Paul Klee: On Modern Art. Faber 7s. 6d.

This essay, written for a lecture in 1924 but not published until 1945, is from Klee’s Bauhaus years (1921—31). It continues the theoretical examination of the basic elements of his pictorial art begun in his ‘Creative Confession’ (1920). He analyses the dimensions of a picture—line, formality, colour—showing how is each there is a wide range of possibility for variation. A picture, like a piece of music, is ‘a phenomenon of many simultaneous dimensions’. He emphasizes the importance of integrating these in the whole composition, and, in common with other Bauhaus artists, stresses balance and formal design. The analysis of elements and the achievement of pictorial equilibrium leads him away from naturalistic representation. But for Klee, abstract form is not an end in itself. Particular linear and formal combinations suggest movement or stability, agitation or calm, flight, hovering, falling, and so on. His graphic invention continually throws up rudimentary shapes—bird, flower, man—not imitated from nature but rediscovered through the intrinsic process of composition. His work is a search for universal images, like ideograms: ‘One must go from type to prototype’.

Klee relates his art to a dynamic conception of the natural world. The artist sees nature as process, not finished product; ‘he permits himself the thought that the process of creation can today hardly be complete, and he sees the act of world creation stretching from the past into the future. Genesis eternal!’ The artist’s work is to transpose the creative process into terms of human activity, not to imitate the visible surface of things: ‘The artist must be forgiven if he regards the present state of outwards appearances in his own particular world as accidentally fixed in time and space.’

What is missing in Klee’s theory is that, seeing man’s creativeness as a continuation of a natural process, he makes no allowance for what is different about specifically human activity: critical self-consciousness. The artist’s search for formal purity is more than a realization of something that also occurs in nature; it is a qualitatively different kind of activity.

Nevertheless Klee’s analysis of the precise means of formal expression makes this essay of central importance.

The reissue of the text in paperback form, illustrated with 24 drawings from different periods of his work, will enable it to be widely read. It would be a good thing if Klee’s other writings were as easily available.