Max Peiffer Watenphul
Reminiscences of Paul Klee
Venice, 1949

As a very young university student in the year 1915, I went to an exhibition at the art dealer Goltz and was struck by drawings that were like none I had ever seen. They most closely resembled childlike scribbling and patterns of the sort often seen on laypersons’ walls and depictions of martyrs. The small drawings fascinated me so much that I went almost daily to the Goltz gallery and stood before them, enthralled. This was my first encounter with the work of Paul Klee.

I would have very much liked to know more about this strange artist, but I was too young and too shy to visit him and make his acquaintance personally. But I pursued with fierce interest everything that I could find out about him and, above all, I sought to see more of his works. At the time, that was not simple since almost no one took these creations very seriously. In fact, they could only be seen at Goltz in Munich, at the Sturm-Galerie in Berlin, and at the exhibitions of the New Secession in Munich. And most patrons of the arts and collectors only saw, in the creations of Paul Klee, the eccentric experiments of a scatterbrained misfit, experiments that had nothing to do with art and which were merely there to be chuckled over. Only a very few people believed in Klee and, in his works, saw the discovery of an entirely new world and wholly new regions for art.

I was first introduced to Klee in 1919 by Lotte Pritzel, at the time enjoying great success in Schwabing with her utterly novel, wax puppets. I remember very clearly the evening of my first visit to his Schwabing apartment. And what struck me most amidst the highly bourgeois furnishings was an armoire with very strange creations made from colorful old plaster: assays by Klee at shaping sculptures. It was here that I consciously met this great artist for the first time.

Much has been written about Klee as an artist and a man, and thus, one can take for granted what Klee’s outer appearance was. We know that he had Southern French blood from his mother. Klee himself could have very well passed for an Arab. At the time he had a thin full beard and looked at you with the big brown eyes in the little head. If he had worn a burnous, he would not have drawn attention as a foreigner among the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa. In Munich, he wore an exotic fez made of astrakhan pelt.

Klee was then living with his wife and one son in very modest circumstances. He sold very little, and at ludicrously low prices. Frau Klee gave piano lessons to support the small family. Klee himself was immensely musical and played the violin.

In 1920, I resolved to devote myself entirely to painting, and I asked Klee to give me lessons. Oddly enough, he declined at the time, saying with a smile that he could not teach.

I say oddly enough because, in 1921, Klee was brought to teach at the Bauhaus in Weimar, where he taught for a number of years. Many pupils emerged from his class, but none further developed his teachings in any original and personal way.

In those years at the Bauhaus, I often visited Klee in his apartment or his studio. In the evenings, music was played at his house. Often, it was only Frau Klee who played, and Klee himself sat, smoking and daydreaming, while drawing and scribbling all manner of things on small pieces of paper. These small notes were then reused in his studio. A peculiar studio, too: All kinds of canvases and papers were hung up to dry on stretched linen, and finished and half-finished works were hung up everywhere, which Klee would then scratch up or smooth.

Klee stayed a teacher at the Bauhaus for several years: first in Weimar, then in Dessau. He then went to the Academy in Düsseldorf, but was not able to stay long, since in 1933, he was dismissed without notice. So he left Germany and went to Bern where, born a German—Klee was never Swiss—he died in 1940.

Let us now turn to the work of Paul Klee. What is his achievement, and what role did he play in the artistic development of our epoch?

Klee was the first to take things that had not previously belonged to the realm of art and transform them so that they became works of art. Here, I mean that he took elements that we find in children’s drawings, graffiti on walls, and drawings of primitive persons and peoples and transformed them into high artistic creations through the magical force of his personality. He shaped symbols, visions, and microcosmic forms into pictures.

He also painted wholly non-representational paintings, experiments of color sounds, and wholly geometric forms. His works are generally small in dimensions, and there are only a very few larger paintings of his, but within these small pictorial formats, what undreamt-of richness.

Klee utilized nearly every formal possibility and color combination to a degree hardly equaled by any other painter. This is one of the reasons that he could not mold any students, since he had already anticipated everything, and his pupils could really only imitate him.

