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This review appeared in Volume 6 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.
Paul Klee: His Work and Thought. By Marcel Franciscono. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1991.Pp.395. ISBN 0-226-25990-0.
Klee is one of the most difficult of modern painters, difficult in the sense that his greatness has been so frequently asserted, and so little explained, that his admirers are inexorably drawn to the language of mystification and initiation. The obvious reason appears to be that whatever Klee did that was new, it was not new in ways that were recognized by art historians. Absence of perspective, manipulation of colour and line, planar assertion and rejection of plasticity: the kind of terminology by which one would begin a discourse on Picasso or Matisse or Kandinsky seems somewhat irrelevant to Klee, and unhelpful. Indeed, Klee's detractors - often champions of Picasso, notably Douglas Cooper who once compared Klee's work to 'Tales of Hofmann played on a Swiss musical box' - will say that his aims were modest, his mode whimsical, that his graphic skills are considerably greater than his painterly ones, and that his importance in the history of modern art has been exaggerated. Klee was well aware of such limitations, remarking once that 'with me, color only decorates the plastic effect.' (38) There is more than anecdote to the rivalry between the followers of Picasso and those of Klee (or, rather, the denigrations of Klee by Picasso's followers; Klee produced an "Hommage àPicasso", and was greatly influenced by Picasso's Zurich exhibition of 1932 (290)), for Klee and Picasso are the two most productive artists of the modern period, with around 10,000 works each, more by some margin than anyone else.
Franciscono begins with the rejection of those arguements of diminution whose purpose is to diminsh Klee:
It is a misunderstanding to call Klee a miniaturist ... for the term implies a timidity of form.... It is true, however, that his pictures are small in scale... It is fair to say that for all the brilliance of his accomplishments in painting... Klee's basic impulse was graphic, and the majority of his paintings have the same delicacy of line that we find in his drawings. (1)
Franciscono goes on to criticize those admirers of Klee who resort to high metaphysical claims of Klee's visionary and even magical powers, or, in Will Grohmann's representative phrase, 'his penetration into the Absolute.' (6) And Franciscono declares that his purpose is to study 'the character of Klee's representation ... Klee's work depends overwhelmingly on representation.' (12) That puts to rest the naive notion, much popularized by Herbert Read and others, and still functioning, that modern art is about the overcoming of representation by abstraction: an axiom which has served to suppress the diverse functionings of representation in modern art, and even to prompt apologies for the lack of commitment to pure abstraction on the part of certain modern painters.
By concentrating on representation, then, Franciscono reorganises the hierarchy of value in Klee's work. By the end of this book we may feel that Klee is a greater artist than we had supposed; we shall certainly feel that the history of modern art has been complicated. The attention to representation necessarily entails a consideration of the function of signs in Klee's work, and it is to be regretted that Franciscono does not adduce the help of semiotics in his project. That Klee might be approached semiotically is clear enough from Félix Thürlemann's Paul Klee; analyse sémiotique de trois peintures (1982) as well as from a more recent work, Rainer Crone and J.L. Koerner's Paul Klee: Legends of the Sign (1991): such a tendency in Klee criticism confirms Roman Jakobson's abiding interest in Klee as a figure of importance to semiotics, especially in the play between text and image. (Incidentally, Crone speculates that Klee may have read Saussure, (42, n. 67): or, more probably, Saussure's precursor and formulator of the langue-parole distinction, Georg von der Gabelentz.)
Chapter one, 'Klee at the Turn of the Century,' considers the early graphic work, though not as early as the drawings which he had made in 1883, at the age of three, which he wished to be counted among his works in any catalogue raisonné. Such anecdotes lend support to the myth of the Klee of the primitive 'childish' vision, so we can understand Franciscono's decision to ignore them and to concentrate instead on Klee's development as an artist from late adolescence. Quite opposed to the myth of Klee's childish naiveté, however, is the fact that, from the age of twelve, he began systematically to date and number all his drawings.
