Ad Parnassum (1932) is considered to be Paul Klee’s masterpiece and the best example of his pointillist style; it is also one of his most finely worked paintings. Ad Parnassum was created in the Dusseldorfer period. With 100 x 126 cm (39 x 50 in) it is one of his largest paintings, as he usually worked with small formats. In this mosaic-like work in the style of pointillism he combined different techniques and compositional principles. Influenced by his trip to Egypt from 1928 to 1929, Klee built a colour field from individually stamped dots, surrounded by likewise stamped lines, which results in a pyramid. Above the roof of the “Parnassus” there is a sun. The title identifies the picture as Apollon’s and the Muses’ place.
Around 1930 Klee often made use of this pictorial structure, which recalls the Pointillism of the late nineteen century. ‘Divisionism’ was his name for it. A further geometrical element appears within the ‘divisionist’ structuring – a triangle which, with no definite outline, exists solely by virtue of variations in the tonal gradations applied to the little squares. As a result, the picture seems multi-layered, spatial and suffused with light. One genealog of modern colour-light painting would progress from Georges Seurat to Klee. However, Klee was hardly interested in the theories of colour so essential to Seurat. He simply made use of a pictorial method which, although its possibilities were soon exhausted, helped him to create a number of masterful works.
Beginning about 1930, Paul Klee, most musical of painters, began using the term “polyphonic painting” to describe the layering of various forms and colors to produce visual compositions of many “voices.” My favorites among these paintings are those using a sort of pointillist or mosaic approach, in which grids of dense dots or squares in contrasting colors create a wonderfully rich, luminous effect. The magnum opus among these works is the 1932 Ad Parnassum, which overlays glowing fields of colored dots with a few strong, simple shapes: a mountain peak, a sun, fragments of temple architecture. Klee borrowed his title from Gradus ad Parnassum (Steps to Parnassus, 1725) by J.J. Fux, a manual of polyphonic technique that nurtured generations of musicians. I borrowed my title from Klee’s painting.
My composition is not so much a translation of pictorial elements from Klee’s Ad Parnassum as an attempt to think through some of its basic principles in my own, purely musical terms. These principles include the play of light and shadow, the contrast between activity and repose, and a tension between Klee’s cool blues and warm oranges so engrossing that it results, paradoxically, in profound harmony. I have been inspired, too, by questions implicit in the Klee painting: what is figure, what is ground? how can the same element be first one, then the other, or even both at once? Above all, I have tried to learn from Klee how a busy surface, dense with small details, can cohere to produce large, clear shapes, simple yet powerful. This seems to me as valuable an aim in music as it is in art.
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Ad Parnassum is also complemented by monographs, the Ad Parnassum Studies.
Duration: 10 min.
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14. All repertories must be performed by memory.