Klee's desire sounded familiar. Having just seen the Gaugin show at the Tate Modern, I read two novels based on Gaugin's life: Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence, and Mario Vargas Llosa's This Way to Paradise. Both novels emphasize Gaugin's desire to paint like a "primitive."
Although to our ears - disinfected, as they've been, by political correctness - painting "like a primitive" sounds dangerously like racist twaddle (premised, as the desire seems to be, on the romantic and inaccurate assumption that primitives are pure, uncivilized, uncorrupted, natural, sexual, etc.), I believe the impulse exhibited by Gaugin, Klee and other modernists is legitimate, non-racist and non-romantic, even if the semantics are now dated. Here's why:
Humans have been making non-realistic visual art - figurative, but with elements of abstraction, two-dimensionality, fantasy, etc. - for vastly longer than they've been making realistic art. Despite the horrified reactions of art connoisseurs to the onset of abstraction in the late 19th century (and the continuing bafflement of the public to 20th and 21st century art), the realism of the Renaissance, Enlightenment and Romantic ages (and not the subsequent reintroduction of elements of abstraction) was the aberration.
The post-Renaissance artist desiring to make abstract art, however, faced a problem that didn't arise for his pre-Renaissance counterpart: literacy. As Walter J. Ong describes in Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, the consciousness of people in primary oral societies is considerably different than that of people in literate societies (see especially pp. 31-77).
In particular, "the shift from oral to written speech is essentially a shift from sound to visual space." (p. 117). While people in primary oral societies experience language as sound, alphabets and print have the tendency "to reduce all sensation and indeed all human experience to visual analogues." (p. 76.) Sound, of course, is invisible and dissipates rapidly; words, in Ong's analysis, are "events." Writing, on the other hand, is visible and "immobile"; words become "things . . . for assimilation by vision." (p. 91.)
What writing, print and literacy mean for the post-Renaissance artist is that the visual arena is now invaded by the word. The instinct to seek a primitive state in order to paint is the impulse to return to primary orality, to a consciousness in which language is relegated to sound, and in which the visual sphere is uncoupled from linguistic communication.
The impulse goads the artist into a near impossible task. As is explained in Maryanne Wolf's, Proust and the Squid (discussed in this New Yorker article) and Stanislas Dehaene's, Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention (reviewed in the New York Times piece) both primary orality and literacy are encoded at the neurological level in the brain. I'm no neuroscientist, but I'm guessing that to move from one system to another requires rearranging neural circuitry. (Ong laments that "we can never forget enough of our familiar present [literacy] to reconstitute in our minds any past [of primary orality] in its full integrity" (p. 15).)
On a more personal level, in writing my last novel, The Celebration Husband, I attempted to portray characters from primary oral societies. To do so, I needed to achieve an understanding of their thinking patterns, logic, motivations, emotional processes, etc. Despite extensive research and imaginative effort, I am not confident that I got it right. Although I believe that the attempt to gain understanding of primary oral consciousness is critical (even in failure), I doubt that a medium of literacy can ever bring to life fully a person from a primary oral society (with the possible exception of poetry). Visual artists might have a better chance. In any event, I feel in a small way that through my work on The Celebration Husband I can relate to the quests of Klee, Gaugin and other modernists to reconstruct a primary oral consciousness (even if they didn't understand their mission in those terms).
Significantly, conceptual artists represent an abandonment of this effort of the modernists. Conceptual artists accept a visual field occupied by the word, and they put the word (and its corollary, ideas) to work in the service of art.
The effect is necessarily less visually arresting. After all, we literates already experience a visual sphere cluttered with words; conceptual art may invite us to think differently about those words, but it does not present us with a visual arena in which words are absent, as they are in the art work of a person from a primary oral society (or a child).
Ong describes writing as "a particularly pre-emptive and imperialist activity that tends to assimilate other things to itself." (p. 12.) In Klee, Gaugin and other modernists, we may have witnessed the last resistance of visual artists to this imperialism. And though subsequent generations may not have picked up their fight, these rebel artists produced a legacy on par with that of the Renaissance. We have yet to see post-modernist artists do the same.
(Image of Paul Klee's Zaubergarten from the Guggenheim website)