Klee’s Tightrope Walker (1923)

Small comical figures start appearing in Paul Klee's ink drawings around 1912 and, as Constance Naubert-Riser has explained: 

"Klee made frequent reference to clowns, jugglers and acrobats during the First World War years as a means of suggesting the modern artist's vulnerability and marginality in an unsettled art market. Given the precariousness of the times, the act put on for an audience by a circus performer symbolized perfectly the situation of the artist who was obliged to 'take risks' in order to attract attention and carve out a niche for himself in a market that placed a premium on innovation."1

She is not the only specialist who has recognized Klee's identification with the highwire performer. Janice McCullagh has noted: "The image was an especially potent one because it functioned directly as the model of an artist who physically exemplified the ideal of the artist's ultimate heroic commitment."2 Though these historians are on a similar track to us, it is important to note that these performers symbolize the psychic risk involved in creating art at any time, not just in the early twentieth century "in an unsettled art market.". Masters like Klee speak to all centuries, not just their own. Watteau's Gilles, for instance, is a performing clown in the eighteenth century who has long been recognized as projecting similar symbolism.3

In addition, several scholars "have noted the presence of a highly schematized face in the lower part of the image."4 It is one of those hidden faces, extremely common in the art of all centuries since the Renaissance, that experts have not generally seen, this being a rare exception. It is, of course, easier to recognize and acknowledge a hidden face in the work of a semi-abstract artist like Klee than in that of artists, like Leonardo or Raphael, who seem to copy nature more exactly.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Klee, Tightrope Walker (1923)

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The significance of the hidden head at the bottom of the image is this: a straight horizontal line passes through the line of the two "eyes" connecting the hidden head's visual system to a rope ladder up which the acrobat must have climbed. The figure then  emerges out of the artist's head as he performs inside his mind. Other dark spots, possibly suggesting "eyes" as well, are like the inner eye of the imagination.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Klee, Tightrope Walker (detail)

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Behind the whole composition is a cross towards the center of which the acrobat walks while looking away. The cross's upright passes through the center of the hidden head thereby suggesting the artist's identification with Christ, an idea which symbolizes the purity of his mind and its unity with all nature and transcendent reality at the very moment of creation. The history of art, Klee would have known, is full of such Christo-morphic references so, whether or not art scholars recognize the allusions elsewhere, Klee was following tradition.

 

Captions for image(s) above:

Klee, Tightrope Walker

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More Works by Klee

Notes:

1. The Great Parade: Portrait of the Artist as Clown, ed. Jean Clair (Yale University Press) 2004, p. 150

2. Janice McCullagh, "The Tightrope Walker: An Expressionist Image", Art Bulletin 66, Dec. 1984, p. 644, cited in The Great Parade, p.150

3. Dora Panofsky, “Gilles or Pierrot?: Iconographic Notes on Watteau” Gazette des Beaux-Arts, XXXIX (1952) p. 330

4. Constance Naubert-Riser in The Great Parade, p. 150

 

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