“A Life-Changing Art Encounter”
Adaptation from The Art of Looking: How to Read Modern and Contemporary Art
By Lance Esplund
Nov. 23, 2018
When I was 13 years old, my parents gave me an enormous book about Leonardo da Vinci for Christmas. Inside were large color pictures of “The Virgin and Child With St. Anne,” the “Mona Lisa” and “St. John the Baptist,” as well as an impressive “Last Supper” centerfold. The book included drawings of nature, anatomy, innovative weaponry and flying machines—all of which struck me then as very cool. I admired and pored over their details. But what I remember most was that the paintings and drawings didn’t move me, and the secret shame I felt because I knew that Leonardo was considered among the greatest artists of all time. What did it say about me that I wasn’t excited by his work?
It took a long time for me to have my first real art experience. It happened when I saw Paul Klee’s 1928 abstract painting “Howling Dog” on a college road trip to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, in 1983, and became mesmerized. It was not the first great painting I had seen face to face; and, at roughly 18 inches high by 22 inches wide, it was far from the largest. But it was the first artwork to inspire me, the first with which I formed a relationship and through which I took a journey. Klee had died in Switzerland decades before, in 1940 at the age of 60, but his painting spoke to me, a kid who’d grown up in the American Midwest a generation later, with a startling immediacy. Art has that kind of power. It leaps across borders, continents, decades and even centuries.
I came to “Howling Dog” because of my affection for animals. I was held, however, not by the painting’s subject, but by its colors, so much so that I later told a friend that looking at it felt like “an eye massage.” Then there was its cool light, and the way, more than just a representation of something in the natural world, it evoked a living universe entirely its own.
I was also intrigued by its power of seduction. Why, I wondered, did this painting hold me in a way that others hadn’t? Other thoughts followed. Were those colors being stirred by the dog and its howls? Or had the full moon moved them to whirl and the animal to wail? Eventually, I decided that Klee’s radiant moon was both cause and spectator of this show. And since the imagery of “Howling Dog” was closer to a child’s finger painting than to the realistic forms of those Leonardo works in my Christmas book, the picture raised the question of whether an artist can paint like a child without making a childish painting. In other words, Klee’s picture inspired me to begin a dialogue, a give-and-take, to communicate further with an artwork because it had already spoken to me.
As I swam in the picture’s colors, I began to understand Klee’s taut, muscular line. It had dynamism and volume. It was not merely resting on the surface, but served as energy source and skeletal structure to the painting. It rises and falls, opens and closes, expanding and contracting the picture like a bellows. And I realized that these movements seemed to breathe air and life not just into the dog and its howls but also into the painting as a whole. Klee had painted not just a dog baying at the moon. He had given form and humor and life to those howls: their reverberations stirring the air, revolving around the moon and puncturing the quiet night and the wide-open mouth of the moonlit sky.
Klee’s painting taught me that engaging with art is a full-body experience, one in which color, form, space, weight, rhythm, timbre and structure are felt as much as they are seen. Art, before it is understood to represent a sunset, the Virgin or an abstract form, begins by striking within us physical and emotional chords. “Howling Dog” awakened me to what is possible in a work of art. Its experience was an immersion in the way an artist explores his theme. Klee opened up for me not just the world of abstraction, but the world of art.