Painted in early 1916, Klee's Varsalah is a jewel-like watercolor that reflects the artist's fascination with Islamic culture, sublime symbols, and letters, words and meaning. Two years before the present work was executed, Klee had visited Tunisia with his friends August Macke and Louis Moilliet (fig. 1), a trip that would have a lasting influence on his artistic output. Long after his return to Munich and later at the Bauhaus, he produced works with titles inspired by the Orient such as Kleine Vignette an Aegypten (1918, 33; The Paul Klee Foundation, no. 1880), Schleiertanz (1920, 34; The Paul Klee Foundation, no. 2379) and Orientalischer Lustgarten (1925, 131; The Paul Klee Foundation, no. 3812).
In the present watercolor, Klee incorporates the poetic title Varsalah in brightly hued blocks of color along the upper edge, prefiguring the seminal work Einst dem Grau der Nacht Enttaucht (1918, 17; The Paul Klee Foundation, no. 1864; fig. 2) and his "magic squares" of the 1920s. The title refers to the obligatory ritual morning prayer Fajr Salah which forms one of the pillars of Islam.
Will Grohman observes: "Klee's calligraphic pictures are visual interpretations of texts...The text is conceived anew in the spirit of the pictorial medium...'To read' originally meant 'to guess.' Letter and word stand again at the beginning and possess a higher reality than the thing they mean; they are representatives of the spirit, not intellectual tools. Intelligent reading is rendered more difficult because lines and colors become one with the essence of words. This occurred in the Irish and Carolingian handwriting of the Middle Ages, and something similar exists in the calligraphic art of Islam" (Paul Klee, London, 1969, pp. 150-151). By loosely systematizing the connection of script and image, "mutual reactions produce an insight into associations and processes--even mental processes--which were formerly considered impossible to depict and yet are rendered visible in Klee's pictorial enigma's" (op. cit., p. 150).
It is likely that Varsalah was painted just before Klee was conscripted into the German Army. In his diary he writes: "1916. A fateful year...On March 4th my friend Franz Marc fell at Verdun. On March 11th I was drafted at the age of thirty-five" (The Diaries of Paul Klee, 1898-1918, Berkeley, 1964, p. 323). A moving, slightly later diary entry reveals the impact Marc's death had on Klee. Based in Munich with the Second Reserve Infantry Regiment, First Replacement Company, Klee relates the loss of his friend to his understanding of himself: "when I tell what kind of person Franz Marc is, I must at once confess that I shall also be telling what kind of person I am, for much that I participated in belonged also to him" (op. cit., p. 343).
Interestingly, he continues by describing Marc as having a warmer personality than himself and as someone who is able to raise nature to his level: "in Marc, the bond with earth takes precedence over the bond with the universe" (op. cit., p. 344). In contrast, Klee sees himself as belonging to and, essentially, expressing the universal: "what my art probably lacks, is a kind of passionate humanity. I don't love animals and every sort of creature with an earthly warmth. I don't descend to them, or raise them to myself. I tend rather to dissolve into the whole of creation and am then on a footing of brotherliness to my neighbor, to all things earthly. I possess. The earth-idea gives way to the world-idea. My love is distant and religious...In my work I do not belong to the species, but am a cosmic point of reference" (op. cit., p. 345).