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Shifting, Rotating, Mirroring 


Lena Bergner’s Minutes of Paul Klee’s Classes

Lena Bergner, Carpet design, Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Inv. No. LM-B5/01, © Heirs after Lena Bergner.

Lena Bergner developed carpet patterns applying specific methods learned from Paul Klee discernible in her finished work. The results, however, are quite unique. This is precisely what Klee sought to achieve with his classes at the Bauhaus: to point to paths of design so that the formal language is not arbitrary, without, however, prescribing predetermined outcomes.

Lena Bergner (1906-81) studied at the Bauhaus in Dessau from 1925 to 1930. In 1929 she completed her training to become a weaver with a journeyman’s examination, and in 1930 she graduated with a Bauhaus diploma. In addition to attending the basic courses held by Josef Albers and László Moholy-Nagy, as well as courses by Oskar Schlemmer and Joost Schmidt, she attended Paul Klee’s form classes—compulsory for all students—and the theoretical classes he offered specifically for weavers. After her training at the Bauhaus, she became director of the Ostpreußischen Handweberei (East Prussian Hand Weaving Workshop) in Königsburg, and then followed the former director of the Bauhaus, Hannes Meyer, to Moscow in 1931, becoming active as an “engineer-artist” in the drawing department of a factory for Jacquard furniture fabrics. With the beginning of the Moscow Trials in 1936, Lena Bergner left Russia for Switzerland with Meyer, whom she married the following year. After a trip through the United States and Central America, in 1939 Bergner accepted an appointment as professor at the state-run textile institute in Mexico, accompanied by Meyer, who had been offered the directorship of the Instituto del Urbanismo y Planificación (Institute of Urbanism and Urban Planning). Until her return to Switzerland in 1949, she worked as a weaver on various projects in Mexico, some of which were, unfortunately, never completed. For example, she was commissioned by the government to develop a plan to promote hand-weaving in the region of Ixmiquilpan, allowing the local Otomí population to augment their income from agriculture with textile production. Since artistic goals were subordinate to socio-political objectives in all of Bergner’s professional activities, the skills she acquired at the Bauhaus were only intermittently expressed and hardly any of her textile work has survived.

Lena Bergner, Negative silver gelatin print with illustrations from Klee’s classes, Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Inv. No. LM-B4/07N and LM-B4/02N, © Heirs after Lena Bergner.

Her minutes of the Bauhaus classes, on the other hand, bear vivid witness to what Paul Klee taught in his Theory of Configuration Form class and his other form classes within the weaving workshop. His lectures were of a purely theoretical nature.1 He did not talk about practical implementation or the materials and techniques weaving students might apply in their work: Gunta Stölzl, director of the workshop, was responsible for these issues. According to Bergner, consultations with weaving students occasionally took place outside of formal lectures, when the fabrics produced were critiqued under Klee’s direction in forums possibly modelled on discussions during the basic course.2

Lena Bergner, Clean copy of Klee’s classes, Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Inv. No. LM-B 1/08, © Heirs after Lena Bergner.

Surviving minutes of the students, such as those of Bergner, allow a reconstruction of certain semesters of Klee’s theoretical classes,3 for unlike at Weimar, where his teaching was recorded in dated lectures,4 at Dessau Klee dispensed with detailed notes, creating numerous geometrical sketches with very little text instead. As Bergner reports, Klee drew these models on the blackboard, giving brief explanations: “Klee spoke very little. We copied the sketches that formed the basis for tasks that we then had to accomplish at home.”5 Due to his often very brief explanations, some students claimed to have difficulty comprehending the full meaning of his thoughts. Others, like Helene Schmidt-Nonne, described his classes as very objective and thorough. Over time, he adapted the themes of his lectures to the given circumstances.6 Since he taught students at different levels in 1928 and 1929,7 the lectures and tasks for the basic courses overlapped with those of the theoretical classes for the weaving workshop.

In his teachings, as summed up by Bergner, Klee dealt with the laws of the surface as such, and with the relations between forms and colors. But how is this to be understood? There are more than 3,900 teaching notes written by Klee, which have been available online as facsimiles and transcripts since 2013,8 providing information on Klee’s aesthetic theory. Bergner’s minutes and exercises, included in the archive of the Zentrum Paul Klee, do so as well.

