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Twittering Machine: Paul Klee 1922

April 14, 2013

I was only fourteen or so living in England when I became aware of the Swiss artist Paul Klee and his work. I was given a tiny book of his watercolours and paintings in 1954 by a woman who thought I should be an artist. She was right and I still have that book.

Two years later I was in the American army in New York City on leave, waiting to be shipped to Korea as a combat photographer, and I found myself in the Museum of Modern Art; that’s where I first laid eyes on Klee’s small 1922 watercolour: Twittering Machine. Love at first sight. What a wonderful picture and what a wonderful artist. I have seen the painting many times since that first view, but I have never gotten over the wow factor of that first time.

Die_Zwitscher-Maschine_(Twittering_Machine)

Now over half a century later this little painting comes back to haunt me because of all the fuss over Twitter as a social medium. Was Klee an early seer of the future like Marshall McLuhan’s global village or was his title just a happy coincidence? Actually, it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that Klee’s image is a perfect simile or metaphor for Twitter. Here we have a bunch of birds all tweeting on a line that is attached to a hand crank waiting to be turned. Perfect. How like us, and I mean us as I am just as likely to tweet as the next person, and hope that somebody hears my call. Yo, anybody home and look at my feathers!

Much has been written about this painting and I am not the first to compare Twittering Machine to Twitter, the old chestnut holds that there is nothing new under the sun, but I would like to think that my bird song is not only the prettiest, but the most profound. A whole lot of art writing draws conclusions about art works that are at best dubious. A quick look on the web for this painting will bring thousands of results. Good luck at finding truth in such a forest of stuff.

Let me tell you this for sure, Twittering Machine is a really pretty, little, blue hued, watercolour that, besides being funny, does a good job of showing the sorry state of the early part of the 20th century just before the ‘you know what’ hit the fan. Klee knew and that’s why he fled Germany and the Nazis and died in his native Switzerland in 1940.

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