A lovely and intriguing painting by a contemporary Swiss artist.
Four birds cling to a wire against a bluish-purple background that shimmers and rises like fog over a lake. The birds’ heads are turned at various angles, and they sing in every direction. The curved wire on which they sit is attached to the handle, and if you use your imagination, you can see that the handle can turn, causing the birds to rotate up and down.
These are not ordinary birds, but emaciated creatures with spindly feathers and tongues that stick out like prickly fish hooks. The “machine” appears to be a crude (and cruel) hybrid of biology and automation. When we turn the handle, the birds begin to move, much like toys in a music box.
These are bleak descriptions, but the first impression of this image is warm. The colors are soft and alluring, resembling a swirling blue mist that is mysterious and all-encompassing.
As in many other Klee paintings, the texture has a pleasant grain of something old, the patina of something inlaid, amber, blooming.
Klee’s painting techniques were frequently multi-step. He tried not to throw anything away and frequently used old drawings as the basis for subsequent paintings.
The painting “The Chirping Machine” was created using an oil transfer technique. That’s how the chirping machine’s black lines were created – with oil paint on paper. The oil transfer technique was a favorite of Klee’s, particularly during this period of his career, in the early 1920s.
The technique begins with a drawing on a separate sheet of paper, as was customary for Klee, an avid “doodler” (a person who draws something involuntarily and aimlessly while his thoughts are occupied with something completely different), and then covers the back of the paper with black oil paint. The blackened side is then pressed against the watercolor paper, and the drawing is drawn like a copier to transfer the oil to the other side. After the tracing is complete, the transferred oil paint can be painted over with water-based paints without affecting the original.
Because this is an inaccurate method, the oil paint lines may occasionally blur or fade. Random spots of smeared paint appear as a result of stroke pressure. The overall effect is reminiscent of a shabby photograph… or, to be more specific, the fabric of a shabby chair.
The “Chirping Machine” has many different interpretations. Klee was interested in intuitive creations as an artist, in the vast possibilities of the subconscious mind to invent or interpret the world. As a result, he was content to devote himself to the images that arose spontaneously from his own imagination. His scribbles bore the weight of precise discoveries.
The reason Klee used such untested or unplanned source material was to gain experience with his tool. He believed that it was essential for the artist to have complete control over his working materials, allowing for a free play of possibilities that was not constrained by practical constraints.
At the time of writing this painting, Klee was a teacher at the avant-garde Bauhaus School of Modernist Art and Architecture, where he worked alongside Walter Gropius, Vasily Kandinsky, and Lionel Feininger, and he used to translate his working methods into useful tools for his students.
Klee wrote in his published work On Contemporary Art:
Everyone should follow where the pulse of his own heart leads. […] What emerges from this source, whether it is referred to as a dream, idea, or fantasy, should be taken seriously only if it is combined with appropriate creative means to form a work of art.
As a result, the “Chirping Machine” is a synthesis of subconscious images and fully conscious technical experience. Because of the work’s spontaneous nature, any precise meaning must ultimately remain elusive.
According to one critic, the painting is “a furious parable about the artist’s life among the townspeople […] [The birds] buzz helplessly, their heads bobbing in exhaustion and pathos, like Charles Chaplin caught in the gears of modern times. One bird’s tongue flies out of its beak, with an exclamation mark emphasizing its bleak fate—to chirp under duress.”
The work’s enjoyment for me stems from its playful ambiguity, the fine line between humor and monstrosity, tragedy and comedy. If this is a parable, perhaps questioning the “progress” of human technology, how the parable ends depends on the viewer’s perception.