A Bewildering Confusion of Line: Some Deep-Time Aspects of Modern Visual Style

Martyn Woodward


Had I wished to present man ‘as he is’, then I should have had to use such bewildering of line that pure elementary representation would have been out of the question. The result would have been vagueness beyond recognition [?] And anyway, I do not wish to represent man as he is, but only as he might be.”
(Paul Klee, 1964, p. 53)

Paul Klee wrote these words during 1924, as a short treatise ‘on modern art’. What underpins these words is not just a defense against the legend of the ‘childishness’ of his drawings to the realist critics of his time, but a sensitivity to a very different account of modern art (and the human) that the artist had during the height of western modernization, a sensitivity which was metaphysical and philosophical in nature.
Klee’s words can be seen to find a deeper resonance within the re-thinking of the human during the modern period as emerging across the domains of deep history, in which the human, and human activity, is re-situated within the distributed flows and forces of a geological deep time of the earth.
Entangled within this deep history, Klee’s ‘bewildering confusion of line’ that would represent man, can come to be seen not as an abstraction of reality by a subjective mind, but a recognition and an acceptance of an account of the human practitioner which is seen not as a penetrating eye separate from nature, as the so called ‘moderns’ believed, but whose eye is distributed amongst the deeper processes and energies of nature.
As Klee himself declared ‘Art does not render the visible but renders visible’, following this premise, and using the filter of deep history, the seminar will trace some aspects of the mind of the artists of the period, that can come be seen to result in some of the stylistic traits of modern painting.