Image: Architecture (1923) by Paul Klee, Staatliche Museen Zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie, courtesy of Tate Press.
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The machinery and magic of Paul Klee’s paintings – in close up

Klee's 50th birthday celebrations included hiring a Junkers aeroplane to fly over his house and parachute down presents from students and colleagues – somehow an appropriate conflation of technology and whimsy, of magic and machinery.

The building blocks of Paul Klee’s art are building blocks. It might sound simple but it’s complicated – there are building blocks and building blocks. Every nursery floor is thick with burly wooden bricks – safe, blunt approximations; coarse, imprecise cubes that recall Donne: “At the round earth’s imagined corners”.

Now consider the building set – Bauspiel – that my wife bought 30 years ago in Berlin from the Bauhaus-Archiv. With its tiny components you can build a ship with two sails, a bridge, a creature, an arch. Each individual machined unit is deliciously slim, with sharp, elegant edges. And the colours are clean reds and whites, with sometimes surprising shades – a Colman’s mustard triangle, a light sage rectangle, each an escape from the clichéd range of children’s colours. The smallness is crucial.

In the autumn of 1929, Will Grohmann’s monograph on Klee appeared. Klee was 49. He said of an advertisement: “The name is in such big letters that I had a terrible shock.” His own signature is an exact exoskeleton of India ink, a carefully placed minuscule insect of crisp calligraphy. Of the 100 Klee pictures on show at Tate Modern, many are miniatures and none approaches those Rubens the size of snooker tables. The late pictures are bigger and weaker, the result of his scleroderma, a complication of measles that shrank and tightened his skin and that eventually killed him, having first deprived him of his pictorial nimbleness.

The building blocks suggest that Bauhaus constructivism was inspirational for Klee, who taught there from 1921 to 1931. In fact, he had already made his liberating discovery – in Tunis, in 1914, with the great painter August Macke and Louis Moilliet. (It is one of the disappointments of this exhibition that there are no examples from this crucial two weeks in which Klee discovered colour in blocks and declared himself a painter.)

He was hired by Walter Gropius because Gropius could see in Klee the accommodation of the visible organic world to the architectural abstract: “When we look around us today, we see all sorts of exact forms,” Klee wrote, “whether we like it or not, our eyes gobble squares, circles, and all manner of fabricated forms.” You certainly do after seeing this exhibition: the bridge across the Thames is pure Klee, a magic carpet of metal segments, speeding to vanishing point. (It should be no surprise that he painted a circular homage to Picasso and Cubism in 1914.)

In Klee, function meets fantasy. We learn from the Tate’s unusually helpful and interesting catalogue that when Klee was 50, his birthday celebrations included hiring a Junkers aeroplane to fly over his house and parachute down presents from students and colleagues – somehow an appropriate conflation of technology and whimsy, of magic and machinery.

As a teacher, Klee was popular with his students. He delivered his first lecture with his back to his audience while he drew with both hands on the blackboard: shyness not showmanship. (He drew and painted with his left hand, wrote with his right.) He could be an indefatigably finicky theoretician and students are flattered by the intellectual challenge of difficulty.

Bridget Riley, in her admiring preface to the 2002 Klee show at the Hayward Gallery in London, was unable to discover any coherence in Klee’s writings, as opposed to the paintings. I sympathise. Actually, Klee is clear enough in his main thrust: it is not the task of the artist to be “an improved camera”, accurately reproducing the visible world. The sign is more important than mimesis.

On the other hand, his attempts to explain simple fundamentals can be inspissated: “The optic-physical phenomenon produces feelings which can transform outward impressions into functional penetration more or less elaborately, according to their direction.” When I read this, I thought of Dr Johnson’s definition of “net” in his dictionary: “Anything made with interstitial vacuities.” Better to stick with “net”. Or say that pictures produce feelings. As a pedagogue, Klee was popular but chafed by his working conditions. There is a painting called Ghost of a Genius (1922), which looks like the selfportrait – a depleted soul with dead blue eyes who’d rather be painting than teaching.

Those building blocks – fundamental to Klee’s art – are saturated in colour both burnished and bright, richly harmonic. They are singular, sufficient unto themselves but they imply plurality and pattern – just as bricks join to build a wall.

The grid, the wall, is at the heart of Klee’s painting and drawing. Yet the pattern made by the units is always disrupted, bespoke, un-uniform. The variants are a matter of intuition, touch, genius. Theory, Klee wrote, “is fine but it has its limits: intuition remains indispensable”. There are many walls and an infinity of different bricks. For him, a grid can be almost anything: “the storm in the wheatfields was captivating; I’ll paint a ship sailing on waves of rye”.

Waves, ripples: a grid like a musical stave. Horticulture – a vegetable garden – becomes another natural grid, alternating peas and carrots and cabbages. His abstracts come together like quilts or fit together like flooring, like parquet, or a great wall of liquorice allsorts, sweet with delicious colours. Then there is the mosaic’s mini-brick as a model and inspiration, the isolated mark of the brush, touched into existence rather than stroked into being – and then the morph into pointillism. In Klee, the one bolts, seeds and becomes the many. If you look at a painting such as Reife Ernte/Ripe Harvest (1924), you see not corn but the orange-gold of ripeness in the background, a central grey wash of soil, and a set of signifiers; a primitive script that looks more like spermatozoa than corn. It isn’t in the least literal but it captures fertility perfectly.

Ripe Harvest isn’t in this show but one of Klee’s greatest pictures is. Pastorale (Rhythms) (1924)has a line of sky-blue at the top. The bulk of the painting is tempera on canvas on wood. Overall, it’s the colour of mildew. It is clearly related to the horticulture paintings, both by its title and its design. Into the thick tempera, between the lines, is scored a continuous series of pseudo-hieroglyphs – an x, an o, a plus sign, asterisks, a trellis of x’s, a candelabra sign like a fir tree, a sequence of gravestones.

It is like a tablet of invented writing, of repeated, unknown letters and shapes – a kind of Rosetta Stone, unreadable yet persuasive, the sign of a civilisation that has vanished, leaving behind only the ghost and promise of meaning; a whole cemetery of writing on a single tablet. It is as beautiful as Yeats’s most beautiful line, from “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”: “Man is in love and loves what vanishes./What more is there to say?” Klee gives us the very vanished thing itself, miraculously, impossibly, still there, before our eyes, filling our eyes.

There are several technical innovations to admire. The first is Klee’s invention of the oil-transfer drawing. You cover a sheet with black oil paint and place it on a clean sheet of paper. Then you trace a drawing placed on the oil sheet so that the line is transferred. The line is transformed as it is transferred – becoming slightly ragged, like a scratch that has broken the skin. (Much later, Andy Warhol did something similar with a blotted line made by folding the drawing while it was still wet.) The technique means that the under-drawing is dirtied in places. These soiled patches dispel any hint of the academic artist; the drawings look “found” and satisfyingly primitive rather than composed.

Another innovative Klee technique is the fine watercolour spray at the edges of drawings. In Threatening Snowstorm (1927) we see a town in diagrammatic form, ground plan and elevation. The border of the drawing is a dramatic dusk of brown and grey-blue shrouding the geometric buildings. I daresay the title came last. No matter. The picture unanswerably reorders and reverses that sequence so it provides the perfect illustration, the exact equivalence of imminent snow.

In Sacred Islands (1926) the border is a shawl of faded blue that contributes immeasurably to the painting’s complete success. It is a purged masterpiece of tonal plainness – India ink and blue spray – and immense intricacy. Emerging from the blue border is a kind of architectural parquet, of inlay and dovetail. We know about those beautifully spare, suggestive Ben Nicholson pencil drawings of half a wonky cloister – a couple of lines, a wash of grit.

They are lovely but the Klee is something quite extraordinary – a Piranesian proliferation, a nuclear chain reaction of colonnades, of flights of steps, down and up and indeterminate, of arches, vistas, vaulting – of spandrels, of nonsense, of building that has bolted in a thousand different directions at once.

There is a Kipling story called “The Disturber of Traffic” about a lighthouse keeper, Dowse, whose deranged eye is helplessly held by any pattern, the result of years spent staring at “the streaks”, the tidal patterns of the Flores Strait near Java. As Dowse talks, “All the time his eye was held like by the coils of rope on the belaying pins, and he followed those ropes up and up until he was quite lost and comfortable among the rigging.”

Klee could be rapt by the waves in waves, the waves in wheat, the parenthetical maze of ripples inside an onion, the waves in the grain of wood. What holds our eye in Sacred Islands is the delicate width of the inked units, the counterintuitive, carefully controlled minimalism of the depicted chaos.

In View of a Mountain Sanctuary, 1926, Klee revisits and reworks the topos: here it is stalactites, fractured rocks, millefeuille mineral compressions, contractions and folds. The same India ink, effective enough, but without Sacred Islands’ compelling insanity of detail. Clouds (also 1926) has a dark-grey border and similar ink contour lines tormented into clouds and turbulence. In the end, the difference between the masterpiece and the other two very good pictures is what the hand happens to do – the inspiration, the genius of the fingers, the something chancy that is more than skill.

Another great picture here is Lowlands (1932), a watercolour on paper on cardboard. It, too, is one of several pointillist paintings. From a distance, it reads like a perfect piece of realism – the wet sands, a distant line of sea, a hangover of clouds. Drab, about as exciting as the tidemark in a bath. But close-to it is gripping, because Klee lets us see his working. In the middle of the picture is a single line of bright green dots – the sea – and below it black dots, then blue, then black. Each dot is small, the size of a liquorice cachou. Each is the same and each is different so the viewer has the perfect pleasure of repetition, similar to the pleasure we get listening to a duet where the singers are perfectly in tune yet recognisably different – identical twins you can still tell apart.

The whole picture is so minimalist in its means, you think of Steve Reich or Philip Glass or John Adams. The top and the bottom of the picture are washed with dirty water – water the brushes have been cleaned in. Only the bright green single line of dots is left untouched. The rest of the painting is fearlessly impure, filthy with actuality, lowering and exhilaratingly depressed. This single work is worth a visit and any entrance fee, which in this case should be called an entranced fee.

Craig Raine’s new collection of essays, “More Dynamite”, will be published by Atlantic Books on 3 December

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood