Category Archives: Week 8

Paul Klee exhibition: Symbols, Calligraphy and Layers

Team: Josh, Lei and Yang

Of the many modern American paintings out there, almost all by painters who must have been aware of Paul Klee and his body of work, what was it about the relatively small number we saw at the museum that made the final cut for this particular exhibit?

Honestly, that is kind of a tough question. Unlike other “inspired by” exhibits I’ve seen– for instance, this exhibit at the Espace Dali in Paris, which demonstrated how modern street artists have been visibly influenced by Dali’s surrealist style and quirky imagery– these paintings didn’t all resemble Klee’s work that much. The exhibit description admits that the artists on display here “did not seek to emulate or copy Klee’s style, nor did they all necessarily cite Klee as a direct influence; each encountered and drew upon Klee’s art and ideology in various ways.”

But what ways? The most basic common thread I could determine between these works is that a lot of them provided ways for the artists to escape reality– after all, “reality” in recent times had consisted of war, persecution, and widespread destruction. This artistic urge seems to occur a lot in postwar eras– in high school, I remember studying the Dada Movement, in which 1920’s artists and playwrights had used humor and absurdism to overcome the utter dreariness of the World War I years.

This exhibit, with artwork by Klee and his followers which is largely divorced from realism, seems to have been the product of a similar line of thought. Most of these paintings weren’t realistic portrayals of urban or natural landscapes the way that Impressionist artwork, for instance, might be. Instead, these works seem to have emerged from colorful imaginary worlds filled with abstract images and various symbols.

Lots of symbols. That is another major area of overlap for these paintings. They relied quite heavily on the visual semiotics and symbolic language which the authors we’ve read have identified as a prominent feature of this era of artwork. All of those arrows and eyes, including in paintings such as Pierrot by WIlliam Baziotes and Labyrinth #1 by Adolph Gottlieb, are probably among the likeliest nods to Paul Klee throughout the artwork seen here.

It’s possible that Klee’s calligraphy paintings are one of his modernist interpretations of the traditional poem-painting. In China, there is a long tradition of reciprocity in the relationship between the arts of writings and paintings. These two visual arts developed hand in hand, sharing the same tools and techniques. Ancient Chinese artists have mastered three perfections to achieve the gathering of poets, calligraphers and painters to create an artwork. The resulting product would be a painting that would include the work of a calligrapher to write a poem. As Klee said, “Since the dawn of civilization, drawing and writing… were the same thing.”  In Klee’s paintings signs clustering, we can see how Klee actively create his idiosyncratic features of writing and the structural parallels between verbal and visual imagery that is common in Chinese traditional poem-painting. Klee recreate those letters that are verbal signs in a personal visual style to negotiate meaning with his viewers. We can see many liberate lines and automatic writing and tapping in klee’s paintings, reflecting klee’s philosophy and methods of visual expression: “The essence of calligraphy consists not in the neatness and evenness of the handwriting . . . but in the endeavor to express what one has to express as perfectly as possible and with the greatest economy of means. To bring out this calligraphic character in drawing or painting is a part of the artist’s craft. . . . The more capable our handwriting is of writing, the more sensitive becomes its signs.”

The Way, a spiritual path, 2005, by Kim Hoa Tram

Paul Klee  Signs clustering

The exhibition contains Klee’s works and the other Americans artists’ paintings that are influenced by Klee’s style. Inspired by Klee’s work, these artists learn from Klee’s abstraction, the use of signs and expressive potential of symbolic forms. In the painting of “Sounds at Night”, the artist learn from Klee’s abstraction, created his own form and unique way of illusion.

It was impressive to see how different artists use multiple layers in their artworks. In the painting of “The Seer” by Adolph Gottlieb, the artist painted abstract symbols which created a unique artistic language that revealed several layers and meanings. Through lines, colors, structure, and the feeling that immersed from the painting, these reflections are representational code of layers with geometric forms. And we the audience could see through the painting’s time and space, which is fascinating.

Similarly, the work of labyrinth also included different layers in the painting. The square, the rectangle, and other layers that made the artwork vivid and have multiple layers’ making.

The impression of art is unlimited with free imagination and situated in the art space that connected and combined the given context and environment is connected.

Lastly, I feel like “modernist art” often carries a lot of social commentary with it; the name alone suggests a reflection on “modern times.” Maybe the work here wasn’t the most overtly political art of the era, but given its influences– “the art of indigenous cultures… [and] nature’s invisible forces,” among others– Klee and his American followers are seemingly taking a stand for several important areas of modern culture to be granted more attention. Since so much untraditional artwork was denounced as “degenerate” in Klee’s time, perhaps creating artwork that the Nazis would have cringed at can be read as a positive, “it’s OK to be yourself” message on the American artists’ behalf.

