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

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  • Paul Klee in his studio at Weimar Bauhaus, photographed by Felix Klee, 1925

    Paul Klee in his studio at Weimar Bauhaus, photographed by Felix Klee, 1925
    © Zentrum Paul Klee

  • Klee Pedagogical Sketchbook Cover BLOG 2014

    The front cover of Paul Klee’s 1953 Pedgogical Sketchbook

    © Faber and Faber Limited

  • Page 16 of Paul Klee's 1953 Pedgogical Sketchbook

    Page 16 of Paul Klee’s 1953 Pedgogical Sketchbook

    © Faber and Faber Limited

I thought I got Bauhaus. Iconic design school, primary colours, famous teachers, nice chairs – what’s not to get? I said I’d read up, and put together a breezy beginner’s guide to sit alongside Tate Modern’s 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 Klee’s basic art theory which he taught at the school in Weimar from 1921, through its move to Dessau, until 1931. And it’s a series of squiggles. Lots of lines, not many words. I’m 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 Tate’s Klee show, Matthew Gale, is full of wisdom but short of time – so I baked him cookies and begged him to teach me Bauhaus. That’s the sad truth, readers, and here’s what I learnt.

Lesson one: lines (p16, see above)

‘An active line on a walk, moving freely, without goal…’

This is Klee’s now quite famous opening line. What’s it all about, Matthew?

It’s 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 isn’t how to draw a line quite self-explanatory?

Well, yes, but Klee’s really trying to step back and look at what underlies the way we do that, and the whole way an artist makes a composition. It’s about understanding what you’re capable of and what those things mean.

Ah, so it’s like knowing your hammer before you hit things with it?

Yes, that’s 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, Klee’s 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 he’d 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 Itten’s class where he’s 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 Klee’s introductory course was part of the entry level class where you’d be immersed in theory, and then later you’d 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.

Ha, really?

Fantastic, isn’t it? But there would have been technical masters there too, so Klee would have been there at a more fundamental instructive level. He wouldn’t have been the one saying ‘if you heat iron to this temperature you can beat it into a curve’; he’d more have floated through the class and gone ‘ah…

…that line’s on a walk’?

Exactly.

That’s it for lesson one. Here’s what we know so far…

Rule One: Learn the rules! Understanding the nature of mark-making is the key to creating a good composition

Next week

Why rules are made to be broken