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The Bauhaus: Art Discussion (Somewhat Scholarly), Paul Klee & Sexual Fluidity

Continuing discussion of The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism, by Nicholas Fox Weber, we now focus on Paul Klee; specifically regarding sexuality and gender issues.

What today we call gender issues were not openly discussed at the Bauhaus. Active as people were, they did not talk about sex.

Klee, however, addressed through his art, with spectacular ease and openness, aspects of maleness and femaleness. He did so lightly and wittily, yet he brazenly depicted sexual instincts, in all their inherent complexity, without any inhibition.

Klee’s Window Display for Lingerie invokes, in a way both worldly and carefree, sophisticated and childlike, a plethora of issues about male and female traits within a single human being. Four large figures either melt from or merge into a shimmering, amorphous mosaic pattern. Some smaller figures, and parts of figures cut off by the picture’s right and left edges, suggests that there is a whole crowd out there of which we are seeing only part. Some of these characters sport stiletto-heeled boots and outfits that are like flared knee-length shorts or culottes; with their muscular legs and hourglass figures, they might be transvestites. They are not exactly androgynous because, rather than seeming like masculine women or feminine men, they are are, alternately, very girlish or very soldierlike; instead of combining genders, they appear to flip back and forth between them. Their headgear might be helmets, large teardrops, or dunce caps. Several of the jaunty gnomelike creatures stand boldly; others look as if they are recoiling under attack.

The words Klee has painted on the picture surface add to the incomprehensibility. They look like lettering on glass with the personages being part of a shopwindow display; this reading of the scene, the most evident one, would be even more logical were it not for the abstracted mountain peak behind these creatures who resemble marionettes as much as mannequins. The lettering at the top says “Anna Wenne Special.” The assumption we might make today, at a remove from the Weimar culture of the 1920s, is that Anna Wenne was either the brand name of a familiar product or a wellknown actress. If so, the words “feste Preise” (fixed prices) would perhaps make sense underneath the word “Special,” for which the crown on one of the ambiguous pieces of headgear servves as an exclamation point. And presumably the words “Eingang / Entree” (“Entrance” in both German and, in smaller letters, French), with the accompanying arrow, would also make sense because, knowing what or who Anna Wenne was, we would know whether this indicates the entrance to a shop or to a theater.

“Anna Wenne,” however, was as much an invention as everything else in the paining.

A few years ago, Marta Schneider Brody, writing in The Psychoanalytic Review, astutely considered the signifigance of the name. She points out that Klee’s signature, although so small we almost cannot see it in reproductions of Window Display for Lingerie, is just to the right of the name Anna Wenne (not the usual place for a signature). The artist used only his last name. Broody suggests he invented “Anna Wenne Klee” for a reason, a surmise corroborated by another painting, from 1923, that has the name Anna Wenne on the opposite side from the name Paul Ernst — a reversal of Ernst Paul, Klee’s actual first two names — as if both of these people were the artists. “Anna Wenne,” Brody writes, “may be an imperfect anagram for the German… Mann Nennen Ann, a man named Ann. The anagram is formed by transposing the letters and inverting the letter W to form the letter M.”

“Anna” was the name of Klee’s maternal grandmother. Anna Frick was the person who had started him, at the age of three, making art, and who had protected him as a left-hander. It was under her guidance that he developed the idea of painting and drawing being forms of play. This occurred at the same time in his early childhood when he wanted to wear “ravishing lace-trimmed panties” and “was sorry I was not a girl myself.”

Anni Albers joyfully recalled that every six months or so Klee would tack his most recent work to the walls of a corridor at the Weimar Bauhaus. These displays were among the greatest experiences of her life. She and other people spent hours deliriously studying the work; its easy to see why.

To someone like Anni — sexually ambivalent, determined to shake off the traditional expectations of what women were to do with their lives — the crossing over suggested by Window Display for Lingerie, the fanciful rather than grave approach to the issues at hand, was liberating. So was the further doubleness of “Eingang — Entree.” The word for “entrance” is masculine in German (der Eingang) and feminine in French (une entree). With entrance itself such a sexually suggestive idea, the use of both languages is a stroke of Klee’s genus. The combining of male and female roles not only pervaded Klee’s work at the Weimar Bauhaus; it was also apparent in his atypical life, where, in Lily’s absence, he was Frelix’s main caregiver as well as the family cook.

I’m not going to add anything else to the discussion today; not simply because this was a long excerpt (and I know the internets have reduced you to knee-jerk attention spans, requiring Ritalin-induced episodic behavioral adjustment), but because the author, Nicholas Fox Weber, has covered this so well that it’s best to let it all sink in for a bit before adding more.

Posted in Art, Artists, Books, Gay, Lesbian, Lingerie, Sex Education, Sex History.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. More Of Paul Klee’s Work At The Bauhaus (Or, Seeing The Smut In Modern Art) – Silent Porn Star linked to this post on August 2, 2010

    […] the possible exception of Window Display For Lingerie (my affection of which I cannot be certain because I simply haven’t seen more than that […]



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