I thought I’d found the peace that I’d come for. Here in Munich, where I spent a year in college. A felicitous town with musicians on every corner: Mozart concertos, Bach sonatas, a Billie Holiday tune here and there. Choirs singing hosannas to the highest lighten even the heavyset Cathedral of Our Lady.
On Wednesday, I strolled into the gardens of the Stadtische Galerie. The museum was housed in a gold-colored Tuscan villa, once the home of the painter Franz von Lenbach. The first gallery held Klee’s colorful and cheerful work: Southern Gardens: vivid orange, red, blue and aqua patches and Rose Garden: carnelian, cerise and scarlet geometric figures and a cluster of smiling people.
The next gallery was deserted. Klee’s Ravaged Place hung on the far wall: a bruise-purple building with a dabbled white roof is askew in the background. The building once had four walls, but like a stage set only the façade remains. Its gaping window holes were shaded violet black, wraiths curling behind them. Two smaller structures tilted in from outside the frame. Their windows were vacant eyes to the sky. In the foreground, headstones.
Not different from my last patrol. A long day. My unit had beaten off two insurgent attacks and we were a couple miles from base. We saw the village beyond the ridge. Smoke, still curling. Crumbled dun-colored mud houses. Wooden framing sticking out at unnatural angles. Fragments of cloth fluttering from splintered windows. Blackened shards. Littering the sand, blood-streaked arms and legs and a doll.
The memory emptied me and I slumped on a museum bench, head in my hands, heart pounding. I was nauseous, like the time in the back of an old bus bumping down a mountain road in Morocco, sucking diesel fumes and greasy mutton. Hot and I couldn’t get up, trapped between two guys who were asleep. I squeezed my head tighter and tighter to quiet the clattering explosions in my skull.
My Dad, a Nam vet, never told me about the flashbacks. But he was career; maybe it’s different for them. My twin brother Will followed Dad’s lead, until it all ended at Shahi Khot. I’d stayed away from everything Army until what happened to Will. But I had to finish what he started. That’s the way it was with us. So it was Special Forces and language school.
Someone hit me. I jumped; nearly knocked the old man down. Slowly, I saw him, the attendant, a thin wispy-haired man carved by age.
“Bitte, are you well?”
Probably, he only tapped me on the shoulder.
“I’ll be fine, danke.”
“I never come in this room,” he said. “Too many thoughts, too many memories I don’t want to have.”
Looking down at him, I asked, “Der Zweite Weltkrieg?”
“Stalingrad,” he said. “I can’t forget.”
He looked at me, eyes filling with tears. His lips moved, but no words came out. Then he placed a thin arthritic hand on my arm and held tight.
I walked slowly out of the Galerie and back through the Plaza of Our Lady. Leave was over. That evening I took the train up to Frankfurt for my flight. I’d be in Kabul in twenty-four hours, and sign up for another tour. I’m not haunted by memories there.
A Note on the Author
Townsend Walker lives in San Francisco. His novella La Ronde was published in 2015 and his short stories have appeared in over seventy-five literary journals. “A Little Love, A Little Shove” and “Holding Tight” were nominated for PEN/O.Henry Awards. The two stories are included in his new collection, 3 Women 4 Towns 5 Bodies. Townsend wrote A Guide for Using the Foreign Exchange Market, Managing Risk with Derivatives, and Managing Lease Portfolios, during his career in finance. In addition to writing stories, Townsend conducts a creative writing workshop at San Quentin Prison.
Townsend submitted I Can’t Forget along with an image of Paul Klee’s painting, ‘Destroyed Place’, which Klee completed in 1920. However, in the story, Klee’s ‘Ravaged Place’ is referred to. On further reading of Walker’s ekphrasis of the painting, he seems to be referring more to ‘Destroyed Place’: “The building once had four walls, but like a stage set only the façade remains. Its gaping window holes were shaded violet black, wraiths curling behind them. Two smaller structures tilted in from outside the frame. Their windows were vacant eyes to the sky. In the foreground, headstones.” [‘Ravaged Place’ is actually entitled ‘Ravaged Land’.]
This artwork points to Klee’s skills as a draughtsman, indicated by the buildings. The two-dimensional surface and shapes indicate the influence of Cubism, which Klee discovered during his travels to Paris where he met Robert Delaunay and discovered Picasso and Braque’s works in galleries. The sense of the surreal is highlighted by the hands sweeping from the headstones towards the vacant buildings, rendering the landscape a ghostlike presence. Death permeates the piece, signified by the dark sombre tones of black against purple.
