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May 14, 2012 at 2:13pm

Once a year I take on something massive. Intellectual penance for past transgressions. In high school I refused to read anything over 400 pages. Crime and Punishment was longer than 400 pages. I stopped on the 400th page. “It’s mostly Punishment,” I said to one of my dad’s friends. His reply was something along the lines of, ”What the fuck is wrong with you?”

"I am a fucking moron," is, I hope, what I said in response.

The massive works of the last few years have served me very, very well. I’ve already got next year’s picked out, and though I haven’t started reading it, I’ve been swooping down to pick it over here and there, stalking it like some kind of goddamned buzzard. The book that started it all, a book my brother lent me sophomore year of college, cost me my day’s budget to mail back to him. I know now what he knew then. Massive books are property. A piece of the earth entrusted to us.

This winter I wended my way through the Paul Klee Notebooks. All I wanted was a good book on Klee. But when I searched for “paul klee book” (like a neanderthal), the Paul Klee Notebooks Wikipedia link appeared. The entry contains this statement:

These works are considered so important for understanding modern art that they are compared to the importance that Leonardo’s A Treatise on Painting had for the RenaissanceHerbert Read called the collection “the most complete presentation of the principles of design ever made by a modern artist – it constitutes the Principia Aesthetica of a new era of art, in which Klee occupies a position comparable to Newton’s in the realm of physics.”

After reading this, how can any reasonably curious person go another minute without picking these up? Well, the two volumes total well over a thousand pages and will set you back $800.

Which is, well, a fucking flight somewhere. So I read them at the library. As far as I can tell, there are two copies on the east coast - one at the Philadelphia Library and one at the NYPL. In both places they are on reserve. I spent three weeks of December in Philadelphia and started it there. I continued it here. It is not allowed out of the Art & Architecture wing. So that’s where I spent a few winter mornings each week. On Saturday mornings, there are beautiful women in the Art & Architecture Room. Who knew.

What else didn’t I know? Anything about drawing, painting, or graphic design. This book held my hand through the construction of complex images from base elements to final expressions. For having taken these on, I am ever-so-slightly-probably imperceptibly-maybe not really a tad bit more intelligent.

I could talk for hours about these books, but let’s say that you come to books and blog posts for utility. For the take-away. Well, I’ll try my best. You know that argument that you often hear in the modern/contemporary wings of major museums? “A child could do this!” “I could do this!” “This is just a bunch of squiggly lines!” In Vol. 1, Klee doesn’t set out to prove how, in all honesty, you couldn’t actually do this. He shows you how you could. It takes him 500 pages but he shows you, step by step, how to create tension out of lines interwoven, emotion out of shapes contorted, uncertainty and faith out of colors juxtaposed. The culmination of line, form, shape, shading, and arrangement into a pictorial whole dominates the first volume. And since the notebooks are Bauhaus lecture notes, the instructor is free from doubt: his students are capable of exactly the same expressions he describes. Klee uses only his own artwork in the Notebooks. He doesn’t say, “This is how Rembrandt pulled this off,” he says, “And this is how you take this one step further.” 

Thus, in the same way that Mark Twain can’t teach you how to tell stories, even if you memorize “How to Tell a Story,” Klee can’t teach you how to create modern art. But he can provide the blueprint for the impulse that leads to its creation. Which is thrilling, if even in a vicarious sense.

Anyway, that’s the first volume. The second volume is worth discussing, at length, but I will save that for some other time.