The prolific ambiguity of Paul Klee's art

The titles that Swiss-German artist Paul Klee (1879-1940) gave to his works really mattered. They cannot be ignored, as if they were casual afterthoughts. He often wrote them, like inscriptions, in the borders of his paintings. They point to a painting's character, rather than simply fixing it with an identity tag. They are part of the significance of the work, or at least of its potential meaning. They also add sometimes to its enigma.

The one at right, called "Bildnis einer Rothautigen" in German, becomes even more enigmatic translated to English. The catalog from the Scottish National Gallery of Art in Edinburgh, where the painting is currently on exhibit, calls it "Portrait of a Woman with Red Skin," while the Edinburgh curator came up with "Portrait of a Redskin." Perhaps both are correct. Ambiguity is grist to art's mill anyway.

One never feels that a Klee has exactly arrived at a final state. It is more a thing of opening-up and of hinting at possibility. On the one hand, it is evidence of the process of its making. This process or structuring is not in the least a secret. On the other hand, Klee's signs and marks, colors and lines, movements and spaces have an uncanny way of jumping into a secret world of imagination and oddly powerful feelings.

This small painting belongs to the remarkable Brgi Collection from Bern, Switzerland. At about 130 works, it is second only in size, as a private collection, to that held by Klee's family. "The Private Klee" was seen first in Bern, then Hamburg. It is in Edinburgh until Oct. 22.

The collection spans Klee's career and seems comprehensive - though Klee was vastly prolific. Estimates suggest a total of about 9,000 works. He worked continuously, even managing to paint, as this watercolor proves, after being drafted into the Army during World War I. He believed that war was utterly senseless, and was saved from combat by assignment to a clerical post. His art certainly reflects his quiet inner life at this time, and has none of the expressionist ferocity of some of his contemporaries' works.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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