‘Art does not reproduce the visible, rather it makes visible’

Paul Klee, Creative Credo

Untitled, Paul Klee

This painting was the last image made by the painter Paul Klee before he died in 1940. He belongs to that group of artists who lived to endure both the first and second world war with their idealism deeply tested but ultimately intact. For Klee the test was even more severe as he faced the reality not only of seeing the rise of fascism in Germany but also of facing a serious illness.

He was born in Switzerland to a German father and a Swiss mother. He was an accomplished musician, poet and artist. He chose the visual arts as his vocation and began his journey by first overcoming the heavy weight of the renaissance. He started his training in Munich, which he chose over Paris, with its stress on depicting outer surfaces; Germany, in contrast, had its stress on emotion and depth. In Munich, Klee could pursue his quest to make the inner nature of things visible. Having been mainly a graphic artist, he broke through to the realm of colour on a journey to Tunis. He said of this time that he and colour had become one and that he could finally call himself a painter.

This painting is so moving when one considers its context. Klee had had to leave Germany when Hitler came to power. I try to imagine his pain on seeing all he and his fellow artists had built up in the Bauhaus. The school had been a heartfelt response to the trauma of the first world war. It was a modern effort to initiate a place of learning and creativity with the same artistic and social power as the communities that grew up around the building of the great European Cathedrals. All that hopeful work was defamed and misunderstood and its creators were branded as decadent and degenerate by the Nazis. When Klee was accused of being a Jew, he replied that, first of all, this was not true and second, it would not matter if he were. Returning to Switzerland he also had to face struggling for citizenship and most shattering of all in 1935 he received a diagnosis of scleroderma which was to cause his death in 1940.

Battling with depression and the horror of yet another war he was unable to paint to begin with. By 1937 he was finally able to break through his creative paralysis. He had hitherto been known as an artist who combined magic and depth with exquisite humour. Facing the darkness of his biography, his subject, in those last few years of his life, now struck what he called a tragic vein. The paintings show him struggling with both angels and demons and the being of death. If we know about this struggle, this painting becomes ever more significant.

The painting itself was left unsigned and untitled. At first glance it appears to be a still life. His tragic pallet has been transformed into a more joyful one and the household objects seem to have taken on a life of their own. They seem almost to dance and greet us or to wave goodbye. Behind them is a golden sphere and in the upper left-hand corner a collection of forms which seem to be the gateway to another world. We can sense the imminence of death when we notice the picture within the picture, in which an angel wrestles with death. The cloth beneath the green teapot and sculpture is scattered with flowers, reminiscent of a grave.

Earlier in his painting life Klee wrote of his work that it came from the realm of the dead, a realm he felt close to, although never close enough. Now facing the certainty of his own death, he had to make that poetic statement a reality. To die knowing that one has achieved something is a comfort of sorts. Klee was asked to make peace with his death in the face of the apparent destruction of all he held dear.

The unsigned, unnamed painting is a visual poem to that which is discontinued. As Klee had to endure and struggle with his own situation and that of the world, the tragic vein of his work is replaced by a different tone. Through facing his demons, he can start to depict a new mood. He is without self-pity and illusion; he has broken through the dark to a new possibility. He has achieved that wondrous thing, which we are all asked at least to try to do: to make friends with the awful face of death. Through this, we gain an inkling not only of that which is so awe-ful, in the true sense of the word; we may gain an inkling as well of a new world, one which is shot through with meaning, goodness and a new task.

Rudolf Steiner wrote that all new ideas for the future come from the realm of the dead. Perhaps Paul Klee left this picture unsigned and unfinished because, now that he was at last near enough to the source of his work, he wanted to leave behind a legacy for those he left behind to fulfil. In the face of the present crisis with all its insecurity and suffering and all its unexpected silver linings, such a thought can give us courage and curiosity to hear what the present ideas for the future may be.

– Deborah Ravetz

Written for the Newsletter of The Christian Community in Forest Row during lockdown, to provide content in a time when it’s not possible to hold talks.

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