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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We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white women

Alt-right women are less visible than their tiki torch-carrying male counterparts - but they still exist. 

In November 2016, the writer and TED speaker Siyanda Mohutsiwa tweeted a ground-breaking observation. “When we talk about online radicalisation we always talk about Muslims. But the radicalisation of white men online is at astronomical levels,” she wrote, inspiring a series of mainstream articles on the topic (“We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white men,” wrote Abi Wilkinson in The Guardian). It is now commonly accepted that online radicalisation is not limited to the work of Isis, which uses social media to spread propaganda and recruit new members. Young, white men frequently form alt-right and neo-Nazi beliefs online.

But this narrative, too, is missing something. When it comes to online radicalisation into extreme right-wing, white supremacist, or racist views, women are far from immune.

“It’s a really slow process to be brainwashed really,” says Alexandra*, a 22-year-old former-racist who adopted extreme views during the United States presidential election of 2016. In particular, she believed white people to be more intelligent than people of colour. “It definitely felt like being indoctrinated into a cult.”

Alexandra was “indoctrinated” on 4Chan, the imageboard site where openly racist views flourish, especially on boards such as /pol/. It is a common misconception that 4Chan is only used by loser, basement-dwelling men. In actuality, 4Chan’s official figures acknowledge 30 percent of its users are female. More women may frequent 4Chan and /pol/ than it first appears, as many do not announce their gender on the site because of its “Tits or GTFO” culture. Even when women do reveal themselves, they are often believed to be men who are lying for attention.

“There are actually a lot of females on 4chan, they just don't really say. Most of the time it just isn't relevant,” says Alexandra. Her experiences on the site are similar to male users who are radicalised by /pol/’s far-right rhetoric. “They sowed the seeds of doubt with memes,” she laughs apprehensively. “Dumb memes and stuff and jokes…

“[Then] I was shown really bullshit studies that stated that some races were inferior to others like… I know now that that’s bogus science, it was bad statistics, but I never bothered to actually look into the truth myself, I just believed what was told to me.”

To be clear, online alt-right radicalisation still skews majority male (and men make up most of the extreme far-right, though women have always played a role in white supremacist movements). The alt-right frequently recruits from misogynistic forums where they prey on sexually-frustrated males and feed them increasingly extreme beliefs. But Alexandra’s story reveals that more women are part of radical right-wing online spaces than might first be apparent.

“You’d think that it would never happen to you, that you would never hold such horrible views," says Alexandra. "But it just happened really slowly and I didn't even notice it until too late."

***

We are less inclined to talk about radical alt-right and neo-Nazi women because they are less inclined to carry out radical acts. Photographs that emerged from the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville this weekend revealed that it was mostly polo shirt-wearing young, white men picking up tiki torches, shouting racial slurs, and fighting with counter-protestors. The white supremacist and alt-right terror attacks of the last year have also been committed by men, not women. But just because women aren’t as visible doesn’t mean they are not culpable.  

“Even when people are alt-right or sympathisers with Isis, it’s a tiny percentage of people who are willing or eager to die for those reasons and those people typically have significant personal problems and mental health issues, or suicidal motives,” explains Adam Lankford, author of The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers.

“Both men and women can play a huge role in terms of shaping the radicalised rhetoric that then influences those rare people who commit a crime.”

Prominent alt-right women often publicly admit that their role is more behind-the-scenes. Ayla Stewart runs the blog Wife With a Purpose, where she writes about “white culture” and traditional values. She was scheduled to speak at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally before dropping out due to safety concerns. In a blog post entitled “#Charlottesville May Have Redefined Women’s Roles in the Alt Right”, she writes:

“I’ve decided that the growth of the movement has necessitated that I pick and choose my involvement as a woman more carefully and that I’m more mindful to chose [sic] women’s roles only.”

These roles include public speaking (only when her husband is present), gaining medical skills, and “listening to our men” in order to provide moral support. Stewart declined to be interviewed for this piece.

It is clear, therefore, that alt-right women do not have to carry out violence to be radical or radicalised. In some cases, they are complicit in the violence that does occur. Lankford gives the example of the Camp Chapman attack, committed by a male Jordanian suicide bomber against a CIA base in Afghanistan.

“What the research suggests in that case was the guy who ultimately committed the suicide bombing may have been less radical than his wife,” he explains. “His wife was actually pushing him to be more radical and shaming him for his lack of courage.” 

***

Just because women are less likely to be violent doesn’t mean they are incapable of it.

Angela King is a former neo-Nazi who went to prison for her part in the armed robbery and assault of a Jewish shop owner. She now runs Life After Hate, a non-profit that aims to help former right-wing extremists. While part of a skinhead gang, it was her job to recruit other women to the cause.

“I was well known for the violence I was willing to inflict on others… often times the men would come up to me and say we don’t want to physically hurt a woman so can you take care of this,” King explains. “When I brought other women in I looked for the same qualities in them that I thought I had in myself.”

King's 1999 mugshot

 

These traits, King explains, were anger and a previous history of violence. She was 15 when she became involved with neo-Nazis, and explains that struggles with her sexuality and bullying had made her into a violent teenager.

