Last week in our Bauhaus lesson series, we learnt about Paul Klee’s teachings online. This week we’re on to structure, and curator Matthew Gale helps us tackle a terrifying array of grids and numbers that surely can have nothing to do with painting…

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  • Klee Pedagogical Sketchbook 22
  • Page 23 of Paul Klee's 1953 Pedgogical Sketchbook

    Page 23 of Paul Klee’s 1953 Pedgogical Sketchbook

    © Faber and Faber Limited

  • Paul Klee’s teaching notes on pictorial creation

    Klee’s teaching notes on pictorial creation 

    Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern image archive 

  • Pictorial Architecture Red, Yellow, Blue, Paul Klee, 1923

    Pictorial Architecture Red, Yellow, Blue, Paul Klee, 1923

    Zentrum Paul Klee

So, back to Paul Klee’s unforgettably obscure teaching handbook, Pedagogical Sketchbook.Matthew, please explain why today’s pages looks like GSCE maths

Ah, well here Klee is thinking about structure in very simple mathematical terms, with the checker-board composition generated by number sequences.

But why would I want to pre-plan my painting in numbers?

Klee is exploring the idea that, rather than simply going ‘oh well, I rather fancy putting blue there’, you can create various logical sequences that give you different schemes. How can I draw a parallel with it? It’s like trying to think about colour in relation to accountancy, in a bizarre way. And to leap ahead a generation, when you look at the British artists on whom this sort of thing had a real impact, such as Mary and Kenneth Martin, they’re very fixated on how these numbering systems can be the basis for the art.

Can we see this approach – let’s call it art-countancy – in Klee’s own work?

Yes, some of these diagrams are very close to the basic elements that underlie the Magic Square paintings from 1923 and onwards (see Pictorial Architecture, Red, Yellow Blue above). But you can often see that he will set out a structure and then disrupt it – because he’s not actually interested in severe structure.

He’s ‘not that interested’? To quote the above page: ‘11+10+11+10+11+10= (11+10)+(11+10)+(11+10)=21+21+21=1+1+1

Well. My guess is that he’d say it simply gives you stability from which variety grows. He wouldn’t say ‘well, here’s your answer’. He’d say ‘well, here are the possibilities’. It was probably a bit flummoxing for his students.

You don’t say…

Disconcertingly, there’s a story that at the end of teaching this course, Klee would say well, I’ve shown you certain ways of making things, but I actually do it completely differently. And then he pushes off for a holiday!

That’s it for today. Here’s what we’ve learnt 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

Next week… Why nature has the answers

Two lessons down, what are your thoughts on Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook teachings? Have you got your head around them to use in your art work? Let us know!