IN A FERTILE LAND: Paul Klee in Egypt

Although Paul Klee (Swiss, 1879 – 1940) did not travel much, he made the most of his few trips abroad. His 1914 visit to Tunisia altered his approach to art-making and inspired scores of drawings and watercolors. In December of 1928, he fulfilled a long-standing desire to see the monuments of the pharaohs, by making a month long trip to Egypt. Since the sensational discovery by Howard Carter of the undisturbed tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, Egypt had become was a popular tourist destination, and Klee saw Cairo, the pyramids and Sphinx at Giza, Aswan, the temples of Karnak and Luxor and the Valley of the Kings as part of an organized group tour.

Klee had explored striated watercolors prior to his Egyptian journey, but it was the distinctive patterning of the cultivated fields along the Nile that gave that formal vocabulary focus and direction. Once one is aware that the artist has recently been looking at pyramids, triangular forms that appear in his work immediately after the trip take on a new meaning. Having been told that pictures like Monument on the Edge of Fertile Land depicts the profile of the Sphinx in between the fields (left) made fertile by the annual inundation of the Nile and the desert (right), Klee’s seemingly abstract composition suddenly reads as a figural image.

Other works, created in 1929, after he had returned to Switzerland, such as Highway and Byways, which shows a road cutting across the fields, leading down to the Nile, seen in blue at the top of the image, or Evening Fire, which shows a deep red sun setting over the fields, are equally referential and representational. They are analog images that have been reduced to their simplest formal elements, which are then rigorously examined from all points of view—Bauhaus tourist snapshots, if you will.

Given his interest in signs, symbols and inscriptions, it’s not surprising that Klee was drawn to hieroglyphics. However, he approached the subject by painting pastiches of pseudo hieroglyphs that are charming, but not particularly compelling. On the other hand, Klee’s pictures like Eros (1930), which are not representational, but incorporate Egyptian symbolic language and pyramidal forms to make diagrammatic statements about broader issues, are genuinely heady and memorable, allusive without being cryptic. They also show that Klee was not engaged in mindless Egyptomania.

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