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The Good Life of Paul Klee

The Diaries of Paul Klee

edited with an Introduction by Felix Klee
University of California, 425 pp., $10.00

The choice for him, Paul Klee said, had been smooth. At nineteen he decided “to study painting and devote my life to art.” Despite, he pointed out, the risk of such a career and the fact that every other one was open to him by virtue of his education. A few years later he re-stated his program in a diary entry beginning with the qualification, “First of all the art of life….” By a firm concatenation of will and luck, one is tempted to say: will imposed on luck, he succeeded. Klee had a good life, an artist’s life, the right life for himself, his work (they are inseparable); except for his early death—he died at the age of sixty-one—all went according to plan. A cheerful childhood in what must have been a pleasant and solid nineteenth-century home at Berne (Klee was born in 1879); Swiss mother, father a German teaching music at a college in Switzerland; classical education (he scraped through the exams), much music, some theater, journeys into the mountains. When it came to his art studies, the decision lay between Paris and Munich. Klee “felt more strongly drawn to Germany.” He spent three years in Munich going through the conventional art school mills, drawing, lifeclass, anatomy…He worked hard, built some friendships, got drunk, got involved with women. He had his year in Italy. (This rather stunned him.) Afterwards he settled down—first with his parents in Berne, then in Munich, later with the Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau—to a peaceful lifetime of etching and painting, to slow almost unhampered development. Recognition, success, did not come fast, but nor did it come too late and Klee seems to have been able to use it without allowing it to affect him. He was hard up during the early years, running out of cash at the end of a month, waiting for the remittance from home. It always came. The family saw him through; he was not much affected either by his relative poverty.

We met a few times in a pleasant little club and agreed about El Greco and the fact that we all had no money.

He was able to marry the woman he wanted—after a long engagement—and the marriage seems to have been a good one and it lasted. He had one boy of whom he writes with minute concern. He appears to have liked his role as a father, enjoyed his family life. His recreations were ample and rewarding: there was constant hearing and playing of music (Klee was the violin in many an amateur quartet); there were evenings of wine and friends, there were long summer months by Swiss mountains and lakes; Klee liked to cook, he fished. He was able to travel: he went to Paris, to North Africa. For the first thirty-five years of his life he was well served by his time. Later on two dates might have put paid to his human and artistic existence: 1914, 1933. His luck held. During the First World War he was drafted but never sent out to fight. (“…Fate has revealed now what its plans for me are. The specter of the trenches does not have to be feared anymore.”) He had a couple of years as a Private First Class in small provincial towns doing clerical work in the paymaster’s office, spending most of his week-ends (sometimes A. W. O. L.) at home with wife and child. In the paymaster’s office he managed to continue to paint; at the end they gave him a room of his own, complete with iron stove. Thus when Germany broke down he was able to write in his diary for November 19th, 1918:

Had a very good trip on the 7.45 express [returning from home leave], ate a big warm breakfast at Augsburg…. Hair-raising stories about the debacle, out there. My little room now seems twice as peaceful in all this chaos.

And a few days later:

…I am acting on my inner urge; from now on every man must ruthlessly take care of himself…in the midst of this gigantic collapse, there is no sense of remaining loyal to one’s little post.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they sacked Klee from the Düsseldorf Academy where he had been teaching (at his own pace: two weeks out of four) without notice. It was bad, but it did not ruin him. For him, no concentration camp, no penurious exile. He was able to return to Switzerland, his second home. He summed it up in his autobiographical letter:

The political turmoil of Germany affected the fine arts too, constricting not only my freedom to teach but the free exercise of my creative talent. Since I had achieved an international reputation as a painter, I felt confident enough to give up my post and make my livelihood by my own creative work.

The University of California Press edition of The Diaries of Paul Klee, the first complete English language version, is a beautifully and clearly printed volume, just not too heavy on the hand, containing some seventy of Klee’s drawings, excellently reproduced, some diagrams and doodles and a number of fascinating photographs. There is, serious and maddening omission, no Index. There could profitably have been more footnotes. Mr. Felix Klee’s, the artist’s son’s, Preface and Recollections are both perfunctory and on the stodgy side; one might have welcomed something either more vividly intimate, or more scholarly. The translators have carried out what must have been a stiffish task with a high degree of accuracy, yet the English text reads labored. Klee’s style, in the German original, is often turgid, sententious, involved, and far from clear; at its best it has a kind of supra-grammatical, folksy spontaneity that is apt to evaporate in transit. The diaries cease after the author’s thirty-ninth year. No explanation is offered by his son and editor. One other fact to be noted is that these diaries—although, we are told, not originally intended for publication—have been what one might call, nursed. Nursed by their author. Here is the process described by Felix Klee.

