Art State of Mind

Passing Time with Klee: Demonstrating Temporality in Visual Art

Craig Wakerley 30 April 2022 min Read

Paul Klee was a “musical” painter, not least because he chose the violin and bow before the brush and easel. Klee’s father was a music teacher and his mother a singer, which had a profound effect on his approach to painting. Fugue in Red (1921) is one of many titles that demonstrate the importance he placed on music, declaring the music of Mozart in particular, “(the) ultimate pinnacle of art.”

So, in what way is Fugue in Red musical? A painting is a snapshot of a moment in time, whereas music can only speak its message over a period of time. Paul Klee wanted to adopt processes from music to add temporality to his paintings, at a time when the nature of art was changing rapidly. Due to a craving for new ideas at the end of the century (fin de siècle) and the increasing threat from photography on visual art, the nature of painting was changing. Where painting was once the only visual means of remembering Kings, Queens, and clergy, so many years later, photographs were fast becoming quicker and more readily available, even to the less well off.

Art had to change with the times, which meant artists such as Matisse and Kandinsky were producing abstract art that had emotional or evocative content, but no longer needed to look like something or someone – so-called “non-objective” art.

Music Paul Klee, Fugue in Red, 1921, Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Switzerland.
Paul Klee, Fugue in Red, 1921, Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Switzerland.

In music, a fugue is the weaving of two main themes. It is a style of music that reached its heights through the compositions of Johannes Sebastian Bach. Klee even composed a piece of art entitled Im Bach’schen Stil or In the Style of Bach. Fugue is a very busy style of music in which it is difficult to focus on any single aspect of the music. This can also be said about Paul Klee’s painting. If one focuses on a singular shape, then the eye is drawn along the visual echoes that disappear to the left, where one encounters the next shape.

The first bold shape is the strike of the note and the repeats are the degradation of the sound as it echoes and passes into the past. When we talk about painting in this way, we are discussing temporality in “static” art. The once “still” art form of painting is now performing an act that would normally only be associated with music or the reading of a story, it is now based in time.

Paul Klee, Draughtsman at the Window

Paul Klee, Draughtsman at the Window, 1909, Private Collection.
Paul Klee, Draughtsman at the Window, 1909, private collection. Pinterest.

Draughtsmen at the Window (1909), is another of Klee’s paintings in which he tackles the issue of the passing of time referred to as temporality. This painting is monochromatic, that is, it is painted using just one color. Klee applies an outline of black shapes that then dry and consequently become lighter.

Therefore, the areas of this image that are darker dried and the paint was then reapplied, often many times over, building the deepness of the shades. Klee’s method of applying the paint to the canvass in this manner is an early example of him embodying passing time in his paintings. He was still addressing this idea 12 years later in Fugue in Red.

The Twittering Machine

A fascinating technique that Klee uses is his characteristic “taking the line for a walk” technique, as described by English composer Harrison Birtwistle. Birtwistle is one of a number of 20th-century composers who were influenced by the unusual techniques he used, creating pieces such as The Twittering Machine (1922) or Senecio (1922). A single line creates the image, starting at one side of the page and remaining continuous across, up and down the picture, never losing contact with the canvass.

music Temporality in Visual Art
Paul Klee, The Twittering Machine, 1920, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, USA.

Birtwistle emulates this in his own music by taking a musical line, the melody or an ostinato, and drawing it continuously from the start of the piece to the end; the other instrumental parts respond and adjust to it just as the colors and sections in the painting do.

Once again Paul Klee is applying his musical style to embody temporality in the make-up of the painting. Where so often one finds connections between the art forms such as music and painting, Klee finds the means to embody musical rules in the construction of his paintings, helping to evolve the very nature of the art form.

Paul Klee music
Paul Klee, 1911. Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Paul Klee is considered one of the most important painters of the Modernism (1880-1950), as an artist who understands the new position of painting in an age of incredible change.

Klee was one of the later members of Der Blaue Reiter group made up of Modernist artists such as Macke and Kandinsky. He was also a key member of the German Bauhaus Art College and movement, with their vastly influential and recognizable style of design using academic and scientific approaches to new and original art, in an age that was uncertain but artistically fruitful nevertheless.

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