Paul Klee painted Tendril in 1932, the year after the by-then prominent artist left the Bauhaus. Looking at the painting formally, as modernism taught, one sees regular colored dots, organized in areas with particular shades and spread like a mosaic across the picture plane (a practice not unusual to Klee at this time). At the top, Klee has included a blue arc with a larger, rounded blue dot. Other figures include a golden circle around a sandy yellow zone and a few undulating lines, with the longest one intersecting a straight horizontal line just below the middle of the picture. The reader should not be surprised when I call these lines ornamental, because there is convincing historical evidence to support that claim. Klee adds his own evidence, however, for he named the painting Tendril.
The tendril plays a significant role in Riegl’s history of ornament and in Worringer’s retelling of it. Of course, Klee’s Tendril does not look much like Riegl’s tendrils, a disparity we can attribute to Klee’s creativity and to the fact that he may never have looked at Riegl’s illustrations or read their descriptions carefully.
If he had, after all, he would have known that his largest motif in this painting is a specialized Islamic tendril motif, namely, an arabesque, because it intersects not just the straight line, but intersects itself twice.
Indeed, in doing so, as is common for the arabesque, the intersections form other shapes, which we see in the two loops or egglike shapes. Klee accentuates these shapes not only by the intersecting horizontal line but also by shifting the color of the dots in the enclosed areas. In so doing Klee unites the flow of linear ornament with the decorative surface color to produce a stirring harmonic resolution. Thus we see the integration of the German principle of ornament as meaningful line and the French conception of the décoratif as a flat and pleasing arrangement of color. This unity represents what I call the decorative in painting.
However, that reading emphasizes only the formal qualities of the work, and an all-encompassing embrace of the decorative requires attention to more than form. This painting encourages the viewer to acknowledge material, too, as well as the expanded categories of world and earth, thematizable and non-thematizable. First, the gold frame (actually brass) asserts itself as it loosely echoes the shape of the depicted golden circle. Klee notes in his personal, hand-written inventory, the Oeuvre Catalogue, that the brass frame is original to the work; it is not a gold frame merely added on to the work for its charm. The materiality–and vulnerability–of the frame is made all the more palpable as it suffered a dent at the top on some unknown occasion. Tracing the edge of the painted surface, indeed, one finds a border of unpainted panel that follows the inside shape of the brass frame. Thus one is also made aware of the materiality of the painted wood surface as it borders on the frame to which it belongs.
Attending to the painted surface as a whole, one notices that the sandy yellow disk at the top truly is a mixture of sand and pigment. It is as if an ornamental line were there to encircle, to localize, the grainy stuff. But closer examination reveals that the golden circle bordering the disk was not painted as such but rather is a surviving remnant of a lower layer in the painting application. Also, even thicker sand was spread across the panel throughout the areas with the colored dots; the painted dots may obscure that rough texture at first, whereas the finer sand in the uniformly colored disk continues to attract our attention. Microscopic examination has revealed that there are several other localized areas with varied paint and sand content. However, those areas are so layered and disparate that even the restorers’ high-tech equipment cannot identify them all for sure. Thus some of this matter reveals itself to us in the work, but some remains forever non-thematizable; it is the earth.
The reader may object that this account takes Heidegger’s ‘earth’ too literally. After all, his evocation of earth in his famous essay stems from the life of a peasant as Heidegger deduced it from van Gogh’s painted shoes, that is, Heidegger addressed the ‘earth’ not of the material painting itself, but rather of that which the painting represents. In that sense, because Heidegger was already considering the work from the point of view of representation, one could argue that he was already in the realm of ‘world,’ of the thematizable. But that argument seems to me to be overwrought: The point is that the work of art is always both earth and world, as well as perhaps earth and world within the world of representation. Heidegger did not emphasize the matter of the work as such in the ‘Origin of the Work of Art,’ but its tactile presence in this painting, even though–or perhaps because–it is not all knowable, provides an integral part of the pleasure of experiencing this work in person.
In an intriguing turn, recently published testimony suggests that in the late 1950s Heidegger had planned to write a pendant to the ‘Origin’ that at least one Heidegger scholar believes would have emphasized visual art rather than poetry. This desire to supplement the ‘Origin,’ never fulfilled, reputedly arose out of Heidegger’s personal experience with the art of Paul Klee, especially that from the 1930s (the period of Tendril). It is of course impossible to determine exactly what that pendant would have included, but it is possible that the palpable materiality of these works may have played a role. Tendril, in any case, calls out for attention to its happening at the layered intersections of matter and form.
Finally, let us look at this picture also for what it might represent. Despite my sober description of line and color, panel, sand, and brass–and Klee’s painstaking combination of these means–there is something whimsical about this painting, something alluringly playful. I believe that sense comes from our human desire to recognize an oval face here, to read the largest arabesque as mouth, the sandy disk as nose, the blue arc and dot as eye and eyebrow, and perhaps even the squiggle at the bottom as beard or bow. Do the marks become a (masculine or feminine) face, or do we let them remain paint and sand? How does our world thematize things? A musician might for a moment see the blue arc and dot not as eye and brow but as an inverted fermata, the musical notation for holding a note. The musician would be right, in that we do stay here, as the painting happens before us, as earth and world vie for our attention and escape it. From French color and German line to a golden frame around a whimsical painting, this work of art is decorative. And in this painting by Paul Klee, the decorative is art.
̶ 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.
From Judith Bernstock, Under the Spell of Orpheus: The Persistence of Myth in Twentieth-Century Art (Southern Illinois University Press, 1991) pp. 29-32
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—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 disappointment 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, 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!’
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