Klee’s theory begins with a general part, where he explains the principal order (I.2) of the pictorial elements: point, line and surface, as well as the pictorial means: line, black-and-white and color. As opposed to the calm principle order, the pictorial elements and means are set in motion by the special order (I.3). Klee’s theory is based on the idea of a lively, thus interesting, composition that can only be created through movement. According to Klee, movement can take place based on various methods such as shifting, mirroring, rotating or superimposing. Particularly in chapter I.4 Structure, Klee describes various methods with which a surface can be rendered rhythmical. In his classes, he wanted to demonstrate to his students how surface could be structured and new forms developed through the work process.

Lena Bergner, Exercise on shifting, mirroring and rotating, Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Inv. No. LM-B6/13, © Heirs after Lena Bergner.

Klee’s second, quite extensive chapter is dedicated to the configuration of the surface, or so-called planimetric design. It mainly consists of geometric drawings. In the first subchapter (II.5 Paths to Form), Klee describes the paths through which the elementary forms of circle, triangle and square are created, with movement and tension playing prominent roles in the process. He then proceeds to analyze the internal construction of the elementary forms (see the notes for II.6 Elementary Form with Bergner’s illustrations, e.g. the interior schematic depiction of the triangle in II.6/132).

In the following chapters, Klee goes through the different possible combinations of the elementary forms—including composite forms, added or subtracted forms, or the nestling of forms. Finally, Klee shows how to develop irregular forms based on elementary forms by selecting and emphasizing construction lines within the circle, triangle and square: for example (II.11 Deviation on the Basis of the Standard). Klee’s intention is always to focus on generating forms through the path of construction rather than one’s imagination. It is therefore hardly surprising that Bergner sums up Klee’s classes with the following words: “For us weavers, his elaborations were extremely important, because they helped us overcome excessive playfulness in our designs [in order to] … create stricter compositions. On account of his often all too brief explanations, we occasionally had problems grasping the full meaning of his thoughts, which dawned upon us only later during our practical professional work.”9

Bergner’s minutes more or less correspond with Klee’s teaching notes. The material can be divided into four mixed lots: 1. Transcripts in pencil and colored pencil created during the classes (Inv. No. PN LM B3); 2. clean copies in ink with illustrations in pencil (Inv. No. PN LM B1); 3. meticulously executed exercises and color studies (Inv. No. PN LM B2, B5, B6); 4. negative silver gelatin print with illustrations from the classes (Inv. No. PN LM B4); and 5. a typescript of several notes with an English translation along with illustrations (PN LM B7). This compilation was probably made for a planned English publication, which, however, never appeared. In 1978 a selection of the aforementioned sheets was printed in Bergner’s essay ‘Unterricht bei Klee’ in the periodical form+zweck.10

Lena Bergner, Transcript of Klee’s classes, Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Inv. No. LM-B 3/08, © Heirs after Lena Bergner.

Lena Bergner, Carpet design, Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Inv. No. LM-B5/01, © Heirs after Lena Bergner.

For Klee, the production of forms in pictorial configuration was of paramount importance. For this reason, from 1923 onwards he elected to change the title of his lecture notes from “Theory of Pictorial Form” (bildnerische Formlehre) to “Theory of Pictorial Configuration” (bildnerische Gestaltungslehre). In his opinion, the term “Theory of Configuration” (Gestaltungslehre) better characterized the processuality of the form-making process better than the term “theory of form.”11

In order to achieve a vivid, i.e. interesting, surface configuration, Klee introduced various types of movement. In chapter I.3 Special Order, for example, he presents the geometric methods of rotating, shifting and mirroring. This theme can be found in both Bergner’s notes and Klee’s manuscripts (see BG I.3/73). In exercises, the students freely implemented what they had learned in the lectures. Klee always made an effort to understand his students’ intentions, making brief suggestions and encouraging them to further develop their ideas. Solutions for the tasks he posed were never predetermined. At the end of one lecture series, he allegedly said: ‘This is one possibility—I don’t make use of it, by the way.’12 Bergner’s collection also includes various outcomes to exercises in which rotating, shifting and mirroring as types of movement are implemented in various ways—through rhythmically linear and rhythmically planar progressions, for instance.