The terms “modernism” and “postmodernism” are broad and difficult to define, in my opinion, but I look forward to taking a crack at it in class, using the artwork we saw at the Phillips Collection as a starting point.

Modernism: A New Way of Depicting the World

By Jordan Moeny, Dina El-Saharty, and Adey Zegeye

Transitioning from the realist to modernist movement, artists began moving from attempting to depict their external surroundings, and portraying real life exactly as it is–or “national life” (Edwards and Wood, 31)–to leaning toward the more abstract and turning inwards, depicting self-consciousness. In the early 20th century, art started becoming a method for reflection, as well as a means to illuminate the current circumstances surrounding social changes. Arnason and Mansfield write, “what is referred to as globalization is the most recent phase of uneven and combined development” (32). Due to rapid urbanization, the juxtaposition of the developed and under-developed and the uneven distribution prevalent in society became key elements that were incorporated into modernist artworks. “Both perspectives–Primitivism and Futurism–entailed a profound hostility to the world as it had actually developed, and both orientations were rooted in the conditions of an uneven and combined world system” (Edwards and Wood, 31). That is to say, modernism aimed to eliminate the notion of space and time, by creating a symbolic language that isn’t attached to real life events, such as those of World War II, but rather to a process. The artists searched for art forms and methods that were ultimately removed from the external world, and its harsh realities.

As artists departed from the idea of space and time, they sought to highlight the “transitory” elements of life and experienced changes in and within their art. The need to express such elements as transition, change, and time mirrored the social climate at the time. This shock of change sparked discussion and exchange of new methods of art that went beyond imitation, including but not limited to duality, clash of space and time, as well as the interplay between signifier and signified. In other words, artists sought for “the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer” (Arnason and Mansfield, 394). This movement marked a shift from traditional academia, and represented a desire for freedom from politics, tradition, etc. The meaning of art was brought into question as new forms of art started to emerge, and some artists began abandoning structure for abstraction in order to express art as an experience invoking thought, emotion, and transcendence. As such, modernism became synonymous with rejecting the conservative values and traditions of realism, and embracing reprise, recapitulation, and revision by using geometric shapes and symbols. To modernist artists, such as Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Klee, “a painting continually grew and changed in time as in space” (Arnason and Mansfield, 282). The process of change became the central focus, primarily shown through the layers and layers of paint in each artwork, and even in the presentation and exhibition of the artworks of that movement.

Modernism at the Phillips: Dialogism in Action

The curating of the Phillips Collection includes explicit dialogism: at the entrance, the welcoming text states, “At the Phillips Collection, we invite you to connect with art, spaces, and each other. The artwork on view is constantly changing, and the conversations between them are, too. Please explore, build connections, and join the experiment.” In other words, from the moment one walks into this museum, viewers of the artworks get to engage in the ongoing and changing dialogue between and among artists. The exhibit on Paul Klee focuses further on drawing clear connections among the artists; in many cases the museum labels and descriptions make direct references to where other artists would have seen his work and techniques and quote the artists discussing Klee as an influence. The descriptions also establish the relationships and overlap between Klee and his successors in terms of technique and method, indicating that Klee played an influential and prominent role in the art world, and specifically in modernism.

While the Phillips could have easily, as it has before, presented an exhibition consisting only of the works of one specific Modernist artist as a distinct unit, curators instead chose to show Klee’s works alongside–and often undifferentiated from–those of other artists; thus, the exhibition forces a recognition that no artist exists in a vacuum. It also doesn’t force uniformity on its artists. One particularly interesting inclusion in the collection was the Gene Davis piece Red Devil, which is drastically different from most of the other selected works. Excluding the piece would have made perhaps for a more visually cohesive show, but its inclusion reminds the viewer that, while Klee was a source of inspiration for Davis and the other artists, he was far from the only force contributing to their artistic development, and many ended up in places that are far from the ground they once shared with Klee.

Another notable inclusion in the exhibition is the recognition of the role of the Phillips Collection itself, an example of what Bourdieu calls “the performative magic of the power of instituting, the power to show forth and secure belief or, in a word, to impose recognition” (The Forms of Capital, 21). Reinforcing the role of the institution in the art world, the museum was mentioned multiple times as the place where later artists saw Klee’s work on display. Tucked away in the corner of one room was a glass case that was even more explicit in acknowledging the role of non-artists in the system. It included letters between Duncan Phillips and Karl Nierendorf, Klee’s dealer in the United States. While one function of this display is to reinforce the cultural capital and authority of Phillips and the Phillips Collection (the display highlights Nierendorf’s fervent praise of the museum), it also draws attention to the economic system that exists around even the most avant-garde art.

Arnason, H.H, and Elizabeth Mansfield. History Of Modern Art. 7th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2013. Print.

