Visual Arts Review: Artist Paul Klee — Philosophical Thinker?

The enduring aspect of Paul Klee’s art is its playfulness, which bubbles up even out of this viscous curatorial treatment.

by Franklin Einspruch

Äliup, 1931. Watercolor and pencil on paper on cardboard, 47.9 x 31.4 cm. Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA. Gift of the estate of Mrs. Sigmund Kunstadter (Maxine Weill, Class of 1924), SC 1978.56.107

Paul Klee: Philosophical Vision: From Nature to Art at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College (through December 9) captures the butterfly-like Klee and pins him with a railroad spike.

Much fault for this falls to Klee (1879-1940), who saw himself (or claimed to see himself) as a poet-philosopher with a natural home in the realm of music more so than a visual artist. His musician parents plied him with violin instruction from an early age, and though he turned to visual art (he preferred the term “plastic art”) as a young man, he spent the rest of his life thinking about it in relation to music. In his writings, he mused about how polyphony might manifest in painting, and he availed himself of metaphors of harmonies and rhythms. Arguably, his whole oeuvre tries to implement a system of symbolic notation for which an equivalent existed in music, but for art had to be invented. Even at his most figurative, his mature work comes across as hieroglyphic, an arrangement of signs.

A natural tinkerer with little inclination for formal art training, he nevertheless acquired some skills in printmaking, which he abandoned not long after producing an intaglio print in the exhibition entitled Comedian (1904). This grotesque of a man shedding a still more grotesque mask is rendered with the tiny hatches unique to the etching needle. About this work he wrote in his diary: “. . . the mask represents art, and behind it hides man. The lines of the mask are roads to the analysis of the work of art. The duality of the world of art and that of man is organic, as in one of Johann Sebastian’s compositions.” (Bach’s, of course.)

As exemplified here, a heady, contemplative streak showed up in his art and writings early on. This is, no doubt, philosophical, at least in temperament. But the comprehensible part is trite, and the remainder is the sort of artistic speaking-in-tongues that sheds no light upon the work or its maker except that his creative process took to flight while abandoning the associated object on the ground.

Late Evening Looking Out of the Woods (Spät Abends aus dem Wald geblickt), 1937. Oil and colored paste on paper on cardboard, 42.5 x 46.5 cm. Saint Louis Art Museum. Museum purchase, 119:1947

Klee’s art flirts with language, and his writings delve into esoterica, but both feel philosophical without actually achieving the condition of philosophical thinking. His tinkering with materials, informed by the indirect, detail-intensive, alchemical attitude of intaglio, sometimes produced marvelous results. Reading the descriptions of mediums in this show is a delight. Late Evening Looking Out of the Woods (1937) is oil and colored paste on paper on cardboard. The only path to that choice of materials is a winding one, and the resulting image, the subfusc silhouette of a tree and an indigo sky abstracted into a gray ocean with blue islands, is one of the finest in the exhibition. His tinkering with philosophy, in comparison, is frustrating. Here he is in The Thinking Eye, his multi-volume collection of notebooks:

There are some who will not be able to acknowledge the truth of my mirror.They should bear in mind that I am not here to reflect the surface (a photographic plate can do that) but must look within. I reflect the innermost heart. I write the words on the forehead and around the corners of the mouth. My human faces are truer than real ones. If I were to paint a really truthful self-portrait, you would see an odd Shell [sic]. Inside it, as everyone should be made to understand, would be myself, like the kernel in a nut. Such a work might also be called an allegory of crust formation.

Into this frappé of banal insights and mystical hooey dived 15 professors, each of whom contributed an essay for the exhibition catalog for “Philosophical Vision.” Those of us who find mirth in the obfuscatory, yet somehow conformist world of contemporary academic philosophical writing will find no shortage of gems in it. The piece by Stephen H. Watson, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, is entitled “The Sublime Continuum: Klee’s Cosmic Simultaneities,” and the one by Maria del Rosaria Acosta, associate professor and head of the graduate program at the Department of Philosophy at the Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, is “Framing Klee’s Window.” It’s through this editorial lens that the book ends up with an index that lists Gilles Deleuze but neglects to include “nature,” which figures crucially in Klee’s work, even as described by these authors, to say nothing of the subtitle.

