Paul Klee was a teacher at the famous Bauhaus school – so let’s take his lessons! In the first of a new series, our blogs editor meets curator Matthew Gale to untangle Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook
I thought I got Bauhaus. Iconic design school, primary colours, famous teachers, nice chairs – whats not to get? I said Id read up, and put together a breezy beginners guide to sit alongside Tate Moderns current The EY Exhibition: Paul Klee – Making Visible show. Oh, to think of the foolishness. Klee’s teaching handbook arrived with its misleadingly sunny cover and its dark mass of inner contradictions and sorted that right out.
The Pedagogical Sketchbook is a crunched version of Klees basic art theory which he taught at the school in Weimar from 1921, through its move to Dessau, until 1931. And its a series of squiggles. Lots of lines, not many words. Im not exaggerating. It includes algebra. And yet its ideas underpin one the most influential design movements of all time. How can this be, and how to unravel it?
With the help of the heavyweights, of course. The curator of Tates Klee show, Matthew Gale, is full of wisdom but short of time – so I baked him cookies and begged him to teach me Bauhaus. Thats the sad truth, readers, and heres what I learnt.
Lesson one: lines (p16, see above)
An active line on a walk, moving freely, without goal…
This is Klees now quite famous opening line. Whats it all about, Matthew?
Its that very simple idea that if you move a point, you get a line, and if move the line you get a plane. Just that basic understanding gives you three kinds of mark-marking.
Ok. But isnt how to draw a line quite self-explanatory?
Well, yes, but Klees really trying to step back and look at what underlies the way we do that, and the whole way an artist makes a composition. Its about understanding what you’re capable of and what those things mean.
Ah, so its like knowing your hammer before you hit things with it?
Yes, thats right. It’s like finding the origins of a word you use habitually. If you then trace its origins, it will enlarge upon the meanings that you may have for it. And look, this was published in 1925. Most people going through art school would’ve just been told to shade like Raphael.
Aha! So this was one of the revolutionary aspects of the Bauhaus?
Yes, Klees approach of going back and addressing the actual mechanics of mark-making was totally revolutionary, and it definitely has parallels in the other teaching there. Klee arrived in 1920 and he wrote in letters to his wife how hed visited Johannes Itten’s first year classes and seen him make the students do exercise to loosen up the body before drawing, and ask them to draw emotion rather than objects, those sorts of things. There are photos of Ittens class where hes getting them to draw with both hands. It’s about breaking down the things you do automatically.
So this was part of the first-year tuition, a sort of Bauhaus foundation?
Yes, this, and Klees introductory course was part of the entry level class where youd be immersed in theory, and then later youd go onto classes for particular workshops. Klee also taught some of these, such as bookbinding, metal work and stained glass - although he had no experience in any of them.
Fantastic, isnt it? But there would have been technical masters there too, so Klee would have been there at a more fundamental instructive level. He wouldnt have been the one saying if you heat iron to this temperature you can beat it into a curve; hed more have floated through the class and gone ah…
…that lines on a walk?
Thats it for lesson one. Heres what we know so far…
Rule One: Learn the rules! Understanding the nature of mark-making is the key to creating a good composition