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Paul Klee

The Visible and the Legible

The fact that Paul Klee (1879–1940) consistently intertwined the visual and the verbal in his art has long fascinated commentators from Walter Benjamin to Michel Foucault. However, the questions it prompts have never been satisfactorily answered—until now. In Paul Klee, Annie Bourneuf offers the first full account of the interplay between the visible and the legible in Klee’s works from the 1910s and 1920s.

Bourneuf argues that Klee joined these elements to invite a manner of viewing that would unfold in time, a process analogous to reading. From his elaborate titles to the small scale he favored to his metaphoric play with materials, Klee created forms that hover between the pictorial and the written. Through his unique approach, he subverted forms of modernist painting that were generally seen to threaten slow, contemplative viewing. Tracing the fraught relations among seeing, reading, and imagining in the early twentieth century, Bourneuf shows how Klee reconceptualized abstraction at a key moment in its development.

See sample pages from the book (PDF format).

256 pages | 32 color plates, 35 halftones | 7 x 9 | © 2015

Art: European Art

Media Studies


“Bourneuf’s cogent and scholarly discussion illuminates Klee’s critical engagement with the ideas and practices of other artists, including Kandinsky, van Doesburg and Moholy-Nagy. . . . This book offers a salutary lesson for artists who mistakenly imagine painting to be simply about technique and making and who have constructed an illusory division between practice and theory. Bourneuf effectively demonstrates how Klee’s artwork is itself a critique of theories and practices, and she conjures up for the reader the muscularity of artists’ thinking about art in that period.”

Times Higher Education

“Bourneuf's analysis of Klee’s most important and prolific creative phase reinforces [an] understanding of the artist as a highly intelligent strategist. . . . Recommended.”


"Scholars have been drawn to the literary in Klee's work. Annie Bourneuf’s beautifully produced book provides one of the most detailed studies on this theme. There are fresh insights on every page. . . . Bourneuf gives a superb account of Klee’s profound and endlessly fascinating imagination."

Times Literary Supplement

“With analyses that are wonderful to read and brilliantly contextualized, Paul Klee: The Visible and the Legible shows how complex and, within the years from 1916 to 1923, how variable Klee’s artistic positions are.”

CAA Reviews

“For the leading art critics and theorists of Klee’s day, to mix poetry with visual art, to integrate words with images, to conflate reading with looking, was to be vilified as ‘literary.’ His resistance to this orthodoxy and his deft, thoughtful, ingenious negotiation of this difficult terrain in the early years of his maturity is the subject of Bourneuf’s impressive book. No one has previously treated this issue, so critical for understanding Klee’s complex and idiosyncratic art, with the rigor, sensitivity, and sheer intellectual zest that Bourneuf has brought to it. Her book will have a decisive impact not only on Klee scholarship but on modern art studies more generally.”

Charles W. Haxthausen, Williams College

“By far the historically most thorough and perceptive investigation of the role of reading and writing in Klee’s work, this study is an excellent contribution to Klee scholarship and certainly the best book on him available today. Bourneuf introduces a significant number of little-known passages from Klee’s own writings or early criticism into the discussion, and her interpretations of individual works are masterfully crafted.”

Ralph Ubl, University of Basel

“Klee continues to fascinate us as a painter, printmaker, and draftsman, but we are also drawn to his activities as a teacher, theorist, and writer. Bourneuf has provided a wonderfully provocative and nuanced reading that highlights the sometimes ambiguous and even ambivalent tension that arose for Klee at the intersection of these activities. This is a sophisticated work that contributes to the scholarship on Klee, the history of abstraction, and the historiography of modernism as well as the critical issues that frame image making/writing and reading/seeing.”

Anna Sigrídur Arnar, Minnesota State University Moorhead

Table of Contents

Note on Klee’s Sequential Numbering System  

1 The “Painter-Draftsman”  
2 Seeing and Speculating  
3 A Refuge for Script  

Epilogue: Old Sound  


Dedalus Foundation: Robert Motherwell Book Award

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