Paul Klee and the Evolution of Talent

Paul KleeSome people really hate these birthday posts and some really like them. Over time, I think I’ve won over some of the haters, probably because they are better than they used to be. As a result, I keep doing them. But I hate doing it. They take forever. And for the last three days I have been slipping into a depression. You never realize just how horrible they are until you are in them. When in a manic phase, that depressed person who wants to crawl away and die just seems like another person. And on the other side, that manic person not only seems foreign, he seems like a fool. But one thing is for sure, it is easy to write a birthday post when I’m feeling “up.” I still complain, because I feel rushed. But now I look at the birthdays and I think, “So what?” My years of science training have made me able to push through and do things I’m not all that happy about doing. So here goes.

On this day in 1870, the writer Hector Hugh Munro, better known by his pen name Saki, was born. He was one of the great short story writers of his time, particularly noted for his humor. In fact, he was a primary influence on P G Wodehouse. He’s easy to compare to Dorothy Parker, in that he is wonderfully quotable. He was gay and conservative, so there is more than a hint of misogyny in his writing. Take, for example, the clever line, “Romance at short notice was her specialty.” But this one totally sums up my life, “I’m living so far beyond my means that we may almost be said to be living apart.”

The great American inventor Edwin Armstrong was born in 1890. He is best known for the invention of FM radio. Of course, it didn’t go well. In Corporations are Rarely Creators, I wrote, “Lessig then goes on to talk about the fight between Edwin Howard Armstrong, inventor of FM radio, and RCA. RCA wanted to stop FM radio because they made so much money off AM radio. This all led to FM radio being delayed for decades and Armstrong killing himself.” Welcome to America, bitch!

Other birthdays: one of the worst human beings and best baseball players ever, Ty Cobb (1886); jazz composer Fletcher Henderson (1897); film director George Stevens (1904); actor Ossie Davis (1917); musician Keith Richards (70); political activist Steve Biko (1946); film director Steven Spielberg (57); actor Ray Liotta (59); and actor Brad Pitt (50).

Well, it had to happen. After comparing so many artists to him, and often not favorably. The day belongs to the great painter, Paul Klee, who was born on this day in 1879. When I was a teen, I was crazy for Klee. Now, not so much. But there is no doubting his brilliance. And it really does matter what period you are looking at. More than any other painter that I know of, Klee developed in a positive direction his whole life. His later work is by far his best. What’s especially interesting about this is that the work got more and more simple. But his vision became more and more clear. A good example is Insula dulcamara which means (maybe) something like, “Island of bittersweet nightshade.” His original title for it was, “Isle of Calypso,” but he thought that too concrete. It was painted just a couple of years before his death when he seems to have known the end was near. It hearkens back to his trip two and a half decades earlier to Tunisia. A lot has been written about it and its meaning, but I think the emotional core of the painting is clear. And the use of colors is just masterful.

Insula dulcamara

Happy birthday Paul Klee!

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