Literary references permeate the works of Swiss artist Paul Klee, whose Persische Nachtigallen (Persian Nightingales) most likely alludes to the verses of the fourteenth- century poet Hafiz.
Mortal never won to view thee,
Yet a thousand lovers woo thee;
Not a nightingale but knows
In the rose-bud sleeps the rose.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe introduced the Persian writer to Germanspeaking audiences in his West-östlicher Divan, and it was probably here that Klee first learned of Hafiz's work. In sensuous poetic images, the Persian master celebrates the joys of love, wine, and the natural world. Two of his recurring motifs are the nightingale and the rose, the former symbolizing earthly yearning, and the latter divine beauty and glory.
A pink rose appears in the lower left quadrant of Klee's watercolor, cradled by two sharply pointed leaves whose forms mirror the nightingales' heads. Above and to the left of the flower is the letter R (presumably for Rose ). Three nightingales occupy center stage, and one of them is inverted and drunk with desire, its beak pointing toward the letter N (presumably for Nachtigallen). Celestial bodies float across the sheet, enlivening it with circles, halfmoons, and stars, while on the N's right stem Klee hoists a bright red pennant.
Klee further alludes to Persian miniature painting in the drawing's gemlike delicacy, ornamentation, and lustrous color, as well as its disregard for scale and perspective. Even the structure of the composition, which one seems to enter through an arched niche or parted curtains, recalls the format of many Persian miniatures. While Klee was living in Germany, from 1898 to 1933, he would have had ample opportunity to see Persian art in public collections, such as the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum in Berlin (now Bode Museum), as well as the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum and the Staatsbibliothek in Munich. He no doubt also saw an important 1910 exhibition of Islamic art in Munich that featured more than 3,500 objects, including, as Klee's friend and colleagueWassily Kandinsky wrote in a published review, "carpets, majolica, weapons, ceramics, textiles, and finallyâ\u0080\u0094the most arresting and closest to us todayâ\u0080\u0094Persian miniatures."
This radiant watercolor reflects in miniature a wondrous, microcosmic universe, one that even grants status to lowly consonants. Indeed, the letters R and N are fully integrated within the composition; they are scaled to the size of the nightingales and juxtaposed in the same indeterminate space. As is often the case in Persian art and particularly in Hafiz's poetry, the earthly and the divine are poised in a delicate and ambiguous balance. Individual shapes shift one against the other, each within the confines of Klee's wiry line and each flooded with thin washes of color. Although perfectly balanced for the moment, one senses that a tiny slip of a line in one direction or another might set the whole creation tumbling.
on sheet upper left in pen and ink: Klee; on mount lower left in pen and ink: 1917 92; on mount lower right in pen and ink: Persische Nachtigallen
Hughes (?); Heinz Berggruen, Paris; Walter Feilchenfeldt, Zurich; purchased 1973 by Catherine Gamble Curran, New York; gift (partial and promised) to NGA, 1990.
- Art for the Nation: Gifts in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1991, 300-301 color repro.
- A Century of Drawing, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2001-2002, no. 35, as Persische Nachtigallen (Persian Nightingales).
- Art for the Nation: Gifts in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1991: p.300.
- Helfenstein, Josef, and Christian Rumelin. Paul Klee: Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. II. Bern, 2000: 1776.
- A Century of Drawing. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2001-2002: no. 35.