In our fourth lesson from Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook, our blogs editor learns that if your perspective looks wrong, it might actually be right. Grab a coffee, people… Curator Matthew Gale comes to the rescue (again)

1 of 6
  • Page 36 of Paul Klee's 1953 Pedgogical Sketchbook

    Page 36 of Paul Klee’s 1953 Pedgogical Sketchbook

    © Faber and Faber Limited

  • Page 37 of Paul Klee’s 1953 Pedgogical Sketchbook

    Page 37 of Paul Klee’s 1953 Pedgogical Sketchbook

    © Faber and Faber Limited

  • Page 38 of Paul Klee's 1953 Pedgogical Sketchbook

    Page 38 of Paul Klee’s 1953 Pedgogical Sketchbook

    © Faber and Faber Limited

  • Page 40 of Paul Klee's 1953 Pedgogical Sketchbook

    Page 40 of Paul Klee’s 1953 Pedgogical Sketchbook

    © Faber and Faber Limited

  • Page 41 of Paul Klee's 1953 Pedgogical Sketchbook

    Page 41 of Paul Klee’s 1953 Pedgogical Sketchbook

    © Faber and Faber Limited

  • Perspective with Inhabitants, Paul Klee 1921

    Paul Klee, Perspective with Inhabitants 1921

    Zentrum Paul Klee

So Matthew, some more lines. What’s going on with these?

Here Klee is playing with the rules of perspective. You can see he’s added the third dimension as ‘optical illusion’. So he shows two parallel lines running horizontally (p. 36, fig. 31), but then by dropping the bottom line down it implies that you’ve got space, that the two lines are merging somewhere far off to the left. Famously, the story goes that when cinema first started there was an early film of a train coming straight towards the screen, and everyone screamed and jumped out of the way. He’s exploring that device of a single point.

Ok, when he says ‘optical illusion’, it’s the depth that’s the illusion?

Or, the way in which you can convey dimension on the flat surface of a canvas is the illusion.

Ah ha! I knew this had to come back to the canvas eventually.

Notice how in these diagrams, the fatter line (page 38, figs.37–8) gives you a sense of where you are in relation to it. You see, you’re absolutely central in fig.36 (p.37), but in the next stage he shifts you across in relation to space, to help you understand how we see.

This reminds me of the previous lesson, and that idea of understanding your place in relation to nature…

Yes, in a way that’s an existential position, isn’t it? You can’t see but from your singular position in the world, both conceptually and in the simple physical placing in the world. You’ve been doing your homework.

[Beams] Now, what’s this receding house about? (p.41, fig. 44)

Ah, well what Klee is saying is that when we’re looking up at a house, we psychologically make the verticals vertical. But, the drawing is completely in perspective and therefore the house looks like it’s zooming away from us.

How funny – it definitely looks like a mistake

The odd thing is, although this example is just a quick lesson in how we see perspective, this is precisely the moment when Klee’s colleagues at the Bauhaus and elsewhere are doing exactly that sort of photography of buildings. Rodchenko and Moholy-Nagy, who taught at the Bauhaus, taking really steep upward looking and downward looking photographs, which have this giddying effect that he precisely identifies as being psychologically incorrect. So it’s interesting that he fixes upon that – I suppose it’s a sense of this new, fantastic modern world at that moment, and having to adjust the way we look at it. In some works in the show too (Perspective with Inhabitants, above), you can see Klee using these very steep perspectival lines to construct a room.

That’s interesting. I mean, I can understand him using these diagrams to explain perspective to his students, but what do you think he’s trying to achieve with them in his work?

You’re right – I don’t think his painting are about dimension, he would have learned all about that 25 years earlier. I think he’s using the ways in which perspective and dimension can be modified to convey the thing that the paintings are really about. So, perhaps he’s playing with perspective to give a sense of claustrophobic, introspective, concentrated space, for example.

That’s it for lesson four! 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

Rule two: Break the rules. Understanding the potential structure of form allows you to disrupt it

Rule three: Look to nature. The relationships in nature can help us understand the way our elements work in art

Rule four: Know your viewpoint. Perspective is about your position in relation to the world, and once you know it, you can mess with it

Next week… Why painting is like Jenga