Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.
The above quote comes to us from Paul Klee‘s Creative Credo, an essay by the artist upon which he based much of what he taught while at the Bauhaus, and it is about as true as anything ever said about art. The German-Swiss artist created an enormous body of work during his lifetime and more than any other artist that I’ve encountered his work has the rare quality of seeming styleless. Whenever I come across work by anyone, especially someone as revered as Mr. Klee, that seems to be less concerned with a personal style – that pillar of academic/art-world discussions of art – than with the simple act of creating, I get very excited. I am not saying anything negative about personal style here. In fact, for a long time, Piet Mondrian has been one of my favorite artists because of his dedication to a theory and style which one can see develop over time in his work…the possibility and value of human growth made tangible on canvas. I still love it.
But Mr. Klee was a different kind of theorist and a different kind of painter than Mr. Mondrian. And my first introduction to Mr. Klee’s work first-hand came ten years ago when I first saw his 1925 painting Fish Magic at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. To this day I believe it was the longest time I have ever spent standing in front of a piece of art. It was possibly the moment that I realized that I “got” painting, insofar as I felt something strongly, I immediately tried to understand that feeling, and then I just let myself look at the painting until I was no longer trying to “figure it out” but instead seeing it for what it was and allowing it to speak to me in the way that all art will if given the time.
Years later I still get a giddy feeling when I look at the painting; the apparently naive nature of Mr. Klee’s figures as they share some this unstable dream-space, the way the muslin glued to the middle section of the canvas implies more buried underneath, the two-faced human figure and the dunce-cap wearing second one peeking out of the left side of the canvas. Fish. Flowers. Planets. And why is 9:00 significant? I wish I could remember exactly but I would guess that I spent 15 minutes just looking at the colors in the piece (as is usually the case with art, photos do not do it justice), considering the implications of the black sea-floor/outer space atmosphere as it comingled with the other figures – especially the human-ish ones -even as elsewhere in the painting it had been erased or scratched off into a number of other more subtle forms.
I’ve seen a number of Mr. Klee’s works at this point and all of them strike me in the same way: there is a certain kind of excitement in his work, a feeling of endless possibility and experimentation, and more importantly a belief that the work actually matters. I don’t know if Mr. Klee’s quote is true for every artist’s work, but I know that I see evidence of its truth in his own work. I have gone back to see Fish Magic at the PMA many times now and every time I do I find myself smiling, noticing something new, and seeing the world around me just a little bit better.