Franciscono draws our attention to problems of scale, for in 1900, aged 20, Klee painted the largest work of his entire life, a set of five panels of a Japanese folding screen, and began to draw designs for reproduction as postcards. (23) if one does register disappointment in the presence of a Klee, one reason must be that the original is so little distinct from the postcard. In our culture we are brought up with reproductions whose inferiority, both of scale and of tonal quality, preserves and even heightens the quality of the original. A colourist on a large scale, Monet or Matisse, appeals almost by virtue of the work's transcendence of the limitations of reproduction. One sees a Klee postcard, and habituated by the canvases of modern painting, one makes inflationary adjustments of scale; when we see the original, no bigger than a postcard, our disappointment is Brobdingnagian, and the term of criticism 'miniaturist.' That Klee should have tried to market his drawings in the form of postcards shows his sensitivity to the condition of the work of art in an age of mechanical reproduction. It is astonishing therefore that Walter Benjamin, who owned Klee's 1920 painting "Angelus Novus" and by his writings turned that work into a mythical utterance of and on the twentieth century, never mentions Klee in that great essay. (Odd also that painting, bequeathed by Benjamin to Gershom Scholem and now in Israel, is itself seldom reproduced.)
Avoiding confusion with 'miniaturism' we may still consider the question and purpose of Klee's minute scale. On the one hand it has commercial potential, as if one were to be a maker of postcards. On the other hand it responds to Klee's unease with all previous art. Immensely facile as a child, disconcertingly versatile in his adoption of styles throughout his career, Klee's project was the opposite of Picasso's. For Picasso the great figures of art were to be emulated; against them he had to be measured, and the measuring was quite literal. Picasso's paintings are of the size of canvas used by Velasquez or El Greco. This homage, all but a submission to the standard of European painting, was not, for Picasso, inconsistent with his admiration for the cave- paintings of the Dordogne: there, already, the scale was given, life-size, human, even 'heroic'. For Klee, who responded equally to the discoveries of cave-painting, what mattered was the astonishment of sign-making.
In 1902, on June 22, Klee made an entry in his diary which has been much cited:
There is a great need and a great necessity to have to begin with the smallest thing possible. I want to be as if new-born. to know nothing, absolutely nothing, of Europe ... to be entirely without momentum. I will then do something modest, think of a very small, very formal motif.
Yet miniaturism is always a technical achievement, the sophisticated result of a process of diminution: Jane Austen's 'little bit of ivory, two inches wide, on which I work with a brush so fine as to produce little effect after much labour' (Austen, 1818) is exemplary of the refinement implicit in 'the smallest thing possible', and its metaphorical brush indeed points to nobody more clearly than Klee.
The format of a postcard is derived from a page, and is complicit therefore with a print culture. The littleness of scale is itself a technological achievement, a European product. Furthermore, Klee's use of children's art and folk art is compromised in its claims to the primitive, if simplicity is in any way associated with the primitive. In 1905 Klee attempted a glass-painting, a technique familiar in European folk-cultures, apparently originating and radiating from Bohemia. The conceptual challenge of this technique is not indicated by the term 'glass-painting', which leads one to assume that glass replaces canvas or wood or paper as the ground on which one applies the paint. On the contrary, the glass remains between the viewer and the image. and there is, starkly, no ground at all. Franciscono misleads by writing of 'watercolor on glass' (90) but at least his captions are accurate: 'watercolor behind glass'. (Even better is the German: 'Hinterglasbild. ')
Such a painting is not built up but 'built down,' for what must be applied first to the glass is that which will be seen at the end. Once the under- surface of the glass has been covered, the work is not finished because one can add layer upon layer, or rather layer beneath layer of paint, all of which will be registered on the glass-surface in plastic and chromatic terms, but which on the painting surface shows as a mess, far less coherent than the underside of woven fabric. And the painter cannot have access to the visual surface again there can be no final touches, not the sealing flourish of a signature.
