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Subject Matter Was Secondary To Paul Klee

Paul Klee's images (are they dreams, pictures of some other world, or rich imaginings?) seem to emerge out of deep intuition. Yet this Swiss artist also had a strongly rationalist turn of mind.

This rationalism is clearly shown by his teaching notes from the period when he lectured at the Bauhaus (the remarkable German institution devoted in the 1920s and early `30s to a unification of all the dispersed branches of artistic endeavor).

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Klee is supposed to have remarked that it was he, rather than his students, who should pay tuition fees, since teaching them meant that he learned so much. Most teachers worth their salt would admit to something similar. But in Klee's case, the processes of analyzing and explaining the building blocks of image-making are crucial to the character of his art. However individual and visionary it is, it never hides the fact that the means by which the images are put together are not complex or mysterious.

Subtle in effect, intimately subjective, and even secret in its origins and meanings, Klee's art is nevertheless precise in its visual language. He deplored vagueness, and it shows in his work.

He believed that the artist was someone who is driven ``deep down to what he calls ``the source of all. He maintained that art was not the recognizably ``realistic imitation of nature. Indeed, it was not even the replication of appearances.

IIN his treatise on modern art he wrote: ``The deeper he [the artist] looks, . . . the more deeply he is impressed by the one essential image of creation itself, as Genesis, rather than by the image of nature, the finished product.

So an artist, according to Klee, is continually at the origin, at the generation of things. He works underground at the invisible roots; the visible image is like leaves or flowers. In practical terms (for the painter), this means getting back to the elementary components of painting - such as line, tone, and color and their multiple permutations, uses, combinations, and interplay. Such essentials were what Klee called ``the proper creative means to form a work of art.

He was explicit that his pictures did not start with a subject. They were not depictions. So the viewer of ``Departure of the Ships (shown on this page), starting with the painting's title, approaches it from the opposite direction; the artist arrived at the ``subject or associations of the image last, and finally named the work accordingly.

In his treatise, Klee discusses the difference between the artist ``exerting all his efforts to group the formal elements purely and logically so that each in its place is right and none clashes with the other and the ``layman who, ``watching from behind, pronounces the devastating words: `But it isn't a bit like uncle.'

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The artist, he suggests, should keep his nerve in the face of such ignorance by ``getting on with his ``building. Then he adds: ``But sooner or later, the association of ideas may of itself occur to him, without intervention of the layman.

At this point an association of ideas is perfectly acceptable and may even ``suggest additions which, once the subject is formulated, clearly stand in essential relationship to it. If the artist is fortunate, these natural forms may fit into a slight gap in the formal composition, as though they had always belonged there.

Knowing that this was the artist's approach may prompt the viewer to a different way of looking at the painting. In this particular case, he may notice that the ships can only be called ships on the slimmest of evidence. The mosaic of colors, glowing like embers in the dark, are still triangles and rectangles and circles.

KKLEE at one time showed some interest in children's drawings and paintings. This was not because he wanted their naivete in his own work, but because their approach was so basic and primal. A child will work hard at an image, and when he declares it finished, an adult may ask him what it is. Sometimes children are prompt with a reply. But often they make it perfectly clear that ``what it is is an adult concern, not a child's.

To keep the adult satisfied, the child probably just says what comes into his head. ``It's an elephant with its babies or ``It's Dad coming home. But the way the child carelessly throws away his answer shows that the ``subject is really an invention after that fact. It was never part of the intention of the painting. Klee's attitude toward subject is along similar lines: It is not, he tells us, the foremost thing.

This said, however, there is little doubt that by giving a picture a name- and in Klee's case, very often a rather poetic, suggestive name - an inevitable resonance is set up between words and image.

The artist may even contrive to make certain things in the image explain the words: the arrow in this picture indicating which way the ships are going.

One could also see the departure of the ships as taking place at night; the darkness is not only a background to make the colors light up against it. It also acts as ``thick night. In its rich, secretive deeps there hangs that rarity, a blue moon . . . or maybe it is only a color and tone confined by the circumference of a drawn circle.

After all, this is not a moonlit scene with ships at all. It is a painting.