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A Painting for the Day: Paul Klee’s “Die Zwitscher-Maschine”

Die Zwitscher-Maschine, by Paul Klee. Click for a large version.

Die Zwitscher-Maschine, by Paul Klee. Click for a larger image.

I saw this painting posted, appropriately enough, on Twitter and fell in love with it. Here’s the Wikipedia summary for Paul Klee:

Paul Klee (German pronunciation:[paʊ̯l ˈkleː]; 18 December 1879 – 29 June 1940) was a painter born inMünchenbuchsee, Switzerland, and is considered to be a German-Swiss.[a] His highly individual style was influenced by movements in art that included expressionismcubism, and surrealism. He was also a student of orientalism.[1] Klee was a natural draftsman who experimented with and eventually got deep into color theory, writing about it extensively; his lectures Writings on Form and Design Theory (Schriften zur Form und Gestaltungslehre), published in English as the Paul Klee Notebooks, are held to be as important for modern art as Leonardo da Vinci‘s A Treatise on Painting for the Renaissance.[2][3][4] He and his colleague, the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, both taught at the German Bauhaus school of art, design and architecture. His works reflect his dry humour and his sometimes childlike perspective, his personal moods and beliefs, and also his musicality.

And this is the summary for the painting, also from Wikipedia:

Twittering Machine (Die Zwitscher-Maschine) is a 1922 watercolor and pen and ink oil transfer on paper by Swiss-German painter Paul Klee. Like other artworks by Klee, it blends biology and machinery, depicting a loosely sketched group of birds on a wire or branch connected to a hand-crank. Interpretations of the work vary widely: it has been perceived as a nightmarish lure for the viewer or a depiction of the helplessness of the artist, but also as a triumph of nature over mechanical pursuits. It has been seen as a visual representation of the mechanics of sound.

Originally displayed in Germany, the image was declared “degenerate art” by Adolf Hitler in 1933 and sold by the Nazi party to an art dealer in 1939, whence it made its way to New York. One of the better known of more than 9,000 works produced by Klee, it is among the more famous images of the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It has inspired several musical compositions and, according to a 1987 magazine profile in New York Magazine, has been a popular piece to hang in children’s bedrooms.

The section on critical analysis is worth looking over just to see how very different various interpretations of the piece have really been. Now that we have social media sites like Twitter and Facebook (or blog sites like WordPress), it’s difficult not to read the painting as satire. It could easily be the image of an endlessly chirping machine cranking out wave after wave of babbling, chirpy noise. I suppose that’s a cynical reading, but it’s easy enough to make the way those birds look, their tongues hanging out like they’re being choked.

Then again, the whole setup could be a musical instrument. Maybe you’re supposed to turn the handle in your head and imagine what the mechanical birds would look like as they moved up and down on the wire, singing who knows what kind of song.

According to Wikipedia, at least a couple of composers have written music inspired by the painting:

The son of a musicologist, Klee himself drew parallels between sound and art, and Twittering Machine has been influential on several composers.[15] It inspired the 1951 orchestral work Die Zwitschermaschine by Giselher Klebe, and one of the pieces in David Diamond‘s “The World of Paul Klee”, which debuted in 1958, as well as one of the seven in Gunther Schuller‘s “Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee”, composed the following year.[15][16]

And as it turns out a rendition of David Diamond’s “The World of Paul Klee” is available on Youtube. Enjoy:

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Kafka, the Pugilist

kafka_book_cover

I first read The Metamorphosis when I was 18—maybe 19—after it was recommended to me by my dad. I remember thinking it was a strange science fiction story. Completely unlike the Asimov and Clarke I knew. I registered that there was more going on in it than I could understand and I made a resolution to come back to it eventually. That never happened, at least not for a long time. A couple years later, I read In the Penal Colony when a friend of mine gave me a photocopy he’d made at the library, but my impression of it was quickly obscured and smoothed out by the many other books I was reading at the time. I essentially missed Kafka while in college.

And then, last month, a random conversation on an Internet message board reminded me of him. Now I find myself wrestling with A Country Doctor, the second collection of Kafka’s short stories published during his lifetime. After reading The Judgment and The Metamorphosis, it feels like catching a hard right hook to the jaw. The Metamorphosis eats at you page by page; you can watch it work on your soul and on your spirits; watching it makes it somehow easier. The conclusion doesn’t shock, there aren’t any twists or sudden turns, but it wears you down. At some point, you become Gregor Samsa and the world gets that much dimmer. The Judgment catches you off guard and steals a bit of your breath; it hits hard, but the conclusion is absurd, even to the point of being funny.

The stories in A Country Doctor, on the other hand, are taut, tough, and unforgiving. They jab, dodge, fake left, swing right, and crush. They’re bloody and a little ugly, and I’m left wondering how I am supposed to keep up. A story like “The Cares of a Family Man” isn’t even two pages, but it contains so many ideas that interpreting it looks impossible. It’s compact and muscular and if there is a touch of humor there, it’s camouflaged.

How to approach these stories then? Merely reading them gets me nowhere. I have to do more; come back swinging; get into shape and learn the footwork; I have to laugh off blows and toughen up; get bruised. In terms of reading and writing, that means doing the job of interpretation myself.

It’s temping to look for answers from scholars who have spent lots of time reading and studying Kafka’s life and works. Knowing how other readers have responded to him helps. Context helps. So does taking the chance on a personal encounter with his stories. I take comfort in the idea that Kafka can’t be interpreted. That I have to take from him whatever I can glean, and that if there is someone or something behind the text, something fixed and waiting to be found, it is a total secret impossible to penetrate.

I found the following quote while browsing different essays on Kafka. It reinforced this idea of Kafka as a pugilist for me, as somebody I have to fight directly, not vicariously. It’s from a letter written in 1904 to Oskar Pollak, one of Kafka’s classmates at the Altstädter Gymnasium:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? …we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.

Wounded is a great way to describe how I feel after reading some of these stories. Especially the end of “An Old Manuscript.” Kafka describes an alien presence in an unnamed city; armed soldiers that steal and threaten violence; a cowardly defense force; animals eating other animals from starvation; nomads gnawing on bones and consuming raw flesh; and then a conclusion that falls like a blow to the gut:

“What is going to happen?” we all ask ourselves. “How long can we endure this burden and torment? The Emperor’s palace has drawn the nomads here but does not know how to drive them away again. The gate stays shut; the guards, who used to be always marching out and in with ceremony, keep close behind barred windows. It is left to us artisans and tradesmen to save our country; but we are not equal to such a task; nor have we ever claimed to be capable of it. This is a misunderstanding of some kind; and it will be the ruin of us.” (Willa and Edwin Muir translation)

Everyone knows Kafka’s a writer. He’s also a boxer. I can’t always see what he’s fighting with, but sometimes I catch one of his punches and it sends me reeling.