Ten of Klee's glass-paintings are illustrated by Franciscono, who cites Klee's remark that in this technique 'the lousiest drawing can be used effectively.' (95) it is true that the drawing is necessarily schematic, as it were indeterminate because without a ground; the ground is yet to be supplied. But Klee's comment subverts the hierarchy in Western art that subordinates colour to line (and of course his own recognition of being a better draftsman than a colourist). However, while one cannot apply final touches to a glass- painting, there is a last resort, which is the scratch - to scratch through all the layers of paint and arrive at the glass as pure light. And of course if one does not cover all the surface with paint, what remains on the surface is glass itself, light and transparency, begging the question of what lies behind such works as we see photographed: white vacancy, white backing, or only this white page? Missing the wit, Franciscono amuses us with his phrase concerning Klee's explanation of the theme of a painting on glass: 'Without Klee's description we would be hard put to know what lies behind it.' (76) in the glass-painting of folk-culture the medium is always opaque, tempara or oil. Klee introduces a variant, watercolour on glass, as if to give the pigment a transparency matching that of the glass. (From a practical point of view, water-colour is good for the novice, as the drawing will remain visible, and indeed the transparency should enable one to see both sides of the painting at once.) The transparency of watercolour on glass is almost a double vacancy, a superfluity of groundlessness: what indeed lies behind it, and behind that?
In some of his works on glass Klee actually covered the glass surface with black ink, and then scratched the lines of a drawing. Franciscono puts it this way: 'to scratch his drawing into a dark ground.' (112) In this case it may hardly matter from which side one sees the work, if it is merely a drawing in the negative, but the emphasis should still be placed on the stylet's movement through the ink to the other side of what remains, for all the ink, a groundless painting. Franciscono's failure to appreciate this leads him to underestimate its significance: 'The technique, while unusual, was in itself nothing very remarkable. It was, he explained, little more than an extension of lithography or relief painting.' (113) Yet this very passage follows Klee's diary entry to the effect that his work on glass, first scratching into a black surface, then using watercolour on a clear surface, was precisely what brought about his 'transition from graphic art to painting.' (113) That scratch may be analogous to the scratch of petroglyphs, by which the subject is not imposed on the ground but uncovered from within. (Lock 1994, 414-15) And we may note that Klee's style has often been associated with graffiti, as, to cite an early and influenced example, by André Malraux (1974,339).
One might, with a proper apprehension of his glass-paintings, define Klee's mature style as "inverse graffiti". Let us suppose that we are looking at a Klee painting from the same side as that from which is made; but then let us think that it is intended to be viewed from the other side; conversely we may suppose ourselves to be on the correct side for viewing, and that the artist has been working on the other side. This is exemplified in the very early oil painting, of 1909, 'Seated Girl (Girl in a Field)' well described by Franciscono: 'the image of a girl is defined by a thin line within a dense patchwork of loosely brushed colors.' (122) Another oil, of 1910, 'Girl with Jugs,' has an absence of paint where we might expect white highlights; and that absence appears to have been achieved by scraping away the pigment from the other side, as if it were behind glass.. The contrast can be made with the 'virginal whiteness' not of the highlights but of the ground of Picasso's Gosol paintings (1906). Picasso remains with modelling, the absence of pigment being justified by effects of modelling; Klee appears to be modelling, but inversely, so that the absence of pigment is also the absence of ground: it is the absence of ground in front of the image which alone permits the achievement of plasticity.
These speculations follow from Walter Benjamin's meditations on the 'Angelus Novus'; the transparency of the angel, indicated by lines which cross without the denoted form (wing, tunic) obscuring other lines - indeterminately before or behind - allows Benjamin to suppose that the angel is looking out at us, and also looking into the picture, away from us. The transparency of angels, attracted Klee because it provided him with a theme, a figure, which would not interfere with the transparency of the picture. The drawings of angels in the last three years of his life are consistently transparent and optically reversible: we might call them the messengers of glass, for they must have lit on Klee's Hinterglasbilden of twenty-five years before. (Benjamin 1970, 259-60; Hartmann (1980,78-79).
If graffiti is often mentioned as an analogy for Klee's method, transparency is as often invoked to explain his idiosyncratic effects, effects that his detractors like to label light-weight and whimsical. In discussing chromatic intensity as one of the features of modern art that so shocked the New York public at the Armory Show in 1911, Meyer Schapiro makes a contrast between Matisse, Kandinsky, Rouault, Vlaminck, and others, who are themselves subdued by parenthesis:
(At the other end of the spectrum of modern expressiveness is a kind of negative intensity ... a search for faint nuances, for an ultimate in delicacy and bareness, that still surprises us; it appeared in Whistler. Monet and Redon, and more recently in works of Malevich and Klee. among others.) (M. SchaDiro 1979, 146)
'Negative intensity' is surely le mot juste for the transparency of paintings on glass, and although Klee seems not to have painted on glass after 1911, the technique remained implicit.
