee himself used this essential transparency in some of the richest of his metaphors. In a group of drawings of heads, Klee has one set of drawing conventions (perceptual) coexist with another (conceptual-childlike) within the same contours; we come to experience not only a marriage of planes but, finally, the very process by which style is engendered (the artist himself becomes transparent).

Although Klee seems not to have discussed his artistic sources in class, his thoroughgoing analysis of pictorial structure, like all radical methods, sends us back to root causes. His aged paint surfaces often tip us off: even as Klee teaches us to “see through” surfaces, he analyzes the surface itself. Granted a warp and weft, the opaque surface not only expresses energies and tensions in the plane, but also opens to our view the conceptual legacy of ancient mosaics, Islamic pattern, Pointillism, and so on. When Klee analyzes perspectival systems devised to represent deep space, he emphasizes the flat plane as fulcrum for incursions into depth; figures and objects seen from multiple viewpoints result in a timeless yet not static representation harking back to monumental arts of the ancient past. These are only a few of Klee’s subjects; the list is vast and is, in any event (as Klee might say), meant to be only a suggested list.

Klee’s lifework as an artist-teacher was a happy one—how many people would describe themselves as “busy as a bee” and not mean they were content? He knew what he thought, was able to express it, and for a long time had a receptive audience. Yet no teacher, however concise, can entirely escape the slight queasiness that comes with the thought that his students may misconstrue his meaning. There are such moments strewn here and there through the pages of the notebooks—Klee warning the students not to “memorize” a chart; Klee repudiating a student’s remarking optical effects in a certain arrangement of colored spots in a Klee painting; and the wonderful (and to this day rather daunting to me) pages-long discussion of a “faulty” solution to a class problem. Klee warns the student that his forms, like nuns and monks, may live cloistered next door to each other but no progeny will result.

But there is one warning Klee issues that may have had less importance to his students in the Bauhaus than it does for us today. On a page of the notes subtitled “Purity is an abstract realm,” he writes: “To be an abstract painter does not mean to abstract from naturally occurring opportunities for comparison, but, quite apart from such opportunities, to distil pure pictorial relations.” This is simple, and clear, but in the years since Klee taught it, abstraction has all too often been regarded as the product of simplification or reduction only. These volumes are ample testimony to the differences between analysis and mere reduction.

The notebooks of Paul Klee present the means to the vision realized in his oeuvre—one might regard them as a sort of teacher’s handbook to his work as a teacher of painting. Klee’s oeuvre can teach us all we need to know about it, but, graciously, Klee turns himself inside out so that we may see quite clearly how everything came about. Klee once commented, in his youth, that there was no rush; when you knew what you wanted, you could wait. In his maturity, he knew his art to be seminal; and his notebooks, now a part of his oeuvre, wait patiently for more of the many who admire him to learn how to emulate him. Open these notebooks; this great teacher will always accept new students.

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  1.   Paul Klee Notebooks, edited by Jürg Spiller. Volume 1: The Thinking Eye, translated from the German by Ralph Manheim (541 pages). Volume 11: The Nature of Nature, translated from the German by Heinz Norden (454 pages). Overlook Press, $250 the set. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 5, on page 33
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