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Paul Klee, Vogelscheuche, 1935

mumok collects

Paul Klee

Vogelscheuche, (Scarecrow) 1935

Mixed media on canvas
71 x 56 cm, acquired 1969

“Dot, dot, comma, dash ...,” as the German nursery rhyme goes. Paul Klee seems to have taken this literally. Vogelscheuche (Scarecrow) from 1935 is made up of a slanted square, a circle, and four small rectangles. But what exactly is “... finished in a flash”? How from the scant visual information does it become a scarecrow? Or, in other words: what path does our perception take from seeing abstract forms to recognizing an object?

The seeing or “reading” of abstract forms is a controversial discussion of early modernism, with its manifestos containing the most diverse concepts on the perception of “pure” form and objective content. “A long as art is not released from the object,” wrote Robert Delaunay, for instance, in 1913, “it remains description, literature, demeans itself by the use of inadequate means of expression, condemns itself to the slavery of imitation.” Wassily Kandinsky similarly postulated a purism of form and color and the development of materials into a “spiritualization.”

Am I ultimately an art philistine if I simply cannot see anything other than a small man dancing in Klee’s picture? In an art theoretical lecture that he first held in 1924, Klee attempted to explain the effect of the interplay of form, color, drawing, and content in modern art. It was clear to him that form is not only a purely abstract view. On the contrary, he was all too aware of how much the representational haunts the artist. “I only hope that the layman who, in a picture, always looks for his favorite subject, will, as far as I am concerned, gradually die out and remain to me nothing but a ghost which cannot help its failings. For a man knows his own objective passions.” According to Klee, the artist “places more value on the powers which do the forming than on the final forms themselves.” Admittedly this also opens up new possibilities: with the means of abstraction comes the possibility “to make the invisible visible”:  “And thus I could arrive at a happy association between my vision of life (Weltanschauung) and pure artistic craftsmanship.” In the simultaneity of (“pure”) form and (associated) content, Klee is concerned with the diffuse intermediate area of the imagination in which “the invisible [becomes] visible”: the artist creates a reality that transcends everyday perception in order “to extend his view from the present to the past” and, conversely, to the world ahead—“Genesis eternal”—even though “these associative properties have been the source of passionate misunderstandings between artist and layman."

What should I see now when I look at the picture, or rather, what did Klee want me to see? Contrary to earlier dissected pictures made up of small parts, the pictorial space in later works has been purged; only a few elements now determine the motif. Klee increasingly experimented with materials: the brown square, for example, looks like a stuck-on piece of rough fabric; only when seen up close can one see how the paint has been applied in several layers and the imprint of textile worked into it. As a result, haptic surfaces with fuzzy edges arise, not cautiously measured areas of color but small islands of painterly sensibility. The reduction to a few elements forms an interplay of information by joining the forms like parts of a text. A square with a circle become a body and a head, strips left and right become arms, and so forth. In this way, associations turn into language. The square is slanted, the circle appears to roll, the small rectangles somehow fly through the air; it all threatens to tip over—the man is dancing. Yet Klee shifts the meaning with a suggestive title: it is not a man but a scarecrow. The language, in this case from Klee himself, says what the picture doesn’t say. What is cute, small, turns into something large, a constructed object made of rags and junk that, in eerie moments when it comes to life, appears frightening and ghost-like.

This assertion suggests that Klee took the titles from his own personal circumstances. When he painted Vogelscheuche in 1935, the world had dramatically changed. It was the year when Hitler passed the so-called Nuremberg Laws. With their ratification, the lawful basis for the persecution of Jews in Germany was established. Klee had already fled to Switzerland in1932, after the National Socialists pressured the Bauhaus in Dessau to close and he lost his professorship at the academy in Düsseldorf. In 1937 his works were included in the propaganda exhibition Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art). In exile in Switzerland, Klee was suffering from an artistic and cultural uprooting. Is the brown square an allusion not just to the potato sack that the scarecrow is made of but also rather to the brown threat of National Socialism, to the hollow construct of agitation and propaganda? Did Klee paint Vogelscheuche as the portent of an uncertain future? Or perhaps this interpretation also belongs, like so much in art history, to the “passionate misunderstandings between artist and a layman” that the artist spoke of.

Jörg Wolfert