I was originally going to chat about Johannes Itten and my personal fascination with him, his personality, microbiotic eating habit, and his Bauhaus effect. However in looking through some old papers, I stumbled across a picture of Paul Klee’s Red Baloon, 1922 and felt compelled to write about it.
Paul Klee was asked to join the Bauhaus in 1920 by Walter Gropius and he would remain there for 10 years and produce over 10,000 works during his tenure as a professor. Earlier than that he had become friends with Wassily Kandinsky and the two of them would remain as such for the remainder of their lives. Klee was known for his impish sense of humor as well as his fascination for producing art which entailed a child-like simplistic quality. However his work should never be construed simple or as child-like as it is completed with much forethought and with painstakingly accurate use of materials. One child-like quality of Paul Klee was his inquisitive mind to seek out and experiment with new styles of execution for his artwork. This inquisitiveness carried through in the various materials and techniques that would in turn drive his work. He was a colleague of Johannes Itten who was fascinated with color and its relationships with other colors. I believe this influenced Paul Klee and sparked Klee’s further interest in colors while he experimented with surfaces and material application techniques. I cannot help but also feel that Klee’s friendship with Wassily Kandinsky was instrumental in the above work that I am writing about, Red Balloon from 1922. I believe the people that he was surrounded with were very important during his creation of his painting Red Balloon which was done during the time he was teaching at Bauhaus with Itten and Kandinsky.
Paul Klee could be considered “avant garde” by today’s standards as he showed artistic evolution as well as inventiveness with his materials, often leaving the edges of his canvas and paper raw and unpainted which allowed him to add a title line as well as an inventory tracking number. Most other artists didn’t do that at the time and were treating their works with more formality in structure. Klee’s inventiveness would carry over to his studio space at Bauhaus which was said to resemble a kitchen, one that might belong to some alchemist. The studio contained various bottles, paint powders, oils, easels, and one chair. Klee often worked on many pieces at a time, explaining the numerous easels yet only one chair. Paul Klee created works that contained multiple layers of materials and textures. This is well observed in the painting Red Balloon where Klee actually manipulates the muslin the work is painted on.
Previously working in the creation of lithographs Paul Klee discovered a technique to create that same type of line that he was able to achieve in lithography but instead create it with paint. This technique can be seen in his Red Balloon painting to create outlines. To fulfill this vision of painted atmospheric lines Klee uncovers a technique called “oil transfer”. This manual process entails painting with oil paint, which has been thinned, onto one side of a piece of paper. Using a technique similar to tracing, he treated the prepared painted paper as if it were carbon paper. Klee draws on the backside of the painted sheet which transfers the dark lines onto the muslin. In some of the other pieces of work he made, you can actually see darkened areas where Klee’s hands rested on the paper while he was drawing with a stylus or perhaps a pen. This technique creates a broken up almost chalk like line but with the medium of oil paint. Klee would not only employ this technique with oil painting during his Bauhaus years, but would use it again in his watercolors.
Paul Klee, along with being so experimental, was very aware of the impact and significance of each mark or gesture in his work from a grain of sand added to paint, to a scratch in a paint surface, and to the gesso leeching through gauze material. The Guggenheim, in an exhibition writing, refers to Paul Klee as a “technical innovator” with regards to his work and I wholeheartedly agree. This innovation is what also solidifies his status of being the “avant garde” artist that I mentioned earlier.
While painting Red Balloon Klee utilized his long history of material manipulations and technique processes. One of my favorite of Klee’s techniques is his ability to create a luminous, almost airy, quality to his work. For this effect he chooses to use muslin on which to apply paint. The open and fine weave of the muslin becomes easily wavy and distorted when placed onto a panel. The panel is used to provide additional durability and strength to the otherwise frail muslin fabric. This combination of open weaved fabric and playful paint application provides Klee with the atmospheric texture that he achieved in his lithographs, but in an oil painting. The relationship between the wavy muslin fabric weave and the straight, almost graphically designed, lines is a sophisticated yet child-like playful contrast.
The paint application is light handed but precise in placement. This style creates an airy feeling in his work that I personally respect and enjoy. Very often oil paint can emulate a heavier feeling because of the properties of the materials, however Klee’s light paint application on the muslin allows you to readily see the texture of the fabric and the open air holes in between the weave of the fabric, thus resulting in that feeling of atmosphere. This visual openness of the weave is instrumental to the sense of light, almost as if the work has an aura around it and coming through it. Compositionally the work remains playful, especially with the red balloon being placed at the top center of the picture, commanding attention to what it is proposing within the picture. I believe the splatters of red throughout the composition lead the viewer’s eye back and forth around the picture which provides an additional sense of movement to the painting.
To the viewer the picture Red Balloon is easily interpreted, but I don’t believe it was meant not to be. The vision of the red balloon provides me a sense of wonderment and adventure. I do believe the picture was created to provide that sense of journey and if looked at during the period it was created, perhaps this was to be a journey out of Germany in 1922. Since Germany was going through such awful financial hardship financing the debt for WWI, it would seem appropriate for a painting to be completed that shows an escape from all that hardship to a land that was unseen but had to be better than this one. That type of thinking would also fall in line with that playful child-like thought behavior that Klee possessed.
I admire Paul Klee’s playful banter involved in this painting between figuration and abstraction. I also enjoy seeing his Bauhaus influences as well, such as the graphic styling and colors from Itten and Kandinsky. The primary goal of my artwork revolves around the exploration of materials and application techniques which has given me great appreciation for Paul Klee’s self-evolvement within his art practice. I have not yet begun to work with lighter fabrics such as gauze or muslin as he did, but I look forward to working with them after seeing their potential effects while learning more about Paul Klee. My previous artwork usually involved the fabric weave to be in uniform direction; however I will instead use the weave of the fabric within my work and not so much as just a structure to place it on. I have always been conscious of adding light and airiness into my oil painting work and that was the reason why I chose to write about the painting Red Balloon because I respect what he was able to achieve with this piece. My thoughts of contrast making a painting interesting are somewhat simpatico to Klee especially when it involves painting style with strong linear aspects.
I am looking forward to what influence Paul Klee will have on my work. With this essay he has given me many ideas surrounding material manipulation that I am eager to start on. I believe his work resembles much of the philosophy of what the Bauhaus presented to the rest of the world. With respect to the sensitive color usage, strong graphical linear characteristics, and the circle in contrast to the square it is not surprising that this work was created during Paul Klee’s Bauhaus years. This is further cemented when research is done on Johannes Itten and Wassily Kandinsky whereas you cannot deny how much they all influenced each other during that time. Paul Klee may have been trying to emulate how a child creates art, but his techniques and materials are anything but child-like or naïve, which I believe adds depth and interest to this painting as well.
For more information on Paul Klee try the following references:
From Picasso to Pollock: Classics of Modern Art. Guggenheim Museum. http://www.guggenheim.org/exhibitions/past_exhibitions/picasso_to_pollock/klee.html
Hall, Douglas. Klee. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1998
Merrell Publishers (Edited by Stefan Frey and Josef Helfenstein). Paul Klee Rediscovered: Works from the Burgi Collection. London: Merell Publishers Limited, 2000.