The last such work illustrated by Franciscono is Klee's sketch for Chapter 9 of Candide, 'The Stabbed Jew', which image also serves as the cover illustration. Discussion of the work concludes Franciscono's second chapter:
In the context of Klee's work as a whole, the Candide drawings are transitional....their style points clearly to Klee's later work. For by drastically limiting their spatial depth, by eliminating all but the merest suggestion of setting ... Klee opens the way for an art requiring for its effect neither volume nor illusionistic space. These would soon be replaced by abstract patterns and schematic forms....(134-35)
One's disappointment on reading this is immense. Franciscono is the first critic to have devoted serious attention to the work behind glass, yet in this crucial discussion of 'transitional work' he fails even to mention that the most important of the Candide illustrations is itself behind glass. And note how Franciscono here abandons all his claims to attend to representation and retreats into the familiar jargon of abstract patterns and schematic forms as the defining achievement of modern art.
The next chapter, 'Klee's Encounter with Cubism and the Blaue Reiter' is largely synthetic and conventional, heavily dependent on the considerable literature devoted to Klee's relationships with Cubism (Jim Jordan's useful Paul Klee and Cubism, Princeton, 1984), and with Kandinsky and Marc - the unintended effect of which scholarship has been to assimilate Klee to the normative patterns and issues of modern art. What is not pointed out, and certainly not by Franciscono, is that Kandinsky took up Hinterglasbilden in 1911, at about the time of Klee's first visit to Munich, where he met Kandinsky on 8 October. (139) Kandinsky was writing Uber das Geistige in der Kunst at that very time.
Der Blaue Reiter led Klee into the metaphysical concerns with dematerialization, especially under the influence of Kandinsky. Yet given Kandinsky's fascination with glass-painting, at a date when Klee had decided that he had learnt its lessons, we must wonder whether the influence was not also in the other direction. One of the most salient ideas of Kandinsky's Uber das Geistige is to be found at the end of Chapter 6, 'The Language of Form and Colour':
Any attempt to free painting from this material limitation ... must concern itself first of all with the destruction of this theory of one single surface - attempts must be made to bring the picture onto some ideal plane which shall be expressed in terms of the material plane of the canvas. (Kandinsky 1977, 44)
The attraction of glass-painting to the writer of these words must have been overwhelming, and we see a repetition of Klee's experience: one or two years of fascination, and then a return to canvas, but to a canvas in whose potential for groundlessness the artist has confidence. Klee and Kandinsky belong less to the history of abstraction than to the history of groundlessness. It is remarkable how little attention has been paid to Kandinsky's glass-paintings, which go quite unmentioned in, for example, Michel Henry's Voir invisible: sur Kandinsky (Paris, 1988), whose title and theme cry out for the elucidation of glass. Nor has Klee scholarship given due notice to the barely noticeable transparency of glass, not even in such phenomenological approaches as we find in the recent works of Marc Le Bot (1992) and Alain Bonfand (1993).
Groundlessness is not to be confused with dematerialization. So much has been said, much of it explicitly in the wake of Kandinsky, about the dematerialization of the image, with the intention of manifesting 'the spiritual' in art, that one must almost ignore materiality out of respect for the manifesto. Just as manifestos of abstraction have prevented one from attending to the quality of representation in so-called 'abstract art,' so manifestos of 'dematerialization' have prevented one from noticing, or if noticing, prompting apology for, signs of materiality. It is in this context that one values Schapiro's phrase 'negative intensity,' suggesting as it does that the materiality is not eliminated but rather concentrated. The apparent resistance to materiality, whether in Klee, Kandinsky or Malevich, leads inevitably to the assertion of the materiality of either the pigment or the ground, the latter notably in Malevich's Suprematist paintings.
