Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 7, 2018
Annie Bourneuf Paul Klee: The Visible and the Legible The University of Chicago Press, 2015. 256 pp.; 60 color ills.; 7 b/w ills. Hardcover $45.00 (9780226091181)

Annie Bourneuf’s monograph Paul Klee: The Visible and the Legible is a brilliantly written and meticulously researched contribution to the reinterpretation of classical modernism. Each of the three main chapters attends to a group of works and concepts that are central to the canonical artist Paul Klee. The study analyzes pictures and texts from the period between 1916 and 1923, from the small-format graphics, which were produced during World War I, and early Schriftbilder (pictographs and images containing letters or poems), to the Quadratbilder (square images) from the Weimar Bauhaus period; it covers the part of Klee’s life that begins with him joining the army and ends with his artistic reorientation at the Bauhaus.

As the subtitle suggests, Bourneuf’s reflections aim to outline “how the relations between pictures, writing, and ‘literature’ signified in and for Klee’s art, as well as how and why these relations mattered to Klee and to his interpreters in the 1910s and 1920s” (6) Bourneuf’s methodological approach distances itself both from ideological criticism and from a strong affirmation of Klee’s biographical self-representation so as to create new space for interpretive questions and “to comprehend the terms of Klee’s art in a conceptually and historically rigorous way” (6). By including contextual and iconological dimensions in her investigation of Klee, Bourneuf gives the reader a strong impression of art discourse between bourgeois late-imperial Germany and the beginning of the Weimar Republic. At the same time, the analyses of the works sketch the institutional conditions that shaped contemporaneous interpretations of Klee and his canonization in the 1950s and 1960s. The study thus contributes to the history of the historiography of art.

The interpretations of individual pictures pursue the common question of how a historically specific relationship between pictures, writing, and literature is significant to Klee’s art. All three in-depth studies show that “these crossings between the visible and the legible in Klee’s work are part of the struggle to save the easel painting” (4), which was, for Klee, in jeopardy.

Bourneuf’s first chapter, “The Painter-Draftsman,” articulates the implications and program of Klee’s specifically graphic abstraction and his new mode of painting-drawing during World War I. Klee began to develop a theory and practice of this graphic mode when he turned away from Robert Delaunay’s theory of abstraction. The “first substantial extended discussion of his art” by Wilhelm Hausenstein thus characterized Klee as a “painter-draftsman” whose art “responds to the problem of painting in the crisis of representation brought about by modernity in general and by modern warfare in particular” (9). As Bourneuf shows, Klee’s small-scale Blätter (the term he used to refer to certain works, mostly on paper, meaning both “leaves” and “sheets”) and his theoretical writing between 1917 and 1919 developed this specific pictorial mode as a critical alternative to painting and contemporaneous formalist aesthetics.

The reason for these art-theoretical reflections and Klee’s new production method was, according to Bourneuf, Klee’s engagement with G. E. Lessing’s influential aesthetics and its postulation of medial limitations, such as the idea of instantaneous reception of pictures. Stated briefly, Klee was working on models for partly transgressing medial boundaries and tried to follow artistic modes of reception that encompassed both texts and images. For example, the hieroglyphic scripts and endeavors of New Typography that attracted Klee’s interest brought the activities of looking at a picture and reading a book into close proximity.

The second chapter, “Seeing and Speculating,” focuses on the viewer’s response to these aesthetic considerations. It deals with questions such as how Klee reconceived the activity of viewing a picture and what roles imagination, fantasy, and the viewer’s private subjectivity have in that conception. In images that are hybrids of writing and picturing, Bourneuf identifies a specific mode of seeing that she calls speculating and then draws illuminating connections to the circle around the popular art magazine Der Kunstwart and the idea of Phantasiekunst (fantasy art) that the magazine established. An excursus on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century graphic traditions shows how it is possible to understand Klee’s famous dictum that art is a “making visible” (sichtbar machen) as a broken continuation of bourgeois conceptions of art and practices of imagining.

The third chapter, “A Refuge for Script,” investigates Klee’s attempt “to make his pictures occasions for a particular kind of private experience” (141), which also distances Klee from his colleagues at the Bauhaus and other avant-garde circles, Expressionist and Postexpressionist. This evocation of privateness is created by the “very form and scale of his pictures, which seem to address the viewer as a private individual” (10). Exploring this distinctive, historically specific idea of privateness, Bourneuf examines Klee’s small-format works and draws on the art criticism of Hausenstein. Klee’s emphasis on the small seems to have almost contradicted contemporaneous expectations for modern art. For that reason, Klee was subjected to negative criticism that his art “pleases like a butterfly that, enlarged, would seem only grotesque,” as Waldemar Jollos wrote derisively in 1917 (145).

In the polarized field of this kind of private fantasy—or speculative activity—Klee appears to be an outstanding object of study: as radical and different a thinker as the art theorist Carl Einstein, who used Klee around 1930 as an ambivalent borderline case between fiction and reality. Bourneuf’s interpretations can thus be read very productively with Sebastian Zeidler’s book on Carl Einstein’s art theory, Form as Revolt: Carl Einstein and the Ground of Modern Art (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015).

Looking at the works from the early 1920s that were later called square or grid paintings, Bourneuf brings out connections—or, better, alternatives—to contemporaneous readings that emphasized the transformation of the artwork and a resulting transformation of its reception. With reference to Clement Greenberg’s and Joseph Leo Koerner’s interpretations of Klee, one could speak of a crisis of the medium of the book, which resonates with how Klee conceived of images as pagelike in order to evoke the materiality of the book and, at the same time, view it with irony or parody as a nostalgic topos. Stated simply, newly designed typographies and fonts cut off the curlicues and serifs and isolated the linked letters of a handwritten stream into movable blocks, which were arranged on newspaper pages or advertisements according to economies of visual attention, its changing temporality, and the dispositive of reading. The reforms and forms of the legible that had come under criticism become apparent by looking at Klee’s work through a filter of contemporaneous artistic reflection on traditional textual and image media.

The square pictures are thus a continuation of Klee’s concerns of the 1910s since they, according to Bourneuf, attempt to offer a place for a slow, sequential, contemplative, and private kind of looking. This place is—as becomes clear in the context of diagnosing a crisis of the book and the concentrated reader with recourse to Walter Benjamin and texts from the New Typography circle—a sanctuary for the forms of writing and reading that were criticized from the perspective of urbanity and the modern way of life. Here it becomes apparent how Klee’s “media tactics” and his (conservative) idea of autonomous painting came into conflict with the program of his Bauhaus colleagues. As with Klee’s interest in the small and the private, playing with traditionally opposed aesthetic concepts characterizes his pictorial program.

With analyses that are wonderful to read and brilliantly contextualized, Paul Klee: The Visible and the Legible shows how complex and, within the years from 1916 to 1923, how variable Klee’s artistic positions are. The book traces a moment in the media history of graphics and the criticism of painting that reacted to conflicts and new demands without simply following them or merely negating them. Precisely in its dialectical, nuanced reconstruction of this polarized field does Bourneuf’s book convincingly actualize what, since Wölfflin, has been a fundamental question of art history: How is it possible to create, using the objects of art history, an intellectual history of seeing that considers visuality, systems of representation, and modes of reception together? The skillful connection of historiographical, discourse-analytical, formal, and reception-oriented approaches makes Bourneuf’s book a notable new contribution to discussions of both classical modernism and the relationship between text and image.

Translated by Anthony Mahler

Johanna Függer-Vagts
Research Assistant, Department of Art and Visual History, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany