Paul Klee in the Alfred Hitchcock collection
The great director considered Klee not only his favorite painter, but a peer interested in the same forms of creative expression.
It might have seemed like a coincidence when, in 1938, a Paul Klee the painting caught the attention of Alfred Hitchcock. After the premiere of his film The lady disappearshe stopped at an art exhibition in London and was drawn to the Swiss-German artist Maske mit Sense (Mask with scythe). It cost £600, or around $35,000 today, and despite the commercial success it enjoyed, Hitchcock probably balked at the price.
Persuaded by an unspoken connection, or perhaps by the familiar theatrical theme of the masks, Hitchcock finally pulled out his checkbook and made the purchase. As a result, this work has become a fundamental piece of his art collection.
Hitchcock, the so-called master of suspense, was one of the most notable directors of the 20th century, having directed films like The birds (1963), psychology (1960), and rear window (1954). He used patterns that audiences knew from the dark era — espionage, crime, voyeurism — but flipped them in a modern way that explored psychology through film aesthetics. His art collection, which includes Klee among others and continually inspired him throughout his career, is included in the Works on Paper Day Sale at Christie’s New York on May 14.
Maske mit Sense (1927) was created two years after Klee and the Bauhaus group were forced to move from Weimar to Dessau, a move that eventually provided him with the use of a large studio in the city’s famous Bauhaus building, as well only a need to refine his basic theories to educate his student body.
“Klee was working in all sorts of important movements of the time,” says David Kleiweg de Zwaan, senior specialist at Christie’s. “He worked with Wassily Kandinsky, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Walter Gropius, and he was deeply inspired by the work of Franz Marc, as well as Picasso’s Cubism and Robert Delaunay’s ideas on color. However, he never explicitly adhered to anything – he had his own style, independent of them, but he was not created in isolation.
Like Hitchcock, Klee studied, observed and participated in the mainstream of the time, but his style was always his own. By studying these processes, he worked to refine these already explosive theories of modern art.
Kleiweg de Zwaan says, “We don’t necessarily see Klee as an abstract painter, but that’s how Hitchcock viewed him. He didn’t take Klee’s work at face value, but looked at the very deep thoughts that Klee elucidated in his paintings, as well as in his writing.
“Hitchcock and Klee’s work is very accessible. As an audience, you can either stick your toe in or go down the rabbit hole with the two artists” – David Kleiweg from Zwaan
Although they were different in their art – Klee worked as a relatively independent painter, while Hitchcock operated what was essentially a creative factory – both were keen observers of what was going on around them and they threw the foundations of two of the most distinct forms of the 20th century. of artistic expression: modernism and cinema. Their works, appealing to a wide audience because they were not overt in their intellectualism, revealed a deep commitment to their respective forms under a distinctly playful mask of play.
For Hitchcock, his tendency towards theatrical subversion was hidden under the boilerplate intrigues of Hollywood. As he told Cinema magazine in 1963, “I value cinematic style above content.” For him, it was about the path traveled rather than the destination: “I don’t care what the film is about, as long as the public goes through this emotion!
His famous cameos, for example, aren’t just a director inserting himself like an Easter egg into his films. It asks a question of authorial intent – a fundamental question when it comes to distinguishing between entertainment and art. It is unclear whether his appearance is as the film’s director, the insertion of an unrelated character, or both. This tactic resonates in the various disciplines of modernity, but it is notable in Klee’s Odysseisch of 1924, depicting the mythical hero Ulysses.
We quickly recognize Odysseus, his hands joined in front of him, as the subject of this drawing. Like many artists before him, Klee returns to classic characters from myth, but the reference here is somewhat misleading. As the art historian Peter-Klaus Schuster has noted: “What Klee, as painter-poet and painter-poet, thus puts before our eyes are in no way illustrations of ideas or literary prescriptions . This kind of decodable clarity is totally lacking in Klee. It is not a painter who states his thought.
Instead, Klee’s work – and Hitchcock’s – is left open to the viewer’s perception. “Rather than being a closed and formal language,” explains Kleiweg de Zwaan, “the work of Hitchcock and Klee is very accessible. As an audience, you can either stick your toe or go down the rabbit hole with both performers.
Klee approached Homer’s Odyssey knowing that it had often been retold to modern audiences, as in that of James Joyce. Ulysses two years ago. Klee’s version, through its delicate, childlike style of linework, reflects Hitchcock’s thoughts on composition rather than content. It’s the kind of playful, poetic fantasy the two have often seen in the world of theatre, ballet and fairy tales.
“Klee’s works cannot be read at a glance across a room. He really seeks to control his viewers, their thoughts and their experiences, which Hitchcock also sought to do” – David Kleiweg of Zwaan
The cinema so shocked its first spectators that one of the first Parisian spectators wrote: “I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts were replaced by moving images. Hitchcock knew the power of his medium, but he also recognized how well it fit into the larger artistic canon.
He saw reflections of his own creative interests in Klee, whether through the movement of the eye along the canvas following the line – which, as Klee said, was only a ” point that has wandered” – or in its masking. more serious creative intentions under the guise of play.
“Klee’s works cannot be read at a glance across a room”, says Kleiweg de Zwaan. “He really seeks to control his viewers, their thoughts and their experiences, which Hitchcock also sought to do.” Their shared creative sensibility is at the heart of important forms of the 20th century. It is, as Klee quoted by the German poet Heinrich Heine in his diary: “Laughing, as if Death were tickling us with his scythe.