ONE of Paul Klee's earliest works was an etching that depicted a face with a mask held up in front of it -- like those personifications of ``comedy'' and ``tragedy'' that sometimes decorated 19th-century theaters. The mask wears a very different expression from the face; both are rather grotesque. Klee called this image ``The Comedian'' and, unusually for him, offered in his diary an explanation of it. ``The mask,'' he wrote, ``represents art.'' And ``behind it hides man.'' Throughout his highly productive career, this sometimes comic, sometimes tragic sense of art as a mask persisted -- art seen as something in front of and different from the hidden feelings of the artist himself. The relationship of art to artist, he evidently believed, was parallel to that of role to actor, or performance to musician.
This challenged the notion of art as the direct expression of the artist's feelings, as a baring of his soul, and took it into the realm of symbols and enigmas. Oddly, in Klee's case, this distancing seems to make his pictures all the more personal.
Nevertheless the viewer might easily lose his way, though tracing the artist's apparent intentions, if he thinks they will lead him to an understanding of the artist. Klee's images -- whimsical or savage, or rich organizations of color, or, in his late works, grand signs -- act as hints, indications, byways, but rarely as direct and open disclosures.
The disarming unpretentiousness of his methods, raiding the language of children's art, suggests that a painter, at best, can only hope to make misrepresentations. The painted or drawn image is either inadequate to convey the real feelings or intuitions at the back of it or can do so only through the easier distortions of satire or irony.
It is quite clear from his diaries and letters, and from the reminiscences of his son Felix, that Klee was a devotee of the theater. Music theater and the concert platform were the aspects of it most familiar to him; as a young man he even wondered whether his vocation was as an artist or a violinist, and throughout his life music was a deep inspiration and pleasure.
He certainly saw visual art in musical terms and felt that this cross-fertilization of the different arts had scarcely been explored before.
Patches or squares of color sometimes relate rhythmically in his paintings -- equivalents for musical notes and harmonies.
He thought of line-drawing also in ``temporal'' terms: He wrote of ``graphic work as the expressive movement of the hand holding the recording pencil. . . .'' He noted that Impressionist paintings had typically been ``fragmentary.'' This was ``in consequence of [the Impressionists'] fidelity to inspiration. Where it ends, the work must stop too.''
In his own works, the elements of improvisation, of performance, of act, of not going beyond inspiration, are much in evidence.
Such things are amusingly epitomized in ``A Flower Makes Its Entrance'' of 1935, included in a refreshing exhibition of Klee's work from private collections at the Palazzo Reale in Milan through mid-December. The catalog note gives no indication that this drawing has ever been exhibited publicly before.
Numerous pictures indicate Klee's interest in plants and flowers; so this picture brings together two loves, converting a bloom into a forceful abstract symbol and then presenting it as if it were performing before an audience. The simplest lines indicate curtains, a band of brown paint suggests platform. Is the flower singing, reciting poetry, dancing, announcing something, deliv-ering a monologue, taking a bow? And how can a drawing/painting do any of these things anyway?
The answer, in the humor of this picture, is: by analogy. The stage has become an analogy for a painting (a proscenium arch is, anyway, only a large picture frame) and paint and line and color have taken on the spontaneity and excitement of a stage act.
This picture is not a single exception in Klee's oeuvre: His pictorial thinking in terms of theater recurred. Comedians, dancers, musicians, acrobats, clowns, tragedians provided him with imagery. It is no coincidence, surely, that when his son made himself a puppet theater as a child, he persuaded his father to construct and paint the scenery -- and then the puppets themselves. That Klee made 50 puppets (30 have survived) shows an enthusiasm that was more than mere compliance with his son's wishes.
The puppets have tremendous character and though they are perhaps a sideline to his art, they are very telling manifestations of it. Felix Klee's lifelong love of the theater was definitely encouraged by his father's.
``Theater in the wood,'' in the same exhibition in Italy, comes under the stylistic banner of Klee's ``late works'': They are bolder than his earlier work and often employ vigorously painted black shapes or symbols.
The titles of Klee's pictures are significant. In ``Theater in the Wood'' the viewer can read curtains (at the top) and find at least one natural growing thing -- a tree with trunk and branches.
But a wood is a place in which people can only too easily lose their way, and for all their vitality, the buoyant symbols and signs in this picture suggest, in the end, secrecy: Here, says Klee's art, the intellect stops.
In 1918 he had written that without intuition the artist cannot produce ``art in the highest circle.'' This kind of art, he goes on, is ``where the secretive begins and where the intellect lamentably expires.'' The ``mask'' -- art -- in Klee's vision, is a secret. Probably even to the artist.