Lena Bergner, Exercise on shifting, mirroring and rotating, Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Inv. No. LM-B6/12, © Heirs after Lena Bergner.

Shifting, mirroring and rotating are universal design principles widespread in ornamentation practices—specifically, in North African weaving art of the period. It is well-known that Klee, as well as many of his contemporaries and colleagues at the Bauhaus, was familiar with and sought to emulate non-European art and craft traditions. Both his personal library and the library of the Bauhaus reveal this shared interest in various folk cultures.13 With regards to designing textiles and carpets, engaging with premodern formal languages offered an interesting path away from the “refined imitations of stale oil paintings of dubious taste,” as Gunta Stölz described the European tradition of narrative Gobelin tapestries.14 But Klee did not consider geometric patterns as templates for finished products; instead, he would explain to his students how these patterns are created and how they can be individually altered in the creative process. Bergner, for example, also developed carpet patterns applying specific methods learned from Klee (shifting, rotating, mirroring, superimposing) discernible in her finished work. The results, however, are quite unique (Fig. 7 and 8). This is precisely what Klee sought to achieve with his classes at the Bauhaus: to point to paths of design so that the formal language is not arbitrary, without, however, prescribing predetermined outcomes.

●Footnotes
  • 1 On Klee’s classes at the Bauhaus see Fabienne Eggelhöfer & Marianne Keller Tschirren (eds.): Paul Klee. Bauhaus Master (exhibition catalogue). La Fábrica/Fundación Juan March, Madrid, 2013.
  • 2 Lena Meyer-Bergner: ‘Unterricht bei Klee’, in: form+zweck. Fachzeitschrift für industrielle Formgestaltung, 3/1979, p. 60–62, see p. 60.
  • 3 Further information on the topics dealt with in these classes is provided by Klee’s surviving pocket calendars from the years 1926, 1928 and 1929 available in the archive of the Zentrum Paul Klee or as transcripts in: Felix Klee (ed.): Paul Klee Briefe an die Familie 1893-1940, Dumont, Cologne, 1979, Vol. 2, p. 1018–1022, 1077–1080 and 1084–1085.
  • 4 See Beiträge zur Bildnerischen Formlehre (Contributions to a Theory of Form), dated notes of chapters I.2 Principielle Ordnung (Principal Order) and II.21 Mechanik (Mechanics).
  • 5 Meyer-Bergner: ‘Unterricht bei Klee’, 1979, p. 60.
  • 6 Helene Schmidt-Nonné: ‘Der Unterricht von Paul Klee in Weimar und Dessau’, in: Paul Klee: Pädagogisches Skizzenbuch, reprint of the edition from 1925, Kupferberg, Mainz/Berlin, 1965, p. 53–56, see p. 55 f.
  • 7 He offered concurrent courses for weavers in both the second and fourth semester, alongside the compulsory classes of the basic course.
  • 8 See facsimile and transcripts at www.kleegestaltungslehre.zpk.org.
  • 9 Meyer-Bergner: ‘Unterricht bei Klee’, 1979, p. 60.
  • 10 Ibid.
  • 11 One can find the reasons given by Klee for this lexical change in: Bildnerische Gestaltungslehre, I.1. Gestaltungslehre als Begriff (Theory of Pictorial Configuration as Concept), BG I.1/4.
  • 12 Schmidt-Nonné: Der “Unterricht von Paul Klee in Weimar und Dessau,” 1965, p. 56.
  • 13 His wife Lily gave him the first edition of Carl Einstein’s seminal book Negerplastik from 1915 containing a personal dedication from Einstein. Moreover, Einstein personally gave Klee his 1921 book Afrikanische Plastik, and Klee possessed the following books from the Orbis Pictus series: Otto Burchard: Chinesische Kleinplastik, Berlin, n.y., Sattar M.A. Kheiri: Indische Miniaturen der islamischen Zeit, Berlin,n.y., and Karl With: Asiatische Monumental-Plastik, Berlin, n.y.
  • 14 Gunta Stölzl: ‘die entwicklung der bauhausweberei’, in: bauhaus. zeitschrift für gestaltung, No. 2, 5/1931.
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