̶ Sprague, that’s the Carpet of Memory!
̶ And that’s the Black Prince!
̶ Indeed. So you know Paul Klee?
̶ Of course. I’ve often visited Bern.
Was it the kiss you blew me that made the Black Prince glow as I cast my gaze around the room? Was it the splendour of your smile—tossed over your shoulder just before you stepped into the corridor—that made the Carpet of Memory scintillate? Or was is simply my heart reaching out to yours that transfigured everything?
̶ In Zürich, Sprague, I too have Paul Klee in my bedroom.
̶ You do? What a coincidence!
̶ Yes. A poster of The Tightrope Walker.
Risk: The refusal to reduce yourself to your consciousness.
̶ So you admire the art of the funambule?
̶ I do.
The following text is from Chapter 2 of Judith Bernstock’s book.
Judith Bernstock, Under the Spell of Orpheus: The Persistence of Myth in Twentieth-Century Art
Southern Illinois University Press, 1991
Paul Klee’s letters and diaries as early as 1912 show his admiration for his friend Rilke, with whom he shared an apartment in 1919. The artist clearly recognized that they were kindred spirits. Klee wrote, ‘His sensibility is very close to mine’. His frequent discussions with Rilke had provided the one ray of light for him during World War I.
Klee and Rilke shared the opinion that one’s position is a rhythmic exchange between the self and the world-space. To both, art parallels creation; they believed that art must arise from a descent into the depths, from a relinquishing of the material world and an attainment of the invisible and spiritual, the world of eternal relations in nature. Klee’s long series of angels begun during the second decade of the century—symbols of the supreme transmutation, of the visible into the invisible—may quite likely have been inspired by Rilke’s angels in the Duino Elegies, begun in 1912. Rilke’s beings represent his goal as a poet: transcendence, the ultimate achievement of transformation of experience into spirituality or inwardness. Klee may have revealed his own identification with Orpheus in two images that he dedicated to Rilke, a pen and ink drawing titled A Garden for Orpheus and a varnished watercolor on panel titled Orpheus, dating from 1926 and 1929, respectively.
The affinity with Orpheus that Klee probably felt is easy to comprehend, considering the importance to him of poetry, music, and the classics. He stated that poetry and music were ‘as much a part of his own being as painting’ and at an early age had even maintained that he was fundamentally a poet but did not consider this to be ‘a hindrance in art.’ A picture to Klee could be a symbol: ‘something poetic, but not literary.’ Like Orpheus, Klee was an inventor of writing—like Dufy, an inventor of an enigmatic vocabulary of pictorial symbols and linguistic signs. Throughout his life he read Greek poetry in the original.
Klee came from a family of musicians; his paternal grandfather had been an organist and his father had originally hoped to be a singer and was trained as one. Disappointed in his aspirations, Klee’s father settled for a career as a (mediocre) teacher. Will Grohmann, on the basis of conversations with the artist, proposes that the father probably revealed his disapppointment about his own career in sarcastic remarks directed at his son. Klee’s mother had studied music at the Stuttgart Conservatory and hoped that her son, to whom she was always close, would become a professional musician. She had encouraged his learning to play the violin at age seven; by eleven he was a violinist in the Bern municipal orchestra. Opera, particularly the work of Mozart, was a continual source of inspiration for Klee in the early 1920s. He was always an active concertgoer, and at Dessau in the late 1920s—when he created his images of Orpheus—music meant more to him than ever before.
As early as 1913, Klee had begun to ponder the possibility of applying his knowledge of music and music theory to art. The ‘keyboard’ of stripes in his ‘Egyptian pictures’ done after his trip to Egypt in late 1928 to early 1929 ‘beats out’ rhythm based on certain numerical intervals. In his notebooks Klee uses horizontal stripes to denote movement, and when a pattern of these stripes gradated in value is juxtaposed with its reverse, the whole illustrates ‘unambiguous movement and countermovement (in a plane).’ One of the most important of his Egyptian pictures, the watercolor Orpheus consists of an ascending rhythm of mainly warm, earth-colored horizontal stripes of varying widths extending from the left border to the contour of a tall curvilinear shape pinched in slightly below center; on the right are wider stripes of similar colors, with a stronger accent of green. The effect is as much musical as visual—a subtle, contrapuntal polyphony of interwoven bands evokes the gentle Apolline music of Orpheus, while also suggesting a lyrical transformation of the Egyptian landscape and architecture.