Walker’s story is a great example of how art can emote and bring forth stories buried in our unconscious. It is also a great example of how a writer can combine Ekphrasis in a work of fiction. Visual Art as prompts to writing is not a new concept because art triggers memories, sensations and emotions in each of us; I Can’t Forget indicates this.
Paul Klee (1879 – 1940) was born in Münchenbuchsee, Switzerland, to a German father and a Swiss mother. His parents were both musicians; his father was a music teacher in Bern where the family settled in 1897, after moving around in Switzerland for some time.
Music and art filled Klee’s life since childhood. Encouraged by his parents, he studied the violin. Although he was very good at the instrument, he chose to focus on visual art during his teenage years. However, his parents were not that supportive of his forays into art, preferring that he continued with music.
Against his parents’ wishes, Klee left for Munich in 1898 for art studies at the Academy of Fine Arts and briefly attended Franz von Stuck’s class there. He chose to settle in Munich in 1906 after spending some years travelling to Italy, France and living some years back in Bern.
In Munich, Klee focused on graphic art for the most part. A chance meeting with the abstract artist, Kandinsky, in 1911 would change the course of his life. Kandinsky recognised talent in Klee’s work and was very supportive of him.
In 1912, Klee exhibited in Munich’s Galerie Goltz in the second exhibition of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a group formed by Russian emigre painters (Kandinsky included) in response to the rejection of Wassily Kandinsky’s work, ‘Last Judgement’, from an exhibition. Der Blaue Reiter is also an art movement important in the development of Expressionism; this art movement lasted only 3 years from 1911 to 1914 but has left the art world with a vast collection of artworks which can be viewed at Lenbachhaus, Munich.
Paul Klee was very interested in colours and was an avid researcher in colour theory. He wrote extensively on the effects of colour on art. His lectures at the Bauhaus School of Art, where he taught for 10 years starting in 1921, have been published under the name, Paul Klee Notebooks, a two-volume work, considered as important to modern art theory as Leonardo Da Vinci’ s Treatise on Paintings is for the Renaissance.
A trip to Tunis, Morocco, in 1914 impressed Klee so much that he would later write, saying, “colour and I are one” proclaiming himself a “painter.” From this period on, Klee started to experiment with abstraction. Already a skilled draughtsman, he combined his abilities in draftsmanship—straight lines forming shapes like rectangles and triangles—with colours to form a unique style—visual art, combining Expressionism, Cubism, Abstraction and Surrealism, all associated with music—that some scholars have recognised to be influenced by his earlier schooling in music. Perhaps, Klee could be a synesthete like his friend, Kandinsky.
Klee was conscripted as a soldier of the German Reich in March of 1916. Fortunately, for him, he spent most of the war in an office which spared him from the horrors on the war front. Klee’s diaries and letters indicated his detachment from the war. But the war would leave profound impressions on him. The death of his friends August Macke and Franz Marc devastated him. He responded by creating pen and ink lithographs dealing with war themes. Perhaps it was during this time that Klee would come to say “I paint in order not to cry”, a phrase that has come to represent his works made during and after WWI. Critics have said that Klee’s pieces during and after the war indicated his detachment: Klee commented on the devastation brought by war by abstracting it, representing the horror by symbols and leitmotifs.
“The more horrible this world (as today, for instance), the more abstract our art, whereas a happy world brings forth an art of the here and now.” — Paul Klee (diary, 1915).
Paul Klee passed away in 1940, in Switzerland, from a wasting disease that engulfed him towards the end of his life. The pain caused by Scleroderma would enter his later work. I think apart from expressing his physical pain on canvas, Klee also drew from the trauma incurred during the war and allowed this to find expression in his work. Paul Klee left behind an oeuvre consisting of just under 10,000 pieces of artworks. Although born in Switzerland, he never obtained Swiss citizenship because the Swiss authorities felt that his artwork was too revolutionary for the period.
Paul Klee’s work can be viewed worldwide as well as at the Paul Klee Centre in Bern.
Image Credit: ‘Destroyed Place’, 1920, Oil on paper, 8 3/4 x 7 5/8 in. (22.3 x 19.5 cm), Lenbachhaus, Munich.