Materiality, like representation, has a way of creeping back, however dogmatically it might have been expelled The proper issue, however, should be concerned with the distinction between figure and ground. Traditionally materiality is associated with ground, representation with figure. Where the viewer finds an excess of material over representation there is talk of a heap of bricks, or of a pot of paint thrown in the public's face: materiality as dross. 'Abstraction' has always been received by a hostile public not in terms of negation of spirituality (in accord with Kandinsky's manifesto, for example) but in the positive terms of materiality, blotches and splashes of paint. The only trouble with such strictures is that the materiality which is identified is a materiality without value; but one should appreciate that the philistines insist on seeing the materiality which the avant-garde critics pretend not to see. Materiality is unvalued as mere ground for an immaterial sign. Only when materiality is acknowledged as the ground of a sign and as sign itself, can the material be subsumed to the semiotic; even as it is thus acknowledged, materiality is rendered invisible by the semiotic.
A sign is a thing which is not identical with itself,' declared St. Augustine. This can be reformulated: A sign is a thing whose materiality is suppressed, unseen; and what is visible is ground, not sign, material, not figure. Materiality is obviously present in both figure and ground, but it is visible only in ground, not in figure which must represent something other than its own ground. Representation, insofar as it makes present what is not, must make absent what is.
We might add that figuration is merely another system of differences without positive content. And the principle of difference is that which distinguishes figure from ground. In his essay 'Paul Klee and the Image of the Book,' J.L. Koerner analyses. Klee's watercolour and pen drawing, 'Einst dem Grau der Nacht enttaucht', in which the letters of the poem are inked in on the dividing lines of the grid of colours (Crone & Koerner 1991, 56-65). Koerner points out that this painting-poem exemplifies the problem of distinguishing between figure and ground: the colours confuse us as readers, for the legibility would be simple if the ground were white, and when we decipher the poem we do so precisely by ignoring and 'overcoming' the painting.
Klee makes obvious what we obscure by the whiteness of the page: that when we read a figure we are also reading the ground, that the ground is not neutral but as important as the figure in the production of the figure; which is to say that figuration or semiosis involves both figure and ground, and is dependent solely on the adequacy of differentiation between them. Koerner at least moves the discussion beyond Thürlemann's naive distinction between 'niveau figuratif et niveau plastique' (Thürlemann 1982, 18-23) wherein the plastic pertains to the recognition of 'objects' in a code de reconnaissance. This perpetuates Greimas's dependence on 'la sémiotique du monde naturel' as if signs in nature were primary, prior that is to signs in representation: for Greimas, apparently, signs are recognized in terms of their 'natural' resemblance to what is present. This is a semiotic still bound up with empiricism, content with the Augustinian distinction between the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture. Against such, Koerner's essay 'Paul Klee and the Image of the Book' is an exemplary antidote.
In his discussion of Klee's 'Seated Girl (Girl in a Field)' (1909), Franciscono cites a passage from Klee's diary of June 1908:
1) Application of spots of color in complexes.... 2) Read this 'nothing' as an object... make it figurative, and clarify it by light and shade. (122)
"Read this 'nothing"' is an enigma that shifts its semantic weight from "nothing" to 'Read': while ground can be seen, or unseen, only figure can be read. If we try to read the ground, we must declare it nothing. But by the merest of gestures the artist can make the ground readable by rendering its materiality unseen, the 'nothing' of what is not a sign: the sign produced by the merest differentiation between figure and ground, a differentiation which cannot be represented. In this, Klee's 'make it figurative, clarify it by light and shade' strikingly resembles Lacan's observation that the line of differentiation in Saussure's model of the sign, that which separates signifiant from signifié, can never itself be represented: it is, the line as non-sign, the presence of difference. Difference can never by representation be made absent: it is all of presence that we know.