Edwards, Steve, and Paul Wood. Art & Visual Culture 1850-2010. United Kingdon: Tate Gallery Pub, 2013. Print.

“The Forms of Capital.” Originally published, 1983; English, “The Forms of Capital,” in John G. Richardson, editor, Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986), 242-258.

Photo taken at The Phillips Museum

Paul Klee and His Artistic Expression

By Adriana Sensenbrenner, Catherine Boardman, Yinghan Guo

As a teacher, painter and musician, Paul Klee can be considered an anti-categorical artist in practice and purpose. His paintings, inspired largely by music and children art, cannot be contextualized in one “school” but rather can be seen as osmotic. His paintings blend multiple different movements and ideas together to create a rather witty and childish masterpiece that has influenced generations of artists and people alike.

As a teacher at the Bauhaus, he was exposed to the various teachings and dogmas of the Bauhaus to further influence his work in terms of design. His family was rather musical as well, with his father as a music teacher and his mother trained as professional singer. Klee was raised in a musical family and was trained as a violin player. He saw analogies between music and visual art, where certain colors stand for expressions and musical rhythms. Such an idea links back to Kandinsky who saw colors as different forms of musical rhythms and tempos. The musical and the visual become a different measure to analyze Klee’s work, which become, if you will, a symphony of signs and symbols that combined seem as if a child is playing with artistic tools (playing in the musical and visual sense).

In Klee, we can see the convergence and reinterpretation of many artistic genres – from Cubists and printmaking to the German Renaissance and Romantics (Arnason & Mansfield, 2012), especially in his choice of medium and material. In Paul Klee and Ten Americans, After Paul Klee, a Klee piece described as “oil on canvas” sits next to a work of “colored paste on newspaper on burlap.” His vacillating choice of medium captures the zeitgeist of the early 20th century: uncertainty. Whether it be the radical new ways of thinking, the confrontation of old and new cultures, WWI and II, the introduction of technology and the fear that comes with it, Klee’s work regresses to a childlike state – innate to all humans – all while incorporating the complexities of modern life and the traditions of human life (music, signs, language). Klee almost perfectly represents the “continuum of reinterpretations;” the idea that we will never cease to combine elements of what we have seen, heard, read, etc (Irvine, 2018). However, even with the multitudes of artistic codes present in Klee’s work, one cannot deny that what he was doing was different. It was so different in fact that it influenced a generation of artists in an entirely different country, as we saw in Ten Americans. Klee tapped into something that had not been tapped into before. He regenerated codes of the past, inaugurated them into the present, and solidified his influence into the future.

One of Klee’s ways to explore human life is through nature. Rather than representing nature, Klee mediates nature through abstract art. As the curator notes in “The Nature of Creation: Making the Invisible Visible,” Klee turned away “from the social realist art of the 1930s that remained firmly tied to depicting the harsh realities of the external world,” and developed “a profound desire to use art to express the vitality and internal rhythms of the natural world.” Just like artists of Romanticism, Klee also believed that human beings could reach their interiority and spirits through their connection with nature. Using abstract art, Klee tried to capture the ungraspable feelings that are evoked by the sight of nature. Arnason notes that Klee attempts “to arrive at a reality beyond the visible world” (128). It is through the media of symbols, bold colors and exaggerated patterns that Klee translates the invisible and the unrepresentable human feelings on the canvas.

Evoking the natural world for their artistic expression is not exclusive to Klee. It is also shared by later artists, who interacts with Klee across time and space. The Exhibition curation lists Klee, Baziotes, and Stamos among others as examples, and describes their style as “a pictorial language of abstract motifs” that “evoke the natural world in constant state of growth and evolution.” The paintings by Klee and Stamos (below), through different in various aspects, share commonalities as well. For example, both of them use abstract patterns to create meaning (or non-meaning), and both of them creates different layers of colors for expressing their ideas. This illustrates how artists are involved in dialogues across time and space, and how Klee’s innovations in abstract art influences artists in later times. Those paintings inherited the features of symbolism, including “expressing [the artists’ individual spirits],” creating “a fantasy world” and evoking “free imagination” (Kleinder 707), but also anticipate and echoes with surrealism and cubism in later times. The world of art is always a world of dialogism.

Paul Klee (1879-1940), Triplet Blossoms and the Cave (1930)

Theodoros Stamos (1922-1997), Untitled (1945)

Arnason, H. H. and Elizabeth C. Mansfield. History of Modern Art. 7th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012.

Irvine, Martin. (2018).  “Student’s Guide to Mikhail Bakhtin: Dialogue, Dialogism, and Intertextuality.

Kleinder, Fred S. Gardener’s Art Ages. 14th edition. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2014.

Smithgall, Elsa. Wall text for Paul Klee and Ten Americans, After Paul Klee. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

The Art Story (website),

Photos are taken at the Philips Collections.