Klee's Head & My Memory
It’s been more than a decade now since the Paul Klee image I’m thinking of was on display at the museum. When I say image, it’s because I can’t actually recall now it if was an oil painting or a lithograph, ink or pencil. I did not retain those details in my memory, although I suppose with the Internet within fingertip-reach I could easily look up the answers to my uncertainty and find the exact details of Klee’s materials and composition.
But that’s not what I am after here, such verified certainty. I am only writing about this image of Klee’s now because of the details that I can recall in my own memory, the elements of the image that stood out to me apparently so much that in that brief moment in the gallery that I can still see them in my mind’s eye. And when I say brief moment, I am actually not sure how long the moment lasted, only that I felt captivated enough by the image of Klee’s that I paused, that my casual perusing of so many other paintings in the gallery suddenly came to a halt for no clear reason other than this one in particular captivated me. But I actually don’t know how long I stood there. It might have been a brief moment. Or twenty minutes might have passed. And that’s partly what interests me now: The suspension of time when encountering art that suddenly finds its way into your bones and holds you there.
The image itself: The face of a solitary man, composed of scattered markings, not exactly pointillated by ink or pencil, but more like what it might look like if a hundred crows briefly touched down in a field of snow and when they lifted off and left the field, they somehow made the image of a man’s face with their light foot touches. Or maybe it’s not bird feet, but instead bullet shrapnel: What it might look like if a drunk man with a shotgun stumbled to the side of his freshly painted barn and, waking up the next morning sober, went outside to see some lonesome face blasted into the whitewash paint and staring back at him.
I realize those two offerings – the bird feet and the shotgun shrapnel – are stark oppositions: One a delicate touch of bird feet in snow, the other the violent remains of human haphazardry—but that’s what stands out to me still, in my memory, about Klee’s solitary man, however long I spent gazing: Whose is this face before me? How was it formed, by gentle touches or flashes of rage? And if given the activation of movement through time, which direction are these markings causing the face to move? Is this face in the process of coming together, slowly connecting and forming smooth lines? Or is this face slowly being blasted apart? Is this figure forming or dispersing? Is the movement centripetal or centrifugal? If not for the moment chosen to capture this brief moment of markings just so, what would time be doing to this face?
At the time, ten years ago, I recall considering these questions in the context of broader societal forces and the resulting alienation of humanity, both in Klee’s time and increasingly in our own. This scattered fractured self is the result of a world increasingly forcing the individual human into some sort of spiritual isolation, disconnected from fellow human beings, be it family or friends or community, and the result being a fracturing: less gentle bird feet, more shrapnelization of the self.
But what strikes me now, ten years later, as I contemplate the memory of the image in my mind—a mind that has aged another decade and yet still, in my own opinion of myself, remains young enough to change and learn and shift its way of seeing the world—considers how the me that considered this image ten years ago might have not fully seen what this image was trying to reveal – and yet, the me that is recalling this image now is coming to understand the image in a new way: that perhaps it is not the negative impact that modern society has on humanity’s sense of self and alienation – but also the effect that the passage of time, the experience of it, creates a reality that we mistake for a solidity of the self, when in fact, the changes that occur at the molecular level, moment by moment, in ways that we now understand things, means that I am much more changing moment by moment that I ever imagined. Skin changes every 27 days. Blood completes another lap around the body every 60 seconds. My hair, fingernails, nose, ears, they will never stop growing, which means they are slowly growing with no effort every moment. So, it turns out, very few things are capable of refusing to change.
Which, to bring it back to the beginning, is how I consider this memory now. I so often mistake memory for history, the way I recall a moment a decade ago as if I could get it certified as fact, stamped, notarized. But instead, the memory remains in motion with me, in ways I encounter yet do not have the faintest notion of how to claim that I understand it, and whether it was solid then, whether it holds now, and whether it will ever be anything other than something I encounter once and then continue to encounter in new ways every time I remember. Whether memory in this way is neither a coming together or a falling apart, but is rather held suspended, folding and unfolding at once.
Finally found it: Paul Klee’s “Head, Bearded Man”