[My father], who was always a fanatic about orderliness, kept a diary from [his] nineteenth year…. He gave each entry a running number and date…. [1.134 in all.] About 1911, my father began to make a clean copy of these diverse notes in two notebooks, which were followed later by two more, final copies.

Klee’s clean copy starts off with 37 entries labeled Memories of Childhood. These have a somewhat portentous Jean Jacques Rousseau flavor and are mainly of the order, “In a dream I saw the maid’s sexual organs…(Two to three years old)”. “The dead body of my grandmother made a deep impression for me (Five years old)”. Age supplied by author.) The bulk of the diaries alternates between general reflections of an abstract nature, straight narration of the day’s events, and Klee’s comments on his own progress as an artist.

The general reflections—samples, “Why do men race on like storm-driven waves? Who blows them, what wind?” “I would lie to a woman out of pity. The woman [das weib] lies out of the falseness of her heart”—mercifully dwindle as the artist gains in years. By the time he has reached thirty they have become far and few and at any rate improved. “Nature can afford to be prodigal in everything, the artist must be frugal down to the smallest detail.” (1909)

The narrative passages are often lively, direct and, at least in the younger years, visual. In Italy he conveys a sense of discovery. There is emotion.

Genoa, arrival by night. The sea under the moon. Wonderful breeze from the sea. Serious mood. Exhausted like a beast of burden by a thousand impressions. Saw the sea by night from a hill, for the first time. The great harbor, the gigantic ships, the emigrants and the longshoremen. The large Southern city.

He is readable and vivid in the forty pages covering his Tunisian journey. In the war years the narrative entries dry down to self-centered timetables of meals, trains, and leaves. And throughout all the years there is a cool lack of interest, lack of involvement with the world and its affairs. The same goes for Klee’s fellow creatures. There is no humor; there are some puns and a gleeful recollection of a scatological practical joke. There is not one compassionate word.

It was a black day for the flying school; in the morning one cadet crashed and broke a number of bones; in the afternoon a lieutenant crashed to his death from a considerable height. Gutem Appetit for tomorrow’s Sunday flying. To be sure, I sit here safe and warm and no war with me. [1917]

And so to what is the main interest of the diaries, Klee on his own work. The link, at last, with the artist of such originality and imagination; the link, also, with the man of the extraordinary eyes, the dark, magnetic, inward-seeing eyes in the stern, innocent, often beautiful face, who looks out of the photographs and who fails to come through his own words. And indeed here we find a number of revealing passages.

The law that supports space—this should be the title appropriate to one of my future pictures. [1905]…To the question: “Do you like nature?” I answer: “Yes, my own!” [1905]

A hope tempted me the other day as I drew with the needle on a blackened pane of glass…. Thus the instrument is no longer the black line, but the white one. The background is not light, but night. Energy illuminates: just as it does in nature. This is probably a transition from the graphic to the pictorial stage. But I won’t paint, out of modesty and cautiousness! [1905]

And here—again revealing—are two accounts of portrait painting. Only one of them is by Klee.

I exaggerate the fair color of the hair, I take orange, chrome, lemon color, and behind the head I do not paint the trivial wall of the room but the Infinite. I make a simple background out of the most intense and richest blue the palette will yield. The blond luminous head stands out against this strong blue background mysteriously like a star in the azure.

Thoughts about the art of portraiture. Some will not recognize the truthfulness of my mirror. Let them remember that I am not here to reflect the surface (this can be done by the photographic plate), but must penetrate inside. My mirror probes down to the heart. I write words on the forehead and around the corners of the mouth. My human faces are truer than the real ones.

The second of these is a diary entry by Klee aged twenty-two; the first is from a letter by Van Gogh about the portrait of “a very much liked friend.”

And here, lastly, what may be a key passage by Klee on Klee:

What my art probably lacks, is a kind of passionate humanity. I don’t love animals and every sort of creature with an earthly warmth. I don’t descend to them or raise them to myself. I tend rather to dissolve into the whole of creation and am then on a footing of brotherliness to my neighbor, to all things earthly. I possess. The earth-idea gives way to the word-idea….

A pause here to note that no Anglo-Saxon artist or writer however good or, indeed, however bad, with the possible exception of Carlyle, could have expressed himself about himself in terms of such monumental lack of self-doubt. Nor, one feels, could any saintly man wherever born or bred. But then Klee, too obviously, was neither an Anglo-Saxon nor a saint, he did not know the rules and he did not care a scrap. He was a pure and ruthless artist (who might have been an even purer artist had he not felt that he must kick so much against the bourgeoisie that had cushioned him), a visionary who, though he could be petty in his work, at times did paint like an angel.

Do I radiate warmth? Coolness? There is no talk of such things when you have got beyond white heat. And since not too many people reach that state, few will be touched by me…. In my work I do not belong to the species, but am a cosmic point of reference. My earthly eye is too far sighted and sees through and beyond the most beautiful things.

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