Unlike a text, whose materiality in modernity is nil, 'a painting is still a thing,' in Maurice Denis's once inflammatory claim. A thing also needs to be read, for there is no such simple division between reading and seeing as we have adduced in the previous paragraph. A thing is also a sign insofar as it is to be identified, not as an individual entity, but to be 'la dividuelle' or 'dividual' as Klee termed that which could be multiplied in series by repetition or division. (See Cone's 'Cosmic Fragments of Meaning' in Crone & Koerner 1991, 17-19.) By this term, this neologism for what is, yet is unnamed, hidden between the binary polarization of the particular and the general, Klee indicates precisely the minimum of what can be seen without that 'seen' being a thing or an entity in itself. (This can be compared with the quest for phonemes in language, and for memes in everything: see Bouissac 1994)
A thing is a thinked, a concept, though empiricists strive to suppress that particular etymological lucidity. But a thing is defined by that which separates it from other things or from the ground. That which separates one thing from another, like the line in Saussure's model of the sign, is not itself a thing because it cannot be represented. And what cannot be represented, conceived, 'thinked,' cannot be a thing. Yet that no-thing, the line that divides, can itself be divided: the principle of division is itself susceptible to division. And it is that which Klee names 'la dividuelle', to name by a neologism the occasion of division which precedes and makes possible the individual, and representation. Evident throughout Klee's oeuvre, the principle is perhaps nowhere more plain than in the fish-scales or roof- tiles of 'Ad Parnassum' (1932).
A thing, then, is the result of dividuation and individuation, the very processes of signification: a thing is therefore a special sort of sign, unrecognized and unnamed as a sign, which we may define in this way by opposition to the conventional sign:
A sign is a thing whose materiality is suppressed.
A thing is a sign whose materiality is acknowledged.
We should now be able better to appreciate the significance and importance of Hinterglasbilden, which has to do with the absence or 'negative intensity' of either significance or importance in the 'matter' of glass. For in such a painting, the ground is constituted by the pigment itself: if one looks at the back, one sees only paint, in a messy density which gives no clue to the image on the back/front in maximal proximity to the glass. The image is thus caught between an invisible plane of glass and a groundlessness. The compositional inversion is spatial in effect and temporal in composition: the first mark to be made on the glass surface is probably the signature. And the effect of groundlessness is that there is only figure, no background, 'nothing' to sustain or frame the figure. But there is materiality, for it is that which, as glass, intervenes, haptically more than optically, between the picture and the viewer. It is not the glass which obstructs or distorts vision, such as protects a watercolour, for example, but the minimum mediation, transparent fore-ground, without which the image would be insupportable. 'Foreground' has not its usual sense, the figures in front of the ground, but is proper value, the ground in front of the figure: such a foreground must, if it is not to be one with the surface, be transparent, as transparent as the surface.
Klee: not groundless, but of ground unseen; nor immaterial, though the material is not seen. Nor figurative, for figuration implies a seen ground. Only by difference, clarified by light and shade, is nothing to be read, not as a thing, but as that which makes possible the fact of multiplicity: la dividuelle and the unthinkable namelessness which it cuts: un coup de dès, un coup de deux, mais pas de deux.
(On Klee and Mallarmé, and the semiotic function of white spaces in the typography of 'Un coup de dès' see Koerner in Crone & Koerner 1991,52-4, 64).
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Bonfand, Alain,1993. L'ombre de la nuit. Paris: La Difference.
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Crone, Rainer, and Joseph Leo Koerner, 1991. Paul Klee: Legends of the Sign. New York: Columbia U.P.
Hartmann, Geoffrey, 1980. Criticism in the Wilderness. New Haven: Yale U.P.
Henry, Michel, 1988. Voir invisible: sur Kandinsky. Paris: Francois Bourin.
Jakobson, Roman, 1987. 'On the Verbal Art of William Blake and other Poet-Painters,' Language in Literature. Cambridge MA: Harvard U.P.
Jordan, Jim M., 1984. Paul Klee and Cubism. Princeton: Princeton U.P.
Kandinsky, Wassily, 1977. On the Spiritual in Art. tr. M.T.H. Sadleir. New York: Dover.
Le Bot, Marc,1992. Paul Klee. Paris: Maeght.
Lock, Charles, 1994. 'Petroglyphs in and out of Perspective.' Semiotica,100,2-4 405-20.
Malraux, Andre,1971. The Voices of Silence. tr. Stuart Gilbert. London: Paladin.
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Charles Lock is Professor of English at the University of Toronto. Among his recent publications are Criticism in Focus: Thomas Hardy (1992); articles on petroglyphs in Semiotica, on Bakhtin in Strumenti critici, on Jakobson in Canadian Slavonic Papers, 'Llewelyn Powys and the literature of tuberculosis' in The Powys Journal, and regular contributions to the Semiotic Review of Books.