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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: