Title of the Painting : Klee, Paul. Possibilities at Sea. 1932, 26. Oil-color on stretched canvas, 97 x 95.5 cm.

To better understand the use of specific symbols in Paul Klee paintings. I am, as an Architect, particularly concerned with examining how the dialogue between Gropius’ principles – that a combination of fine arts and applied arts should be reached resulting in the final product of Architecture – inspired Klee to take a more architectural approach to painting.

As an artist working at the Bauhaus, Klee would not only be continually faced with modern architecture, but would be able to engage with the new concerns of spatial construction outlined in contemporary architectural experiments.

In the decade (1921-1931) that Paul Klee was a master-teacher at the German Bauhaus, he produced a series of paintings infused with a primordial aura and marked by an artistic topos: the arrow. The arrow usually has a recognizable function, but in Klee’s 1922 painting Good Place for Fish, the arrow is puzzling.

Several of Klee’s various arrows, some articulated in pen-thin lines, feathered like an arrow shot from a bow and others stouter and bolder, like the arrows of indication found in the urban environment, are placed in deep green and blue bands of color amongst several fish-like forms.

Thoughresembling attack arrows, the feathered arrows in Klee’s painting are not directed at the fish, but rather they are pointed downward and, because of the way their points and feathers align with the bands of color, they appear to be motionless, suspended in the watery ground. Likewise, the bolder arrows resist their typical role, one of a precisely comprehensible indication. Klee’s arrows are confusing: they show motion, indicate direction, and guide the viewer’s eye.

The arrow is but one symbol that is ubiquitously present in the Klee’s oeuvre.

In such an examination, Klee’s pedagogy naturally becomes a key concern. Not only does it provide the means through which to understand the artist’s development as a painter concerned with architectural concepts, but it serves as the apparatus for investigating the intractably enigmatic symbols that inhabit Klee’s paintings.

The arrow is a common, recognizable symbol that is frequently present in the paintings that Klee produced during his Bauhaus years (1921-1931). It figures prominently in, among other paintings, « Possibilities at Sea » (1932 Norton Simon Museum).

Moreover, the arrow is ubiquitous in Klee’s pedagogy as both a subject for elucidation and elucidating a didactic tool. It makes its first appearance in The Pedagogical Sketchbook as an activator and repeated throughout the pedagogical writings, the arrow acts as energy that activates elements in the diagram.

Klee explains the illustration as « passive lines which are the result of an activation of planes » (line progression).

Arrows are used to show this activation. They can be seen performing the same energy-infusing role in Klee’s paintings. Entering the painting from above as if it were a heavenly ray of energy, the massive black arrow in Affected Place appears to set in motion the miniature world beneath it . The forms below imply buildings, ships and even a little person (the summary legs and torso are evident though no head or arms are apparent) all slightly off-kilter to indicate activity.

Disguised as part of the micro-world, it points directly at the figure’s back as if transmitting the energy from its larger companion arrow. Energy can also be classified as “stress” in that it contains forces that oppose one another.

Indeed, in the summary of Klee’s exploration of basic forms, the stresses that generate the forms are indicated by arrows. The concentration of stress points and their directional arrangement as fixed by arrows is directly linked to the creation of rectilinear shapes. The arrow as activator is the representation of energy and also implies motion.

In Klee’s pedagogy the arrow is more often than not the indicator of direction. This jobis a matter of life and death with the spiral, for instance; if the arrow indicates the direction of movement as outwardly-directed, the spiral infers a living and growing process; if the arrow indicates the opposite direction, the spiral is shown to be expiring, waning in its ability to generate energy, and dying.

This display of extremes, the life-and-death role prescribed to the arrow is born out pictorially in Possibilities at Sea, and encaustic and sand painting that Klee completed in 1932 while teaching at the Düsseldorf Academy.

In this painting, a sailboat-like structure of red and white lines floats on water (indicated by elongated blue rectangles and a brown squiggle) between the sun and the moon. As implied by the title of the work, the sailboat is provided with two possibilities of direction.

The white arrow next to the structure points to the right edge of the picture representing the life-giving direction: onward.

The weightier black arrow to the left of the structure, however, points downward toward the water.

It indicates the direction of sinking and death. The sailboat, floating ever so precariously, is subject to both arrows and their life-giving or life-ceasing directions simultaneously. The arrow emphatically specifies direction. Klee reinforces the arrow’s defined role: “the symbolic arrow is direction with point and feathering combined as point-rudder.” Not only does Klee provide a material equivalency for the arrow as a point-rudder, but by doing so, he introduces yet another element: dimension.

Klee explains:

“If we consider direction or movement, we obtain the following result:

  1. Dimension: left-right, movement each way
  2. Dimension: above-below, parallel movement
  3. Dimension: front-back, movement and countermovement.”