How an Artist is Like a Tree: Paul Klee on Creativity

No one has converged the canon of sylvan metaphors with the canon of theories of imagination more insightfully than the Swiss-born German artist Paul Klee (December 18, 1879– June 29, 1940) did in a 1924 lecture about the creative process, later adapted into the now-iconic essay “On Modern Art,” posthumously published in 1948 as a slim, beautiful book with a foreword by the excellent English thinker, art, poet, and anarchist historian Herbert Read– a guy who so ardently believed that “art must lead beyond the arts, to an awareness and a share of mutuality”– and included in the 1964 anthology Modern Artists on Art (public library).

Trees have been of especial magic and self-clarification to artists. “The tree which moves some to tears of delight remains in the eyes of others just a green thing which stands in the way,” William Blake composed in his most stunning letter. “As a guy is, so he sees.” Two centuries later, the visionary Agnes Martin initially thought up the spare visual poetics of her grids while “thinking of the innocence of trees.”

Considering that we first came down from the trees, we have actually been looking at them and seeing ourselves, seeing rich metaphors for our own inmost existential issues– metaphors for the trick to lasting love, metaphors for what it suggests to deal with authenticity, metaphors for finding infinity in our solitude.

Little Painting of Fir-Trees by Paul Klee, 1922. (Available as a face and a print mask.) Thinking about “those components in the creative process which, throughout the growth of an artwork, happen in the subconscious,” Klee likens the artist to a tree and composes:

The artist has studied this world of variety and has, we might expect, unobtrusively discovered his method it. His orientation has brought order into the passing stream of image and experience. This sense of direction in nature and life, this branching and spreading out selection, I shall compare to the root of the tree.
From the root the sap circulations to the artist, streams through him, streams to his eye.
Hence he stands as the trunk of the tree.
Damaged and stirred by the strength of the circulation, he guides the vision on into his work.
As, completely view of the world, the crown of the tree unfolds and spreads in time and area, so with his work.

Tree Nursery by Paul Klee, 1929. (Available as a face and a print mask.) But the artwork, Klee cautions, is not a direct translation of the subconscious– it is rather the work of a transmutation for which the artist is both the agent and the vessel:

“The tree which moves some to tears of delight is in the eyes of others just a green thing which stands in the method,” William Blake composed in his most lovely letter. Two centuries later, the visionary Agnes Martin first dreamt up the spare visual poetics of her grids while “thinking of the innocence of trees.”

Complement with Pablo Nerudas love letter to forests and Walt Whitman on the knowledge of trees, then revisit other profoundly insightful reflections on the creative procedure and what it implies to be an artist by Virginia Woolf, Beethoven, Rainer Maria Rilke, Mark Rothko, Robert Browning, Wassily Kandinsky, W.S. Merwin, Chinua Achebe, E.E. Cummings, and James Baldwin.

No one would verify that the tree grows its crown in the image of its root. Between above and below can be no mirrored reflection. It is apparent that various functions broadening in different elements need to produce divergences.
But it is simply the artist who at times is rejected those departures from nature which his art demands. He has actually even been charged with incompetence and intentional distortion.
And yet, standing at his appointed location, the trunk of the tree, he does absolutely nothing other than collect and pass on what comes to him from the depths. And the charm at the crown is not his own.

Thinking about “those components in the creative process which, during the growth of a work of art, take location in the subconscious,” Klee likens the artist to a tree and writes:

Tree Nursery by Paul Klee, 1929. And yet, standing at his selected location, the trunk of the tree, he does absolutely nothing other than pass and gather on what comes to him from the depths.