Modern Vision, The Perspective Studies of Paul Klee
Once indispensable to the development of Western art practices, the element of pictorial composition has proved less essential to the artist with avant-garde methods, and intentions. Pictorial composition is one of those things in art history that through time and much contest has found itself floating through various realms of existence. From a philosophical idea, to an imaginable concept, to later a precise and mathematical formula and now a technological-biological configuration of all the aforementioned. The crisis of modernity that transpired in the late 19th century completely transformed the understanding of the sciences and certainly affected the compositional fundamentals of the visual arts – this continued well into the 20th century. The chronographic studies of Etienne-Jules Marey and later works of the Cubists and Italian Futurists seemingly attempted to redefine the meaning of vision within a picture plane through the addition of movement and decentralized space. Despite these prior attempts, it was the perspective studies of Bauhaus Master Paul Klee that created a new dimension of perspective in modern art. Klee sought pictorial unity by creating an infinite space and simplification of forms that allows for a complete dispersion of vision and aesthetic transcendence.
The conception of perspective and organizing a picture plane is rooted in the ancient art of the East, specifically China. Diana Kan explains the Chinese use of perspective perfectly when she states, “It’s not that we don’t understand perspective, we just feel that where we are standing is much smaller than where we are looking out.” This description of the use of atmospheric perspective in Chinese painting moves it into an ideological and philosophical realm, rather than simply stylistic. Furthermore, while some might view atmospheric perspective as a stylistic quality to place it in more intelligible terms, it over-simplifies its original intention: To portray humanity as a small part of the cosmic whole. It represented a nature-centric view of all that existed.
It wouldn’t be until centuries later that a complete overhaul of perspective in art would occur. In Pompeii, the Romans were utilizing axial perspective (relative perspective) in the interiors of villas to create architectural trompe l'oeil. In the 15th century, mathematically-precise, linear perspective was developed using Euclidean space – and so moved perspective into the sphere of science, math and all that is tangible.
Mass-production and concern for efficacy were motivating drastic changes in Europe. The standardization of time in the 1850s was of utmost concern due to the birth of railways. Once a personal and biological matter, time, was now a public entity that could be manipulated and standardized. The crisis of time-space during this period of evident in the chronological works of Etienne-Jules Marey and the later works of Marcel Duchamp, who attempted to stabilize time and space within a picture plane. Though photography had already proven to provide certainties that painting could not, the addition of movement into the picture plane proved yet another blow to the age-old painting by photography. For 19th century viewers to grasp the rapid changes in movement through motion picture and decentralized space, they needed to fully understand their personal perspective as a viewer observing an alternate reality.
The position of the viewer was always that of a surrogate figure caught between the technical dimension of the new, modern art which required an enhanced visual perception and often, a trickery of the senses – and the primitive, biological need to acquire truth of observation. Paul Klee was the leading Master in conceptualizing the integration of his nature-centric view of humans and art with the technophilic tendencies of his Bauhaus colleagues. Klee’s Wege des Naturstudiums (Path of the Study of Nature) written for Staatliches Bauhaus Weimar 1919-1923 proves early in his career that his concerns were always centered on the relationship of human and nature. This focus would be the foundation for his perspective studies, of which he would only complete a total of eight in his lifetime.
Klee’s sketches only consisted of interior spaces, what some refer to as “ghost chambers”. The series creates an eerie sense with lines of perspective that reduce everything to skeletal transparency. Most artists utilize perspective to provide their compositions with exact precision, on the contrary, Klee uses perspective solely to show its delusive effects, a theory of which he lectured his Bauhaus students on. Klee’s Uncomposed object in space (1929) provides the viewer with no axis of symmetry and no focal point in which to fixate. The eye follows various stimulus points through movement that deviates from the vertical plane – like how movement is visualized in real time-space. Through various stimulus points, Klee’s perspective studies force the viewer’s eyes to naturally adapt to confusion through natural selection. You’re no longer a surrogate viewer with a lack of control. Modernity and modern vision is about the ability to relate, and thus create, your own aesthetic experience.