The four tiny rodents running around in Paul Klee’s Barbed Noose with Mice refuse to tell us what they are doing. I first make out among the irregular shapes a maze. Yet the “barbed noose” in the title sounds far more ominous than the mere presentation of a puzzle. Klee’s works, however, are largely both cheery and wise, and reflect the artist’s mischievous mood as well as his whimsical imagination. A two-week trip to Tunisia that he made in 1914 became the turning point in his art, which subsequently veered toward the abstract. By 1923, the year he painted this watercolor and gouache on paper, he had been teaching at The Bauhaus for three years. The school’s influences seem evident in the geometric patterns of the noose. As for the mice? Perhaps he was remembering one evening in Kairouan. He wrote in his diary—that reads like modern poetry—“A street scene around a mouse. Finally someone killed it with a shoe.” A couple of lines later, in the same short entry, dated April 16th, was this: “Color possesses me. I don’t have to pursue it. It will possess me always, I know it. That is the meaning of this happy hour: Color and I are one. I am a painter.” The evening in its entirety must surely have left a lasting impression.
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