Paul Klee’s engagement with the art of the Far East, which inspired him throughout the whole of his life, has gone relatively unexamined until now. The exhibition is attempting for the first time to give an overview of Klee’s preoccupation with East Asian art.
Beyond the context of narrow, ‘classical’ Japonism, the significance of ink painting, calligraphy and even Zen Buddhism for Klee’s art can be understood. At the same time, and as a kind of counterpoint, particular attention is paid to Klee’s reception in contemporary Japan.
Paul Klee and ‘classical’ Japonism
Japonism was a fashion phenomenon in the second half of the 19th century. This applies particularly to France, where artists of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, as well as the Nabis group, were particularly strongly influenced by it. So-called ‘classical’ Japonism reached Germany some 20 or 30 years later, although it was not as vigorous a presence as it had been in France. Klee was starting his artistic career just as young artists in Germany were gradually discovering their Japanese sources. Against this background, between 1900 and 1908, he created a number of works in which the influences of Japanese woodcuts (Ukiyo-e) are apparent.
Klee’s painterly transposition of Chinese poems
In 1916 Klee made a cycle of ‘writing pictures’, six watercolours in which he illustrated poems from the volume Chinese Poetry from the 12th Century BC to the Present Day. The book had been given to Paul and Lily Klee for Christmas in 1909 by Alexander and Zina Eliasberg, who were close friends with the Klees at the time. It was only seven years later, during the First World War, that Klee’s interest in China grew as an imaginary setting for escape and projection for his artistic work.
Between 1910 and 1914 Klee turned his attention to East Asian ink painting. In the watercolours of those years he referred to certain motifs that he had seen in Far Eastern paintings, and used a technique comparable to ink painting. In 1910 he described this in his diary in the following terms: “Watercolours wet in wet on water-sprinkled paper. Quick nervous work with a particular sound whose parts are sprayed over the whole.”
Kabuki is the traditional flamboyant Japanese theatre of the Edo period (1603–1867). Like European Baroque opera, Kabuki theatre is a mélange of many different arts, featuring dance, music, costumes and drama. Kabuki actors were chiefly popularised through their portrait woodcuts, which often depicted the stars in pairs.
In the Far East the practice calligraphy was considered on a par with painting. Both in calligraphy and in ink painting, the brushstrokes record a trace of the movement of the brush, and thus faithfully reproduce the act of writing/drawing. While teaching at the Art Academy in Düsseldorf around 1931, Paul Klee wrote of calligraphy: “On the Chinese model, painting is not seen as a technique, a craft, but is given equal status with calligraphy. In Chinese terms, the essence of calligraphy consists not, for example, in the cleanness and evenness of the hand, which can easily lead to rigidity, but in the fact that one depicts what one has to express with the greatest possible perfection but with the smallest amount of effort.”
After his return to Switzerland at the end of 1933, Klee became interested in the philosophy of Buddhism. In his ‘exile’ he read the book The Great Liberation – An Introduction to Zen Buddhism by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. His cycle of drawings about the “Urchse” is a reaction to the “ten ox pictures” illustrated in Suzuki’s book. Even during his time at the Bauhaus in Weimar, Klee was exposed to Buddhist attitudes. The author Bruno Adler remembered: “The students revered the master, whom they liked to call ‘Buddha’, and so did his colleagues. Kandinsky, Feininger and Schlemmer respected him as the supreme authority in all disputes.”
Paul Klee’s reception in contemporary Japan
The history of the reception of Paul Klee’s art in Japan began as early as 1913 with a newspaper report on the exhibition First German Autumn Salon in the Sturm Gallery in Berlin. Before the Second World War, Klee was seen in Japan as a cultural intermediary between the Japanese tradition and the modern art of the West. Thanks to tireless work by Japanese authors, art collectors and artists, Klee was re-evaluated in the post-war era and attained great fame.
The representatives of different areas of art – music, poetry, literature, architecture, comics, visual arts – continue to engage with Klee’s work. His artistic attitude, his aesthetic and his thought have given some protagonists from different artistic fields important impulses for their own creative activity. The examples presented in the exhibition make it clear that Klee’s multi-faceted art work addresses artists beyond individual artistic genres. Klee is just as popular today with a broad Japanese public that feels directly addressed by Klee’s aesthetic. Whether it is Klee’s proximity to the Japanese tradition or his autonomous position in western art that is responsible for this fascination cannot be unambiguously answered.