“Playing the line”: Jazzing with Paul Klee (Tate Modern)

What can be added to the wealth of literature, essays, books and articles about Paul Klee that has not been said? Perhaps what one can humbly do is to take a line (of thought or draw) for a walk and play around. I am sure Paul Klee would have liked this.

Paul Klee’s prolific oeuvre is well represented at the exhibition of Tate Modern: Making Visible. Last Monday I went with my friend Sam Warren to see it for the third time, and still I found it overwhelming.  One starts eagerly dancing through the initial watercolors, where discovery and experimentation take place and advance toward the creative experiments, to reach the cubic paintings that are reproduced in posters and lithographs around the world. However, after 17 rooms in which including pointillist experiments, the horizontal chromatism,  or the dialogues with aboriginal art… the viewer is already exhausted!

It is not really a case of making a summary of the exhibition:  there are so much variety and hundred of paintings and I would not know how to start other than describing the obvious. Neither I would like to present a dissertation about the contribution of Klee to abstract and modern art. Instead, in a more post-modern fashion, I would try to “play” and to “walk” through my own impressions as an artist and painter of what I felt and saw in this exhibition:

The first thing that I found enticing was that despite the amount of people, Paul Klee’s paintings are an intimate invitation to a dialogue between two. The format is completely intentional in achieving this intimacy, where he is talking to you and only to you. This small format is something that sometimes is quite underestimated. We are used to big, bold, gigantic canvas that overwhelm you… and they are great! Who can forget David Hockney’s enchanted wood at the Royal Academy blockbuster last year? But, when coming back to “small is beautiful”, there is something in this intimate dialogue that whispers to your eye, flutters and stays with you. In these days of winter, I normally prefer to work on these small formats. At the moment I am working on a Series of Postcards from my sketchbooks that are easily transferred to small formats. Using hand made paper and my favorite (Golden) liquid acrylics I aim at offering a glimpse into my way of seeing the world, the memories of journeys through my “swimming in colours” (thanks to Clara Torres -painter, sculptor, singer, craftivist- for this phrase!).


Klee’s paintings have also a sort of hallucinogenic effect created by the chromatic combinations. The colours dance in front of your eyes and the shapes acquire some sort of flavour that you can even taste. Sam Warren, in her article about Paul Klee, stresses the “synaestethic” aspects of Klee’s painting… and I can see what she means:  she shows me her teeth chewing the cubes of rainbow colours!

In the article, she also clarifies that Klee himself rejected this association: For Klee “the relationships between his painting and music was that the fundamental organising principle of both was time and as such he set about trying to work with colour and line to reproduce, rather than recreate the spatial and temporal elements of music” (Warren, 2006: 194). This association can be explained by the musical training of the artist and his family. Indeed, as part of the “audio guide” there are some songs and melodies that can accompany the paintings… but I must say I was disappointed: there were the usual suspects, Mozart, Bach… don’t get me wrong I love these beautiful melodies, but they did not really “sounded” with what I was looking in front of me.

Let’s try something different… what about if we look carefully at one of the paintings (perhaps the cubical ones) each square made of different hues and values… Now give each of these cubes an specific musical key and its different variations. What we can get? Why not then to give them some sounds, some words, what can they tell? This may be a project for Brian Eno, in one of his compositions, or it may suit the improvisational nature of jazz. For visual artists, specifically, this is an invitation to stretch, to translate and to experiment within different media for expression.

Personally I am listening to this delicious track by Cale and Eno: Lay my Love!


The third aspect from Paul Klee’s work is his constant playfulness. Wandering play, cheeky play, serious play, anti-boredom play, funny and dark play, structured, critical, comic, illuminating play. He enjoyed his funny experiments with “transferring” images, the comic canvas, the almost childish sometimes uncanny drawings, the archaic fish and other marine creatures, the three eyes of an startled child… Years ago while sharing a flat with my ethnobotanic friends (Nelson Pinilla y Tamar Prado), we created a game based on the surreal “exquisite corpse”, each of us started a drawing/painting and work on it for the duration of a song or a melody. When the melody finished we have to change. Pepo, our landlord and sophisticated DJ would be the musical priest of the long evenings of play! they varied from 1 minute of windy whispers toward 17 minutes of In a Gadda da Vida (Iron Butterfly)! We got bananas with Nico and the Velvet Underground, got spooked by the ritual sounds of Jorge Reyes, cheered up with the Violent Femmes, felt comfortably numb with Pink Floyd and lighted up with the Legendary Pink Dots! And the creations where amazing! For many months we only did this, we did not need TV, we had the music, colours and we fed each other imaginations! It was the freedom and the playfulness of it all, the absolutely no limits of the exercise, the liberty of creating our no-rules! Although I do not keep the works of that time, here there are three “exquisite corpses” following that recipe, created with my compadres Cecilia Loureiro and Jose Rodrigo Cordoba:

But apart of all the fun, there is some serious thinking behind these experiments. The relationship between playing and knowing was firstly formulated by the German Philosopher Schiller in his work The Aesthetic Education of Man (1795). An individual ‘man’ for Schiller has two fundamental drives: a sensuous or material drive (Stofftrieb) that proceeds from the practical and more sensuous nature of man; and the formal drive (Formtrieb) which proceeds from his rational nature. In order to bridge this conflicting dichotomy he introduced a third drive, the play drive (Spieltribe): a concept serving to designate all of the aesthetic qualities of phenomena, and we what in the widest sense of the term call ‘beauty’. In this view, the play drive acts as a harmoniser both at the individual level and also as the social level: “only the aesthetic mode of perception makes of him a whole, because both his drives must be in harmony”.

Writing this blog after my third visit to the exhibition has made me think on many things but one message is clear:

play, create, keep moving, get crazy, have no rules…

I think this is very valid now that I am becoming an “Artist” (capital letters) and the temptation of adopting one style (the one that sells better or I feel more comfortable with), or trying to do things too perfectly (as when I have commissions I am so afraid of disappointing people) can be hindering and in the long term dangerous. The artist actually warned:

“Formation is good. Form is bad; for is the end, death.

Formation is movement, act. Formation is life.

(Klee, 1961) quoted in Warren, S. 2006


Warren, S. 2012. Review. Post-modern Synaesthesia: Paul Klee and ‘The Nature of Creation’ in Culture and Organization. Vol. 12 (2) pp. 192-198


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