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An abstract painter explains
I would like to try to show why the artist often undertakes such an apparently arbitrary “deformation” of the natural form of appearances.
For one thing, he does not grant these natural forms of appearance the compelling significance they have for the numerous and loudly critical realists. He does not feel so bound by these realities, because he does not see in these culminating forms the essence of the creative process of nature. More important to him than the culminating forms are the formative forces.
He is perhaps, without really wanting to be, a philosopher. And if he does not declare, as the optimists do, that this is the best of all possible worlds, he also does not say that the world around us is so squalid that one should never take it as an example. What he rather says is this:
In this particular configuration, our world is not the only one among all the worlds!
Hence he descries the things formed by nature that pass before his eyes, examines them with a penetrating look.
The more deeply he gazes, the easier it is for him to connect today’s points of view with those of yesteryear. What imprints itself on him, rather than the finished natural image, is the image of Creation as Genesis, for him the sole essential image.
He then allows himself the thought that the Creation can scarcely have come to stop today, so that he extends the world-creating activity from somewhere back there forward to the here and now, lending Genesis duration.
He goes farther.
He says to himself, restricting himself to this world: Our world once upon a time looked different, and it will look different again.
And, leaning toward the Beyond, he opines: On other stars things may have assumed very different forms.
Such mobility on the paths of natural Creation is a good school of formation for him.
It allows one who creates to move from the ground upward, and, being himself mobile, he will be careful to let freedom prevail in the development of his paths of configuration.
Granted this way of approaching things, one must give him the benefit of the doubt if he declares that the present stage of the world of appearances, the one that happens to meet his eye, is inhibited by mere accident, inhibited temporally and spatially. He takes it to be all too limited in contrast to the world of which he has caught a glimpse that runs deeper, the world he has felt in a more animated way.
And is it not true that even when we take the very small step of looking through a microscope we see images right before our eyes that, if we were not in on the game, if we saw them quite by accident somewhere out there, we would all proclaim to be fantastic and extravagant?
Meanwhile, Mr. X, coming across such an image in his daily tabloid, would cry, “That’s supposed to be a form of nature? It’s a botched piece of art!”
So, then, is the artist to grapple with a microscope? With history? Paleontology?
Only by way of comparison, only in the direction of mobility. And not in the direction of fidelity to a nature that is under scientific control!
Only in the direction of freedom . . . a freedom that simply demands the right to be as mobile as grand nature itself is mobile.
From modeled image to primordial image!
Presumptuous fellow, this artist, who doubtless remains in hiding all the while. Yet artists are called upon today to press forward, to achieve some sort of proximity to that secret ground by which the primordial law nourishes every development.
There where the central organ of all temporal-spatial animatedness, whether we call it the brain or the heart of Creation, occasions all the functions: Who as an artist would not want to dwell there? In the womb of nature, in the primal ground of Creation, which holds the secret key to everything that is?
But not everyone should head there! Each person should move in the domain where the beat of his heart tells him he should move. Thus in their own age, our antipodes of yesteryear, the impressionists, quite rightly dwelled by the tender shoots and the groundcover of everyday appearances. Our own pounding heart drives us downward, down deep to the primal ground.
Whatever grows out of this drive, whether it be called, as it well may, dream or idea or fantasy, is for now to be taken quite seriously, at least if it ceaselessly engages itself to configuration by the appropriate pictorial means.
For these curiosities will then become realities, realities of art, realities that make of life something more than, on average, it appears to be. Because they do not simply mirror what has been seen, adding a dash more or less of temperament, but rather make visible those things that were seen in secret.
Swiss artist Paul Klee (1879–1940) delivered the talk “On Modern Art” from which this essay is excerpted on January 26, 1924, at the art association of Jena, in Germany, in connection with a show of his work. Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art commissioned a translation of the lecture for a catalogue accompanying its fall 2012 exhibition Paul Klee: Philosophical Vision—From Nature to Art. The translator is David Farrell Krell, professor emeritus of philosophy at DePaul University, Chicago. The lecture was published in its entirety as “Paul Klee, Über die moderne Kunst,” in Paul Klee in Jena 1924. Der Vortrag (Minerva. Jenaer Schriften zur Kunstgeschichte, 10), edited by Thomas Kain, Mona Meister, and Franz-Joachim Verspohl, Jena 1999. Reprinted by permission of the Zentrum Paul Klee.