Orpheus reveals Klee’s endeavor to create pictorial rhythms that would correspond to rhythms in nature and the cosmos. He believed that rhythm held the world together, a notion reminiscent of Pythagorean thought. Another was his long-standing conviction that relations among parts in works of art correspond to hidden, organic, numerical relations in nature. For him the task of the artist is to transform the mysteries of life into art, making secret things visible.
Orpheus reflects not only Klee’s love of music and his affinity with Orphic ideas, but also his closeness to his revered friend, Rilke. The drawing A Garden for Orpheus probably refers directly to Rilke’s Sonnets. Klee surely knew Rilke’s emphasis on transformation in the Sonnets and himself was concerned in his art with revealing successive transformations in time and space of natural forms. He believed that the artist’s own metamorphosis should take place when he enters the realm of polyphonic music and wrote to his wife on 17 April 1929 regarding another painting in the Egyptian series, ‘the polyphonic interplay between earth and atmosphere has been kept as fluid as possible.’ Klee achieves this effect in these paintings by the vertical organization of interpenetrating planes. In Orpheus, earth and atmosphere are transformed into each other and, as in the Sonnets, the merging of two realms is confirmed by an organic being that transforms itself from physicality into pure spirit, like Rilke’s Orpheus.
Starting early in his career, Klee’s marked reserve and inaccessible personality, noted by several historians, bore fruit in many masked, autobiographical images. Several early watercolors mirror his self-identifications as poet and musician (for example, The Artist (Poet-Painter), 1908; Poet-Draughtsman, 1915). The last work that he explicitly labeled a self-portrait dates from 1922, but in many images he continues to suggest his features or self-referential situations. In several drawings from the 1920s, he appears disguised as a musician (for example, Contact of Two Musicians , implying Klee as violinist and his wife as pianist), an alchemist, and a magician (Black Magic and Magical Experiment ). These guises manifest the belief expressed in his Creative Credo that the artist is invested with magical powers by a supernatural entity, ‘Art does not render the visible; rather, it makes visible.’ He also wrote: ‘Creative power is ineffable. It remains ultimately mysterious. We are ourselves charged with this power,’ and ‘my hand has become the obedient instrument of a remote will’.
Thus it seems plausible to speculate that Klee, like Rilke in his Sonnets, may refer to himself in his image of Orpheus—that the organic being in this painting may be one of the many symbolic forms in which Klee implied himself. He reveals himself with similarly elongated head intersecting horizontal bands (a cloud) above the earth in the pen and ink drawing The Sultry Garden (1919); through identification in Orpheus with an organic being that blends atmosphere with earth and represents rhythmical harmony, reminiscent of Rilke’s Orpheus, Klee could achieve his long-standing goal of unity with nature.
This image of Orpheus would reflect Klee’s documented glorifications of the artist’s creative powers, the successful fulfillment of an ego ideal. Perhaps because of his father’s jealousy, he could never allow himself to feel that he had attained it without suffering pangs of conscience and self-doubts. Thus one may explain the element of self-mockery in his implied self-portraits, such as those of the genius (Ghost of a Genius, 1923). The self-mockery in Klee’s art and his noted emotional distancing and aloofness in life suggest an inner belief that the demons he had attempted to exorcise in his satirical and self-referential early engravings still remain. Through identification with Orpheus, he could symbolically transcend a mean self and reach a standard of perfection, achieving the goal that he had set for himself as early as 1911: ‘All things an artist must be—poet, explorer of nature, philosopher!’
John Everett Millais
Tamara de Lempicka
Nicolas de Staël
Hans Holbein, Younger
Vincent Van Gogh
Caspar David Friedrich
Leda and the Swan