Paul Klee Prints and Drawings at Bard College (1983)

Annandale-on-Hudson, New York



 A substantial selection of prints and drawings by Paul Klee (1879 - 1940), one of the major figures in 20th Century art, is on exhibit at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson through December 28.


 Known for his inventiveness in creating aesthetic signs and symbols, and for the exploration of his private, inner world of fantasy, magic and myth, these works reveal Klee to be one of the century's many embittered intellectuals. In an attempt to avoid the pain of their own psychological suffering and the necessity of living in, and dealing with, this chaotically destructive century, Klee and others like him, such as Marcel Duchamp, essentially turned their backs on life, creating clever aesthetic constructs with a heavy emphasis on negativity.


 Thus, unless one is like-minded, the thin, pallid, not very robust later works may leave art lovers who need a more vital, rounded, balanced view of life longing for an art that expresses the breadth and depth of human experience. Such art existed in the past, but is apparently unattainable in this century.


 Klee's early etchings, 1902 - 1905, are strongly drawn and recognizably realistic. His thoroughly developed but grotesque human figures emphasize the artist's distrust, alienation, disenchantment and loss of faith in himself, mankind and life.


 Excerpts from Klee's diaries clearly express this. "Unfortunately, the poetic suffered a great change in me. Tender lyricism turned into bitter satire." And, again, "I have long had this war inside me. This is why, interiorly, it (apparently the world, life) means nothing to me. And to my work, out of my ruins, I had to fly. And I flew. I remain in this ruined world only in memory."


 Thus his personal wounding forces him to seek out the negative aspects of humanity, poking bitter "fun" at our weaknesses through surrealized bodily distortions with flaps of flesh, lumps and nodules like cancerous tumors.


 "Hero with Wing," a 1905 drawing and etching dripping with irony, contrasts the greatness of man's view of himself and his aspirations with, to the artist, the monstrously inept and vicious reality. We see this in the "hero's" broken, stumpy limbs, patently ineffectual lone wing, and grotesquely swollen, goiter-like throat.


 Klee's semi-impressionistic, scratchy style of drawing and etching, 1908 - 1911, loosely based on observable fact, evolves into a harshly chaotic, cubist fracturing of form (spanning, in the exhibition, 1913 - 1916), seemingly in response to the First World War as well as his exposure to cubist influences. "Fabulous Island," 1913, is literally the pile of junk and human debris that Klee views the world to be.


 He says, "The more horrible this world, as today, for instance, the more abstract our art, whereas a happy world brings forth an art of the here and now."


 This is one of the clearer statements of the rationale behind the essential escapism that abstract art represents. Obviously, the world was, and is, an extremely difficult place in which to pursue and realize our dreams. But can we continue to justify -- for our mental health's sake, if nothing else -- the increasingly superficial and bizarre in "art" of recent vintage? Art in which an "artist" scribes a line or two on a museum wall, puts a picture frame around his "idea" (never mind actually making something), or reaches another extreme in self-mutilation conceived as an "art work"?


 In too many instances, the attitudes artists express in their work are akin to that of a baby whose pretty ball has been taken from him. Their pouting, tears and tantrums end in the standard infantile cry, "I hate you, I hate you," while a bemused world looks on in weary exasperation at such childishness.


 The emphasis on the child-like -- if not childish -- in Klee's work and so many other artists of his era clearly reveals their feelings of the impossibility of resolving 20th Century problems through adult values, logic and reason (which, skewed by murderous politics and irrationality, have led to such horror and death). They attempt to discard the unworkable or non-functioning "mind," trying to sink to a more primitive, redemptively elemental level. They seek to purge themselves of their anxieties through the imagined purity of childhood pseudo-innocence, a mixture, to them, of more genuine unconscious, instinctual urges and fantasies, which are colored, however, by their resentments, and shaped, paradoxically, by the very intellectual, theoretical clevernesses they distrust in the world and are attempting to leave behind.


 Klee's 1919 lithographic self-portrait, "Meditation," depicts a mandarin of the intellect with little head or facial hair except for thin, drooping mustaches and a wispy goatee. Large, closed eyes, in a nearly empty, stylized square of a head, seem to squint in pain expressive of the artist's refusal to look at the world, preferring inner fantasies which ultimately alienate and isolate him.


 Klee's later, linearly schematic works of the 1920s and 1930s have a fragility and airy grace with less drawing, more empty space. The precarious indefiniteness of man's existence and the futility and puzzlement of his fate are still present, but without quite the desperation of the harsher, more bitter earlier imagery.


 The artist's graphic formulas have a certain whimsical enchantment, of course. In painting (not on exhibit), his color is richly genuine and symbolic, an emotional resonance of Klee's inner being. Despite his suffering world view, he could not fully discard the poet within. Paul Klee is clearly a significant figure in the history of 20th Century art. But his prints and drawings are generally not his major works. The lines are too light in the later works to be effective, the images too consistently uniform, sparse and stylized to avoid becoming mannered and repetitive.


 But the show may be helpful to those seeking an understanding of the underlying pressures and failures of spirit in the 20th Century which explain the negativity and incompleteness of much modern art.


Copyright by Don Gray


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