The richness of his composing ability means that he is the most claimed by various art movements: the Surrealists view him as one of theirs, and Primitive, Abstract, and Purist artists also lay claim to Klee. Adding to the richness of Klee’s formal world and his color combinations is his entirely new treatment of material and the pictorial surface, a treatment of a bold richness that presents possibilities previously unimagined in painting.

In addition to a great variety of papers, Klee used canvas, silk, gauze, old newspapers, and boards that were smooth, jagged, and roughly primed. He applied plaster to coarse embroidery gauze and drew inspiration from the stimuli of the most peculiar materials.

I remember once, after he had spread plaster on a large piece of gauze with a putty knife and it had dried, that he discovered that the plaster had come through the back of the gauze and formed many small pearly reliefs. That inspired him to create one of his most enchanting paintings. Painted entirely in matte pink tones, he called it Vocal Fabric of the Singer Rosa Silber.

Klee was receptive to inspirations of all kinds: a piece of old fabric, a snarl of lines, and paintings by contemporary painters such as Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, or Robert Delaunay could interest him to such an extent that, once he had seen them, he would seek to solve similar problems. Only, however, the problems would be transformed through the force of his personality, and would yield genuine Klees.

It is also well known that he took profoundly decisive inspiration for his formal language from his short trip to Tunis in 1914, which he undertook with the painters August Macke and Clémence Molliet.

For my part, I remember two paintings in his Munich bedroom that I thought at the time to be Klees. When I asked him about them—it occurred to me that they were larger in size than his usual works. He told me that he bought them in Tunis, and that they were paintings by primitive, indigenous Arabs. Yet, all of these impressions were so thoroughly, mentally reworked by Klee that they became wholly his own and, seen by him, they could become entirely new experiences.

For a time, Klee was the head of the weaving workshop at the Bauhaus. The weaving work was most congenial to his own activities and interested him, so that we can sense remembrances of weaving in many of his paintings from this period, the intermixing of the warp with dot-like patterns, woven structures, and the like.

Klee often spoke about his way of reworking these impressions in his casual remarks and lectures in Weimar. In 1925, the Bauhaus published his Pedagogical Sketchbook, which sets out part of his theories and his system of teaching. Here, he speaks about the essence of the line, about geometric forms, their relationships to one another, about dynamics, rhythm, perspective, orderings, and so forth, and we see that his work, however spontaneous and original it may be in its creation, is nonetheless deeply thought through and mentally grounded. Theory and constructing are important things in Klee’s teaching. They serve to make fundamental artistic questions understandable. But they are not yet art. Art first begins with what is mysterious—with what cannot be explained or proven. Intuition cannot be replaced.

What one might believe from seeing Klee’s paintings: For Klee, nature, the intensive study of nature was immensely important. He collected plants and brought them into his studio, where he loved surrounding himself with fresh and dried plants, with stones, beetles, mussels, branches, and bits of rind.

Only through the spiritual permeation by, and the intensive engagement with nature, which enters into his paintings and endows them with inner life, does Klee evade the great danger that his works might otherwise deteriorate into the decorative. Never does he degenerate into empty intellectual formalism. His work, rather, is always alive with humanity and, above all, animated by lyric poetry that has, in fact, only one parallel in the history of German art, in Romanticism. Klee joins Romanticism to his sense for the poetry of nature, for the world of the fairytale, for the moon, and the magic of the night.

This is why the titles of paintings were more important to Klee than of any painter before him. Each of his lovingly composed and lived works has a long, considered title—all read like poems—and even with no familiarity with the paintings that go along with them, they reveal a world before our eyes. Not only was he a painter, but also a great theoretician; he also expounded his thoughts on art in short essays. And the classes that he gave at the Bauhaus were entirely devoted to abstract theory. He could speak at length, for example, about the nature of black or about outer and inner life. All of this never became empty theorizing, but was always pervaded with deep humanity and poetry.

In Max Peiffer Watenphul. Werkverzeichnis, vol. II. Grace Watenphul Pasqualucci and Alessandra Pasqualucci, eds. (Cologne, 1993).