Friday, 10 October 2014

The flying canvases of Paul Klee

I've always liked Paul Klee's semi-abstract geometrical paintings, the ones that you could see as 2D impressions of architectural townscapes or just harmonious arrangements of pleasing blocks of colour. There's a sense of tranquility, rhythm and order that's both satisfying and very easy on the eye.
Red/Green Architecture (yellow/violet gradation), Paul Klee, 1922

I never knew much about Klee's biography, but in this Great War centenary year I've discovered something that suggests he got some of his inspiration from a less-than-tranquil source:
After finishing the military training course, which began on 11 March 1916, he was committed as a soldier behind the front. Klee moved on 20 August to the aircraft maintenance company in Oberschleissheim, executing skilled manual work, such as restoring aircraft camouflage, and accompanying aircraft transports. On 17 January 1917, he was transferred to the Royal Bavarian flying school in Gersthofen ... to work as a clerk for the treasurer till the end of the war. This allowed him to stay in a small room outside of the barrack block and continue painting.
To give you some idea of the connection I'm seeing, take a look at the patterns on the fabric covering this restored World War I German aircraft:

Fokker D VIII, covered in camouflage fabric featuring repeating irregular polygons, 1918.
Quite Klee-esque, don't you think? It's not a complete clincher, as Klee was camouflaging aircraft in 1916 and this sort of pattern above only became widespread in 1917-18, but if we take a nerdy look at the development of aircraft camouflage in the Great War, I think you'll agree that the connection still looks compelling.

In 1914, the air arms of the various belligerents were made up of mainly fabric-covered aircraft. The fabric, along with metal engine covers and visible wooden parts, was left unpainted. The fabric was stiffened with clear dope and the wooden bits were varnished. The first change came when the various other powers started to follow the French practice of applying national markings, in order to discourage friendly fire. Only when their aviators and aircraft were (relatively) safe from being shot by their own side, did  the various authorities turn their attention to using camouflage to protect them from the enemy.

The British took a minimalist, utilitarian approach, leaving the undersurfaces of their aircraft in unpainted fabric and painting the upper surfaces a uniform dull green or brown, which was probably reasonably effective, although the British colours were about as aesthetically appealing as a palette of ruminant dung samples from animals fed on varying amounts of fresh green grass.

The French moved from unpainted fabric, first to silver dope (this wasn't a really bad attempt at camouflage - the silver was there to counteract the degrading effect of the UV in sunlight on the fabric, not as a misguided attempt at concealment), then to various painted wavy, splotchy disruptive lines in the sort of greens and browns that we associate with military camouflage.

The Germans were more inventive and tried a number of paint schemes, from relatively conservative finishes (light greys and patches of greens and browns), to more interesting effects, like a streaky olive green finish over a turquoise base, or this rather pleasing purple and green combo, as seen on the wings of a blazing Albatros, in this painting by Airfix box art legend, Roy Cross:
'Take that, Red Baron!' (from "Biggles is Colour Blind")
Anyway, a lot of these sort of schemes were in use in 1916, when Klee was based in Oberschleissheim. But another, more complex, scheme was being developed, a pointillist-inspired pattern of coloured polygons. It would probably have been in the development stage at the time when Klee was serving as a skilled tradesman-cum-camoufleur, and would have been painstakingly hand-painted, but there is photographic evidence of this being done on an aircraft of the right vintage - an E IV monoplane produced by the Pfalz company, shown here, complete with hand-painted polygons.

As Wikipedia helpfully relates, those time-consuming early experiments with hand-painted  polygons eventually led to some bright spark realising that you could save time and weight by printing the complex pattern onto the fabric beforehand, like wallpaper or curtains, rather than painting it on later (if I'm reading this thread at The Aerodrome right, that bright spark was one 'artist working at Idflieg named Ltn. Reimschneider', although it may be that Reimschneider was just the originator of two particular types of flugzeug tarnstoff, known in English as five colour day and night lozenge patterns, not the concept of printing all such patterns). By 1918, Halberstädter Flugzeug Werke's textile mills were covering most of the Kaiser's military aircraft with pointillism-inspired camouflage fabric, printed with repeating abstract patterns, made up of irregular polygons or regular hexagons.

So I'd say that there's at least as much credibility in the notion that camouflage influenced Klee's art as there is in Picasso's anecdotal declaration that cubists invented camouflage:
I very well remember at the beginning of the war being with Picasso on the boulevard Raspail when the first camouflaged truck passed. It was at night, we had heard of camouflage but we had not seen it and Picasso amazed looked at it and then cried out, yes it is we who made it, that is cubism.
Gertrude Stein, Picasso

While we're (tangentially) on the subject, polygons eventually caught on with the Austro-Hungarians as well, as can be seen on this restored aircraft, formerly the property of the Austro-Hungarian Imperial and Royal Aviation Troops, currently in the Prague Technical Museum:
Knoller C II (photo by Alfvan Beem, Wikimedia Creative Commons)
According to my sources, though, the Austo-Hungarians never got round to producing printed polygons and were hand-painting these complex patterns on their aircraft right up to the bitter end of the war. If so, this is one case where that lazy cliché about German efficiency actually seems to be true. If the reserved occupations were tied up in labour-intensive processes like painting complicated honeycomb patterns onto aircraft and the conscripts were anything like the ones portrayed in The Good Soldier Švejk, it's no wonder the Ausro-Hungarians lost not only the war, but their whole country.
Hi Ho Hi Ho , It's Off To Work We Go!!  (partly-polygon-painted Berg D I fighters in a factory somewhere - photo lifted from a Czech language website)
Mind you, the process may not have been efficient, but the flamboyant end result looked great.
C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre...
But for something even less warlike, get a load of the one aircraft camouflage fabric that I know the Austro-Hungarians did get round to printing. And this time it's not polygons:
Swirly whirlys
And in colour:
Man, that's trippy!
Printed by Johann Backhausen und Söhne, manufacturer of tablecloths, rugs and suchlike, as applied to aircraft like the Austro-Hungarian manufactured version of the Abatros D III, seen here in model form. From the art of war to the soft furnishings of war...