In the fifth part of Tate's Bauhaus lesson series, curator Matthew Gale explains to our blogs editor how Paul Klee's theories could help improve not only your painting, but also your Jenga 

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  • Page 45 of Paul Klee's 1953 Pedgogical Sketchbook
    Page 45 of Paul Klee's 1953 Pedgogical Sketchbook
  • Page 48 of Paul Klee's 1953 Pedgogical Sketchbook
    Page 48 of Paul Klee's 1953 Pedgogical Sketchbook
  • Page 54 of Paul Klee's 1953 Pedgogical Sketchbook
    Page 54 of Paul Klee's 1953 Pedgogical Sketchbook

Now Matthew, this is Jenga, basically, isn’t it? Did Klee invent Jenga? (p.45, fig. 51)

I don’t know. But the thing is the keystone isn’t it?

Oh, is it? I thought it was about balance.

Well, yes – at any one stage as you’re building, there’s potential for collapse, so the keystone is the thing that holds it all in place. In the Renaissance when they were building domes, for example, the bit on the top had to be quite heavy to stop the whole thing exploding outwards. And if one is thinking again of a painting, I suppose the way in which it is held together top and bottom provides balance across the canvas. One of the famous things Matisse said keeps striking me repeatedly as well – ;that in adding a small amount of any colour to a painting, the whole of the rest of the composition has to be adjusted.

Oh, interesting.

Having said that, what makes it interesting is that Klee then starts cutting up works – because he can see a section of the work that balances in itself more successfully than the whole. If you look at the Aquarium paintings in room six, two of them were one painting at one stage, and if one thinks in these Jenga terms, he must have been looking at that one painting and felt there was potential for collapse. So he cut it into three parts (the third part couldn’t travel unfortunately).

Some really interesting ideas and techniques, here. We’re getting quite a lot more practical advice in this lesson, I think

Yes, I suppose so. He’s quite a practical man, Klee…

He is, really? You could have fooled me…

He is, in a strange way. I mean, don’t forget, as well as teaching all this theory, he’s also the man preparing his boards and gluing his papers down and building his frames. He thinks about the materials from which the work is made as well as the theory that can lead into it, and whatever one imagines is going on in his imagination. You know, he’s balancing all those things.

Moving onto p.48, we have a funny diagram about stones being dropped and bullets being fired. More guidance on composition?

Ah, this is where Klee becomes quite existential. It’s a strange combination of science and mysticism. He’s trying to trace the trajectory of the bullet fired in the air – that it goes up with its great energy and then that must be dissipated at a certain stage.

Why is he bothered about the limitations of gravity, though? Surely the artist can do whatever he or she likes on the canvas?

Ah well, only through the imagination. One thing Klee says is that man’s great tragedy is that he’s fixed to the earth. I mean, if we were stones we’d be happy with our lot, but as humans we have the imagination to believe we can fire an arrow completely into orbit, but we can’t. It’s a sort of a tragic condition really. Actually, I think the other tragic hero in the background here is Goethe. The teachers of the Bauhaus were very aware of Goethe’s poetic, scientific breadth of knowledge – and Goethe’s Faust is of course the ultimate tragic hero, this man who makes a pact with the devil in order to encompass these greater possibilities.

Ah yes, quite similar to Klee’s quote in the book: ‘Half winged-half in prison, this is man!’ [p.54]

So the implication is also that as an artist, too, you might be working towards an ideal that may never be achieved in what you produce. Bit of a downer, isn’t it?

Yes it is!

I suppose it’s a more holistic view of how one thinks about the position of art in life. When you think about what theBauhaus was doing, it’s quite a tight knit community of people, who are trying to make a new better world through the production of the things that they can make with their hands. But, in doing that they also aspire to all sorts of spiritual renewal as well, and it’s very intense – not least because they’re under siege a lot of the time from people who are criticising them, especially in this particular moment when the ;Pedagogical Sketchbook was published. It was the moment when the move had to be made from Weimar to Dessau, as a result of the political swing to the right.

That’s it for lesson five. Here’s what we know so far:

Lesson one: Learn the rules! Understanding the nature of mark-making is the key to creating a good composition
Lesson two: Break the rules. Understanding the potential structure of form allows you to disrupt it
Lesson three: Look to nature. The relationships in nature can help us understand the way our elements work in art
Lesson four: Know your viewpoint. Perspective is about your position in relation to the world, and once you know it, you can mess with it
Lesson five: Like architecture, a painting must be structurally balanced

Come back next week for the final lesson, and our Bauhaus 101 round-up.