“I was bullied verbally for years. I didn't fit in, I was socially awkward,” she says. One incident in particular stands out. Aged 12, King was physically bullied for the first time.

“I was humiliated in a way that even today I still am humiliated by this experience,” she says. One day, King made the mistake of sitting at a desk that “belonged” to a bully. “She started a fight with me in front of the entire class… I’ve always struggled with weight so I was a little bit pudgy, I had my little training bra on, and during the fight she ripped my shirt open in front of the entire class.

“At that age, having absolutely no self-confidence, I made the decision that if I became the bully, and took her place, I could never be humiliated like that again.”

Angela King, aged 18

King’s story is important because when it comes to online radicalisation, the cliché is that bullied, “loser” men are drawn to these alt-right and neo-Nazi communities. The most prominent women in the far-right (such as Stewart, and Lauren Southern, a YouTuber) are traditionally attractive and successful, with long blonde hair and flashing smiles. In actuality, women that are drawn to the movement online might be struggling, like King, to be socially accepted. This in no way justifies or excuses extreme behaviour, but can go some way to explaining how and why certain young women are radicalised. 

“At the age of 15 I had been bullied, raped. I had started down a negative path you know, experimenting with drugs, drinking, theft. And I was dealing with what I would call an acute identity crisis and essentially I was a very, very angry young woman who was socially awkward who did not feel like I had a place in the world, that I fit in anywhere. And I had no self-confidence or self-esteem. I hated everything about myself.”

King explains that Life After Hate’s research reveals that there are often non-ideological based precursors that lead people to far right groups. “Individuals don’t go to hate groups because they already hate everyone, they go seeking something. They go to fill some type of void in their lives that they’re not getting.”

None of this, of course, excuses the actions and beliefs of far-right extremists, but it does go some way to explaining how “normal” young people can be radicalised online. I ask Alexandra, the former 4Chan racist, if anything else was going on in her life when she was drawn towards extreme beliefs.

“Yes, I was lonely,” she admits.                                                       

***

That lonely men and women can both be radicalised in the insidious corners of the internet shouldn’t be surprising. For years, Isis has recruited vulnerable young women online, with children as young as 15 becoming "jihadi brides". We have now acknowledged that the cliché of virginal, spotty men being driven to far-right hate excludes the college-educated, clean-cut white men who made up much of the Unite the Right rally last weekend. We now must realise that right-wing women, too, are radicalised online, and they, too, are culpable for radical acts.  

It is often assumed that extremist women are radicalised by their husbands or fathers, which is aided by statements by far-right women themselves. The YouTuber, Southern, for example, once said:  

“Anytime they [the left] talk about the alt-right, they make it sound like it’s just about a bunch of guys in basements. They don’t mention that these guys have wives – supportive wives, who go to these meet-ups and these conferences – who are there – so I think it’s great for right-wing women to show themselves. We are here. You’re wrong.”

Although there is truth in this statement, women don’t have to have far-right husbands, brothers, or fathers in order to be drawn to white supremacist or alt-right movements. Although it doesn’t seem the alt-right are actively preying on young white women the same way they prey on young white men, many women are involved in online spaces that we wrongly assume are male-only. There are other spaces, such as Reddit's r/Hawtschwitz, where neo-Nazi women upload nude and naked selfies, carving a specific space for themselves in the online far-right. 

When we speak of women radicalised by husbands and fathers, we misallocate blame. Alexandra deeply regrets her choices, but she accepts they were her own. “I’m not going to deny that what I did was bad because I have to take responsibility for my actions,” she says.

Alexandra, who was “historically left-wing”, was first drawn to 4Chan when she became frustrated with the “self-righteousness” of the website Tumblr, favoured by liberal teens. Although she frequented the site's board for talking about anime, /a/, not /pol/, she found neo-Nazi and white supremacist beliefs were spread there too. 

“I was just like really fed up with the far left,” she says, “There was a lot of stuff I didn't like, like blaming males for everything.” From this, Alexandra became anti-feminist and this is how she was incrementally exposed to anti-Semitic and racist beliefs. This parallels the story of many radicalised males on 4Chan, who turn to the site from hatred of feminists or indeed, all women. 

 “What I was doing was racist, like I – deep down I didn't really fully believe it in my heart, but the seeds of doubt were sowed again and it was a way to fit in. Like, if you don't regurgitate their opinions exactly they’ll just bully you and run you off.”

King’s life changed in prison, where Jamaican inmates befriended her and she was forced to reassess her worldview. Alexandra now considers herself “basically” free from prejudices, but says trying to rid herself of extreme beliefs is like “detoxing from drugs”. She began questioning 4Chan when she first realised that they genuinely wanted Donald Trump to become president. “I thought that supporting Trump was just a dumb meme on the internet,” she says.

Nowadays, King dedicates her life to helping young people escape from far-right extremism. "Those of us who were involved a few decades ago we did not have this type of technology, cell phones were not the slim white phones we have today, they were giant boxes," she says. "With the younger individuals who contact us who grew up with this technology, we're definitely seeing people who initially stumbled across the violent far-right online and the same holds for men and women.

"Instead of having to be out in public in a giant rally or Klan meeting, individuals find hate online."

* Name has been changed

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.