Paul Klee Twittering Machine (Die Zwitscher-Maschine) 1922

  • Not on view

A violent marriage of nature and industry, the crazy contraption in Twittering Machine mechanizes the songs of birds. All but one bird are tethered to a perch that can be turned by a handle over a pit, a potential trap for the latest choir member. Constructed with Klee’s characteristic wiry, agile black line, the birds lurch and cry out, their tongues resembling both musical notes and fishhooks. Klee described drawing as “an active line on a walk, moving freely” and connected his liberated line to his belief that “through the universe, movement is the rule.” In this drawing, humans turn movement and song against nature, making them activities of enslavement.

Klee treated line and color independently of each other, creating tension between the paper’s surface and the work’s atmospheric depth. He employed an oil-transfer process to copy the image from another sheet onto this one, using a needle to trace the original, which he had placed over a page covered with dried oil paint that was, in turn, placed facedown against this sheet. Distancing the artist’s hand from the final drawing, this process resulted in seemingly accidental smudges that emphasize the flatness of the picture plane. By contrast, the painted blue backdrop opens into boundless space. As an acid-pink stain of watercolor encircles the scene, the world appears to close in on the birds, reverberating with the cacophonous chaos of their songs.

Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Oil transfer drawing, watercolor, and ink on paper with gouache and ink borders on board
25 1/4 x 19" (64.1 x 48.3 cm)
Object number
© 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Drawings and Prints

Installation views

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Provenance Research Project

This work is included in the Provenance Research Project, which investigates the ownership history of works in MoMA's collection.

Acquired from the artist by the Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 1923 [1]; removed as “degenerate art” by the Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, 1937 [2]; on consignment to Karl Buchholz, Berlin, 1939; to Buchholz Gallery (Curt Valentin), New York; acquired by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 14,1939 [3].
[1] Paul-Klee-Stiftung, Kunstmuseum Bern, eds. Paul Klee: catalogue raisonné. Bern: Benteli and New York: Thames and Hudson, vol. 3 (1999), no. 2975. One of four works the Nationalgalerie acquired from the artist for 40 million M during the inflation of 1923 (see Annegret Janda and Jörn Grabowski, eds., Kunst in Deutschland 1905-1937: Die verlorene Sammlung der Nationalgalerie im ehemaligen Kronprinzenpalais, exh. cat. Berlin: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, 1992, no. 229). Included in the exhibition Paul Klee, Nationalgalerie, Kronprinzenpalais, Berlin, February 1923. On loan from the Nationalgalerie to the Museum of Modern Art, New York for the exhibition German Painting and Sculpture, March 13 - April 26, 1931 (no. 42). On view at the Kronprinzenpalais of the Nationalgalerie, Berlin until 1933 (ibid.). Included in the exhibition Der Bolschewismus - große antibolschewistische Schau, Deutsches Museum, Munich, November 7, 1936-January 31, 1937 (see Charles Werner Haxthausen, "A 'Degenerate' Abroad: Klee's Reception in America, 1937-1940," Josef Helfenstein and Elizabeth Hutton Turner, eds., Klee and America, exh. cat. New York: Neue Galerie, 2006, pp. 159-162; Anja Tiedemann, "Auf dem Weg in ein freies Land. Paul Klees Vokaltuch der Kammersängerin Rosa Silber," Uwe Fleckner, ed., Das verfemte Meisterwerk, Berlin: Akademieverlag, 2009, pp. 177-179).
[2] Not on "Harry Fischer list." Included in the exhibition Degenerate Art, Hofgarten-Arkaden, Munich, July 19-November 30, 1937 and other venues (Berlin, Leipzig, Düsseldorf, Salzburg, Hamburg, Stettin, Weimar).
[3] Included shortly thereafter in the exhibition Contemporary German Art, November 1-December 9, 1939, Institute of Modern Art, Boston.

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