ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: Heinrich Kley
Friday, August 14th, 2015
by Greg Ruth
Look, there are more fabulous artists out there than a human life can fully appreciate, and when you go back in time even to the 19th-20th centuries, it’s even more shocking how much there is to see. This excess of riches always for me at least, churls up someone very old but to me very new. I can shamelessly say that up until about six months ago I had never heard of Heinrich Kley beyond his name popping up in casual conversation. But Man oh man am I glad to get to know his work now. A superlative drafstman by any measure- he manages to not hide his searching lines but place them on view as a celebration.
His wild gesticulating sketches never lose their momentum for a hot second and he manages even in his more finished work to keep that lightening bottled but never diminished. He draws like a man on fire and never misses a mark to panic. I am absolutely mesmerized by the life and energy of his work to the point of drooling obsession now. To me he again affirms the immediate and infinitely human power in art that few other mediums can ever achieve save for drawing on paper.
There’s an directness and personal quality to drawing with ink or pencil or charcoal, devoid of the orchestral grandeur of an oil painting, that dances in front of your eyes nakedly unashamed of its minimalism and its full quality. It never apologizes nor entertains the notion there’s ever a need to. When you see his work up close all other concerns vanish before the astute power of his renderings. Anyone looking to loosen up, get jiggy with their practiced materials, whether you’re just starting out or coming back from a long career in art can learn more from just seeing him in action on paper than a semester of life study work.
There’s a number of books out there of varying qualities that showcase his work collectively, but these are my current favorites. Would love to hear of more if you know em! Links via amazon below the images:
Now get out there and get your Kley on!
Kley seems to stand alone in my mind–there's no one like him, either in subject, technique, or darkly comic sensibility. He has such a profound knowledge of anatomy, but never lets that get in the way of a powerful and readable gesture. No wonder he was such an influence on the Disney animators, especially in the dancing hippos sequence of Fantasia.
Totally right, James- there's a smirk and sneer to all of his lines I think is really underappreciated overall. it's very political and satirical work even when it entirely avoids a direct theme. I always now look at 101 Dalmations with a Kley eye- one of my favorites in terms of the rough sketchy, gestural draftsmanship of that animation. THe sense of exaggeration that still holds with anatomical truth is a feat rarely achieved so well. Never made the Fantasia hippo connection! Great call.
Oh and the Croc from Peter Pan, I always just assumed it as a source, but everytime I see that ticking villain's villain, I think of der Heinrich.
These are fantastic examples of this master's work —thanks, Greg!
In the classic Preston Blair book on Animation, there is a sequence of an alligator dancing that was culled from Fantasia. In that rough form, the debt to Kley is unmistakable.
Thanks for the shout out, Greg. My Kley books were a labor of love, published with the very hope that folks such as yourself, who weren't all that familiar with Kley, could discover how awesome he was (astonishingly to me, these were the first English-language books on Kley in 50 years, which is when Dover put out its volume). I also was lucky enough to connect with a young art historian in Germany who had just finished his dissertation on Kley, and I was thrilled to be able to finally share his research and shed some light on Kley's life, which had been shrouded in mystery and rumor for decades, both here and in Germany. I was pleased to dispel the narrative that had been floating around, regardless of how romantic it sounded, that Kley was a mad man who spent his final days in an asylum. I found it paradoxically inspiring to know that that couldn't be further from the truth, that his life was actually that of a fairly mundane middle-class German artist. The truth is somehow more inspiring: this wasn't the work of a tortured soul at a complete remove from the rest of us, but rather of one who, with a nudge from a friend, found the courage to give unbridled rein to his creative spirit. In parting, I also want to give a special thanks to Jesse Hamm's insightful essay in Volume 2, a gifted artist but an equally gifted writer about art. Anyway…glad you enjoyed the books, and even more glad that you've found your way to Kley's work.
Good post , great character .
Hey Joe- Love this response immensely. I am eager to get ahold of books in your series, having only borrowed them from a colleague (who I think is as desperate for me to return them as I am to pretend they're all mine). Excellent reproduction and print quality even for the most gossamer lines. It's a fascinating reveal and from what you tell a curious chapter int he reality vs myth that many artists who don't eschew the presumed biography. I think we want our artists to be crazier than we in fact are. He so managed to capture as animation in single image form the spirit and movement and gesture of each of his drawings. Just a stunning banner for the complex simplicity principle if there ever was one. I recommend these books to anyone who;ll listen! Keep it up!
That jockey on the horse was one of the first Kley drawings I had ever seen and I was sold immediately. Funny you should use it as the opener here, Greg.
But uhh……you only just discovered him? I'd be chastising you if it weren't for the exquisite jealousy I have toward you for seeing this work fresh, for the first time, after you've become a master.
Ahh, the halcyon days of my early artistry….
You can chastize away, but i would only throw it back into thine face because you should have thusly educated me to this insane man.
Yeah, that horse drawing is I think, my favorite. That's why its first- so rare to see so many lines, and nit a single one wasted. It's nit just the anatomy of a hirse being executed with his pen, it's the veritable horseness. So good.
So what's the story on the Terrapin? Stanley Mouse put them on the cover of The Grateful Dead Trrapin Station, but he didn't draw the image? Anyone know the back story
Kley’s linear energy is unmatched, teamed as it is with impeccable anatomical accuracy for both humans and animals. Unbelievable. Frazetta and Krenkel must surely have been in on this too. And is it farfetched to imagine that we could trace a specifically European tradition of this ultra-dynamic graphic approach, starting with the drawings of Géricault, Delacroix and the Romantics, followed up by Kley, and ending up with Claire Wendling and even Loish …? Just a thought!