Text by Deanna MacDonald
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Swiss-born Paul Klee’s Twittering Machine was one of many artworks confiscated by the Nazis from the Nationalgalerie in Berlin in 1937 and labeled as ‘degenerate art.’ The picture, much like Klee himself, was everything the Nazi’s hated: subtle, cerebral, avant-garde. Luckily, while the Nazi’s could not see its artistic worth, they could see its monetary value and the picture was not destroyed but sold by the Propagandaministerium to an art dealer who in turn sold it to the MOMA in 1939.
A versatile artist who produced some 9,000 paintings, drawings, and watercolours, Klee was associated with various modern art movements in his lifetime – Expressionism, Dadaism, Surrealism and the Bauhaus – yet his idiosyncratic style is always recognisable. His pictures tended to be small in scale but with remarkable nuances of line, colour and tonality, almost like a piece of sheet music. Raised in a family of musicians (he himself played the violin), Klee’s art almost always has an innate lyricism and rhythm. Inspired by the art of children, whom he considered closer to the true sources of creativity, Klee rarely planned out an image but instead engaged in a free play of imagination until he found a balance, or ‘rightness.’ But while his art can have a childlike simplicity, his subjects are sophisticated, mixing irony and a sense of the absurd with an intense awareness of the mystery and beauty of nature. For Klee, the role of the artist was not to produce reality but rather to make visible a deeper inner truth. ‘Art does not reproduce what we see’; Klee once stated, ‘rather, it makes us see.’
Klee created the Twittering Machine in the early 1920s when he was an influential art teacher at the avant-garde Bauhaus school of modernist art and architecture (Klee’s colleagues included Walter Gropius, Vasily Kandinsky and Lyonel Feininger). The school’s motto was ‘art and technology – a new unity,’ which could be an ironic subtitle for this image. It presents a chorus of wiry, stick figures, birds upon a roost set against a background washed in shadowy blue and pink. Klee once stated that he considered layers of colour over drawing to be comparable to polyphonic music and here he seems to be evoking pastoral images of birdsong at dawn or dusk.
However the ‘twittering’ birds, lined up like notes on a musical scale, perch upon (or are they attached to?) a ‘machine,’ as if part of a monstrous music box. The contraption is both amusing and sinister: what would happen if someone turned that hand crank? Certainly not the gentle sound of chirping: the birds’ mouths open as if to sing but their nervous, agitated forms suggest a silent scream or a fiendish cacophony. The picture walks a fine line between humour and monstrosity, tragedy and comedy, nature and technology. At one level, it is simply a clever, dark humoured, visual joke; but it is one that questions blind faith in technology as well as naïve sentimentality of nature. With wit and empathy, Klee presents the bird’s futile struggle as a metaphor of man and nature’s impotence in the face of larger cosmic forces.
1922 Chaim Soutine: View of Ceret, Baltimore, Museum of Art
1922 Max Ernst: Rendezvous of Friends, Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum
1922 Fernand Léger: Still Life with a Beer Mug, London, Tate