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Social Class, Classifying and Descriptions in Art - Paul Klee to start with!

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Thursday, 9 Aug 2018, 16:24

Classifying or ‘classing’ the metaphors of a Painter’s Relationship to their Canvas: Reflecting on Düchting, H. (2002) Paul Klee: Painting Music Munich, Prestel Verlag.       

Düchting’s work is a scholarly examination of the varied uses of references to music as a metaphor for art in both the act of painting and in reading painting. It should be clearer perhaps in themed monographs on individual artists how and why we are using music to describe painting: whether it is as process or product for instance. In most cases, music is used as means of ekphrasis - a description of a paintings effect and affect in relation to some ideal viewer. For instance Düchting’s discussion of the wonderful and huge work (Ad Parnassum 1932 100 x 125 cm) by Klee discusses the picture in terms of the images it models from landscape and architecture before summarising why the expressive means of music (and here specifically ‘polyphonic harmony’) might also describe these.[1]

Klee saw polyphonic painting as superior to all other arts, because he felt that spatial and temporal dimensions can be given visual expression in a two-dimensional representation as overlapping and intersecting planes. … The origins of the title [of Ad Parnassum 1932] derive from a famous treatise on music entitled Gradus ad Parnassum (1725) by Johann Josef Fux, which taught generations of musicians the technique of polyphonic harmony.[2]

There is ambiguity here of course. Are we talking about Klee adopting a ‘technique’ of painting process as musical learners adopted Fux or are we talking about a metaphor for what a painting as product achieves in the eyes of ideal beholders, which we might equate here – if rather sloppily – with the intention of the painter. I think this is deliberately unclear. An effect on the viewer is not, after all, a technique, although the artist’s painting techniques may contribute to this effect. The ambiguity remains to stop us asking the question: are not the descriptions of painting in musical terms not merely vehicles of an otherwise indescribable tenor (to use the constituent terms of metaphor) rather than descriptive of anything technical action or perceptible entity. In effect painting by Klee is no more ‘music’ in its form or content than is a Gainsborough portrait.

Let’s see the painting in a possibly unreliable form – colours reproduction is not usually wonderful or reliable.[3]

Nowhere does the sense of multiple voices actually describe what we see here for me as a viewer – other than, for me at least, the suggestion of the reproduction of a complex set for Verdi’s Egyptian opera. Indeed the theatrical ‘metaphor’ (and it is no more than that helps me more, almost organising the picture into the ‘overlapping and intersecting planes’ mention in the quotation above. This metaphor makes sense of the architectural and landscape elements that haunt this picture, including the ‘warm circle’ nominated by Klee that many prefer to see as an evening sun. There is a pyramid and an arch. Note in the latter that the arch is not only created by the black line outline but the malformation of the otherwise more regular ‘grid of dense dots of contrasting colours’ that was Klee’s version of Seurat’s ‘divisionism’ to make the shape of a supporting arch structure, including the fact that they underscore the black curve, losing their grid-like potential partially, and in doing so suggesting depth of field.[4]

Whilst most commentary identifies the triangle in the top section with Mount Parnassus, prompted by the title, there is for me the need to see this as a shape suggestive of more overt human intervention, as a construction not a ‘found’ reality represented, even if but as an idealised fantasy. Düchting admits that Klee’s ‘graphical elements … do not lend themselves to an unambiguous interpretation’.[5] I feel moreover that this is their strength, in that they resist final ekphrasis in any one narrative, as much as one from music as well as mine of ‘theatre’.

What remains then is a set of shapes, some of which have regular geometry and many of which are quantifiably ‘measurable’ as well as qualitatively interpretable[6]. In a sense that is, for me why music works as a metaphor since it too uses measurable intervals in intersection, especially in polyphony (and opera is a good example). Yet the ‘measure’ that is music is also qualitatively ambiguous.

This is the case I believe even when Klee uses musical notation, such as a clef or fermata. One absorbed into the painting, they become visually very ambiguous.[7]

Now I have gone to a lot of trouble here to show how and why I think music is used to describe Klee’s painting. Of course Düchting also, frankly, does not rely on musical descriptive terms, and like myself, invokes architecture and landscape (I think I’d take them further than Düchting does). But in art-historical tradition it is fine to use such metaphors. This is in part a reflection of the terms that new movements in art struggle to find to describe their innovations. Both Klee and Kandinsky used music as a means to describe how and why they turned to abstraction, even in developing their art in its more figural avatars.

Yet what if we were to take another human endeavour to describe painting. When we make our choice we become immediately aware of socialised repertoires of acceptable fields of metaphor – notably those covered by bourgeois professional types associate with notions of high art. Kandinsky used music to describe his 1922 White Zigzags.

Now when I used this painting in a Masters course to describe how Kandinsky’s triangles assert energy and motion and are associated with rhythm, I compared them to more hidden background abstractions in Tom McGuinness’ The Hewer (1994), which I presented in a schematic thus:

My aim was to suggest (just that in so short an essay) how Bauhaus features in painting technique – the use of triangles in particular picked up in Kandinsky – had been potentially imported from the Bauhaus from people who influenced McGuinness in the working-class movements where, in part, he learned painting, especially Jos Thain who experienced the Bauhaus.

My aim was (it was only a 3000 word essay – but I never let that stop me) to show that McGuinness used underground working contexts as a potential metaphor for painting, not least the experienced of opposed and tensile forces against which the miner works being comparable to an artist’s relationship to canvas and paint.

Of course, it was a hopeless ambitious desire that I perhaps should have been punished more for – this is after all a 3000 word essay. If I analyse myself, I sense that I was resistant to being assessed this way in an MA Year 1 of 2 final project. Yet what concerned me was the commentary on my desire to draw metaphoric comparisons between mining work and painting. It is not that mining is not considered as art, least of all ‘high art’, but that somehow presenting it even as a possibility is considered ‘farfetched’. My feedback included this:

The comparison with Kandinsky was, however, less successful (it is not clear why this figurative painting should be seen as belonging to the history of ‘global and universal abstraction’); the analogy between painting and mining is also somewhat farfetched.

Now I don’t dispute that my argument was too sparse, and hence less successful, but I do question whether it is good enough to say the ‘analogy’ is ‘somewhat farfetched’. In effect, what I try to say (far too implicitly) here was that all such metaphors, even in the form of ‘analogy’ had I in fact proposed this, are ‘somewhat farfetched’. They try to describe the indescribable.

My suspicion about art-history is that its class origins as a discipline make it more receptive to metaphors from music, architecture and landscape formations than to mining. I may well be wrong, but I have a very strong feeling.

By the way, if anyone is interested in why I see ‘underscape’ as a domain of the abstract – not really explained in this essay, I’m happy to talk. In fact it would be great to write to talk to anyone interested in the subject and not just the task of essay-writing.


 [1] Düchting (2002:76ff.)

[2] Ibid:78

[4] Düchting (2002:69)

[5] Ibid:76

[6] Compare ibid:35

[7] Ibid: 29.

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