The great Swiss-German artist Paul Klee was born and raised here in Bern. As a young boy he played along the river banks just a mile from our apartment.
From what I’ve read, he had an idyllic childhood, he spent his summers camping in the Berner Oberland mountains with his family, fishing and swimming in the cold glacial waters. He studied and drew nature and loved it deeply like anyone lucky enough to grow up here.
He was a fine musician and married a beautiful opera singer and they had a son. The family tended a sustainable farm with a view of the Alps from their backyard.
He was a good Swiss-German boy: mild-mannered, hard-working, and certainly not a radical.
He spent his early years as a member of the famous Bauhaus, a groundbreaking cooperative that meshed theater, dance and art. Always intrigued with movement, he was convinced that reality was never fixed and that life was constantly in flux and transforming.
He spent highly productive years in Munich as part of the Blue Four group with Kandinsky and others. They were swept up in the new wave of abstraction, exploring color theory and pointilism.
And then the war broke out.
And in the 1930’s the quietly diffident artist’s life was upended – he was interrogated by the Nazis and deported from the school in Germany and forced to take refuge back in Switzerland.
And the creativity that emerged from the dark years that followed became the germ of the radical Expressionism/Surrealism Movement.
His new paintings were profoundly different – the canvases were jabbed with neon color and electric movement and a very different way of seeing the world.
Bodies and figures were distorted, not recognizable. Squares and rectangles and squiggly lines pierced with random arrows. Crazy lines. He famously said that he took a line for a walk when describing his fanciful inventions.
He returned to drawing new perspectives of his old river Aare in Bern, but they were different – there was an edgy dissonance and confusion, restlessness and lines that constantly pushed the orderly established parameters. Probing and questioning, always questioning.
I’ve never really been drawn to abstract art, it’s always felt too cold and ambiguous. But I can visualize the Swiss-German’s splintered world, the bucolic childhood interrupted by the racist jaws that snapped at his heels and wanted to tear at the throat of his morality.
In spite of the Nazi evil and the atrocities, the man saw beauty, color, form, meaning.
He kept coming back to the colors over and over, creating more than 10,000 paintings in his lifetime, often re-articulaing the same subject.
And now when I look again the paintings look almost pastoral to me, like plowed fields pulsing with optimism, tilled hope for the seeds of a radical new future. Is there a child or a figure underneath the grids?
So yesterday when I ran past the muddy fields along Paul’s river that is now my river, I tried to imagine his little sustainable farm, the music he played at home, the art that was his calling, all facets important to his community and to the world he lived in. His life had a connectedness that I long for.
His was an authentic artistic product of Switzerland, a country that, true or not, has always at least aspired to be free.
Free art schools and theater, dance, the wide intellectual fields that every child needs to flourish and find their purpose. Things that make us fully human and able to have a life worth living.
And I wonder how he kept painting during the madness of the Holocaust.
He must have asked himself many days – what is an artist’s life worth?
And today, sitting in the Klee museum, I think about how much the world has changed but stayed the same.
The United States I left last week is at war and it’s hard not to see parallels. In the mornings I fight the depression that sits with me as I drink my coffee and read the internet news from back home. Surreal.
At Christmas my artist friend Dixie sent me a note, urging me to keep writing. She insists it’s the only way to keep living, keep feeling, keep resisting.
To keep writing without fear of adding to the noise. To keep trying to be an artist, to just create anything in this insane world.
In the little Irish film Sing Street, the main character is an unpopular teenager in a working class Catholic school. His home life is crazy – his parents are splitting up and he is regularly bullied by his peers and even by the priests at his new school.
So finally he decides that the only way out (and a way to get the girl) is to start a rock band. He’s never written a song or played an instrument but he strikes out to find other like-minded misfits to make music with him.
And over time he realizes he can do it, he even has talent – and eventually he stands up to the bully at school. And in the pivotal moment of truth in the film, when he’s cornered by him in the street, and all the forces that want to keep him down, he lashes out at him and yells “you know – you don’t do anything . …you just try to stop everything – you don’t create anything.”
And what can the bully do (but join the band)?
Like him, I think we’re all afraid right now, every one of us, but if history teaches us anything it is this: in times of war and chaos and when we’re afraid and feeling backed into a corner, art will be the way out.
Art has the ability to stand up and fight back when nothing else will. Art will save us and will bear witness.
I still love the early Klee – so lyrical, so charming and sweetly sentimental. Easy to understand and enjoy. And now I love the later ones, the complex subversive codes that are simmering with rebellion.
I just feel a rage and sadness in them that is woven so intricately, so thoughtfully. And it’s like the patchworks are pulsing with a pain that wants to be contained but just can’t be.
I think the great Paul Klee probably just wanted to keep sketching gentle rivers but then the world spun apart. And thrust into the evil shadows of genocide, I wonder if he just wanted to create something beautiful and nostalgic.
But he couldn’t look away, he was too brave, too moral.
At any rate, he risked his life for it.
Because the cost of all of it – of art, of love, of adolescence and growing up, of really seeing things and sharing the truth of what we see – it’s almost too much to bear – and yet we keep trying anyway, right?