What music looked like to Paul Klee

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

OF the many challenges facing the arts, surely the curse of the specialist commentator ranks near the top. Far too often, it seems, the art historians have examined painting, the literary expositors have written about poetry, and the music critics have commented upon composition as though each art were hermetically sealed from the others. Yet if the past two centuries have proved anything, it is that the various arts are converging toward common goals. Each, in its way, has been moving from representation to abstraction, from an imitation of outward appearances to an exploration of inherent forms, from a focus on worldly landscape to a preoccupation with a kind of aesthetic soulscape. Not surprisingly, the artists who followed these paths frequently found their subject matter in aesthetics itself: They created works of ar t about art. ``Poetry is the subject of the poem,'' wrote Wallace Stevens early in the century, while all around him the painters were self-consciously constructing paintings about the act of seeing and the musicians were composing works that probed the nature of sound itself.

The result, in recent decades, has been a rekindled interest in exploring the interrelation among the arts -- in hunting out the wellsprings of artistic impulse and the riverbeds of critical standards common to all the arts. Sometimes that search takes the form of scholarly treatises on aesthetics. Sometimes it bubbles up in popular efforts to describe the Zeitgeist, or spirit of the age, that permeates the various arts of a certain period. And sometimes it takes form in reexaminations of an

artist's work from an interdisciplinary perspective.

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``Klee and Music,'' now on exhibit at the Pompidou Center (through Jan. 1), is a fine example of the latter. The 154 drawings and paintings by Paul Klee, brought together in the context of the Swiss-German artist's deep interest in music, bring a newfound clarity to the difficulty that often surrounds commentaries on Klee's work -- a difficulty arising from the illusive variety of Klee's manifold styles. He is notoriously hard to get hold of. This exhibition, spanning the artist's career from 1905 (whe n he was 26) until the last year of his life in 1940, makes it perfectly clear that Klee was simply searching, in work after work, for the visual counterpart of music.

That's not surprising. An accomplished violinist whose father was also a musician, Klee wrote early in his career that ``only with music have I always been on good terms.'' The effect was evident to his friends: The American painter Lyonel Feininger noted that ``Klee the painter is unthinkable without Klee the musician.''

The virtue of this exhibition is that it both argues a thesis -- that there was for Klee a profound relationship between these two arts -- and provides an intriguing and beautiful series of works to support it. Intelligent and buoyant, these pieces are about as far from sensualism as art can be. Yet there is nothing cold or austere about them: They never lose their capacity to move, illumine, and delight.

Part of the effect comes from Klee's helpful titles -- such as ``Terzett'' (``Trio''), ``Rhythmisches'' (``In Rhythm''), or ``Fuge in Rot'' (``Fugue in Red''). But much of it comes from his concern for transforming the substance of the sequential, time-based movements of music into the spatial and plastic structures of the visual arts. Some of the drawings portray instrumentalists or opera singers. Others demonstrate what he once described as ``taking a line for a walk.''

But among the best here are the paintings that build a kind of polyphonic form out of carefully related blocks of color. In these works, Klee is akin to such contemporaries as Matisse, Kandinsky, and Mondrian. Setting him apart, however, is what can only be called the musicality of his approach. Coming alive with scales and songs of their own, Klee's pieces give ample evidence that the sister arts are truly interrelated -- not only in the dry aesthetics of philosophers, but in the warm, rich practice of art itself. -- 30 --

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