But despite the scholastic mannerisms, the catalog is not without interest to non-academicians. Claude Cernuschi’s “Paul Klee and Language” has some astute remarks on the topic, reprising scholarly work by Kathryn Porter Aichele and examining what modern neuroscience may have to add to it. Maurice Merleau-Ponty formed important points of his phenomenology around Klee’s art, as described by Galen A. Johnson. Martin Heidegger is known to have admired A Gate (1939), which is in the McMullen show and in which he saw the passage out of life itself (though it could just as well depict a silvery night in Tunis, which Klee visited in 1914). Unpublished writings cited by John Sallis, editor of this volume, indicate that Heidegger thought deeply about Klee’s work, which he had studied in Swiss exhibitions in the late ’50s and early ’60s. He was thus moved to write a second part to his treatise “The Origin of the Work of Art,” noting to his art historian friend Heinrich Wiegand Petzet that “in Klee something has happened that none of us grasps yet.” That addendum never came to be, but the impression upon him was marked.

Scherzo with Thirteen (Das Scherzo mit der Dreizehn). 1922. Oil transfer drawing, watercolor, ink, and pencil on paper on board, 11 x 14 1/8″ (27.9 x 35.9 cm). Purchase.

Klee is renowned for a tiny fraction of the 9,000 objects credited to him, and none of those seminal works are at the McMullen. The 65 pieces on offer are a strange sampling. The essays in the catalog make hardly any reference to them. One room, labeled with unintentional irony “The Failure of Politics,” is devoted to a suite of drawings executed in 1933, after Klee was forced out of his teaching position at the Art Academy in Düsseldorf by the Nazis. They demonstrate three items of note. First was that Klee didn’t have a political bone in his body and could only respond to the troubles of the time in the form of parody and allegory. Second was that Klee was a better artist when he knew where his line was going. His searching line, struggling to find form as they do in these drawings, is usually a muddle. Third is that programmatic readings of Klee are potentially injurious to the work. One wall label states too simply that Manhunt (Intimate Scene) “depicts the Nazis as a devil figure invading the home of what appears to be an elderly Jewish woman.” I think the “intimate scene” of a hunchback entering a woman’s bedchamber bearing a spear may allude to, well, something else. Moreover, how do these drawings connect to the ostensible theme of the exhibition? Perhaps only through an anecdote related on another wall label:

One night Klee had a bizarre dream in which he gave Hitler a lecture on modern art. When he finished the lecture, Hitler asked Klee to create a painting sixty meters long. Klee thought about the request but then decided that he preferred simply to present sixty meters of his existing paintings. Still dreaming, he then planned to ask Hitler to view these paintings in hopes that Hitler might begin to understand something about modern art.

The enduring aspect of Klee’s art is its playfulness, which bubbles up even out of this viscous curatorial treatment. Apart from the 1933 drawings, we can see his typical universe of toothpick architecture, surrealist animals, and figures wiggling with Cubist discombobulation. A watercolor from 1914, View of St. Germain, shows him distilling the landscape into one of his luminous patchworks. City of Cathedrals (1927) consists of a series of spires built from a rhythm of lines. They look like they could extend over the horizon forever, and one wishes they would. N.H.D. (Province En-Aitch-Dee) (1932) is a high-key, abstracted architectural fantasy with delightful, pointillist touches. This is the part of Klee that goes forward to Joan Miro, Saul Steinberg, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and most recently the painter Glenn Goldberg and the comics-poet Warren Craghead among many others. And this is the part that you’ll want to make the trip to Boston College to see.

Franklin Einspruch is a Boston-based artist and writer. His website is; follow him on Twitter @franklin_e.


  1. Prasenjit Biswas on November 23, 2021 at 10:18 pm

    Very informative theory.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts