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Paul Klee Redgreen and Violet-Yellow Rhythms 1920
Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1984 (1984.315.19) Image
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Source: Art Resource/Scala Photo Archives
True artists have a way of dissolving boundaries, between countries and, even, perceptions, enabling a diverse range of viewers to embrace their work in ways as uniquely their own as the artist’s creative vision. Paul Klee (1879-1940) of Bern, Switzerland, violinist turned painter, who spent much of his life making and chronicling art in Germany, writing with his right hand and drawing and painting with his left, was one such artist and through his prolific, wide ranging body of work, remains so. Influenced by expressionism, cubism, surrealism, and orientalism, but never defined by any of these, Klee’s work exudes enthusiasm and always, originality, so much so that it still feels fresh and innovative today.
First encounters with the often small scale works of Paul Klee, who claimed he was ‘taking a line for a walk,’ can often be whimsical ones, as understandably, many of his most enduringly popular works are among his most light-hearted. A framed print of enigmatic, darkly playful abstraction Fish Magic (1925) one of Klee’s most acclaimed forays of many into the exploration of the movements of fish during his Bauhaus period, has long accompanied me on life’s journey, moving from country to country as smoothly as fish surreptitiously slip from stream to sea, ever reminding, with a wispy twinkle that, the freest and perhaps, finest things in life are, also, ephemeral. Much of Klee’s work swims along these lines, balancing the feeling of what is seen with the seemingly, invisible. Hence, this exhibition takes Klee’s well thought out artistic premise as its’ starting point and via a startlingly varied array of examples by turns intriguing and amusing, weaves its’ way through seventeen insightful rooms. But even when works exude more sombre notes, Klee’s experimental drawings and paintings strike chords that continue to resonate within long after viewing. Klee was an artist who thought about his work, taught art and proceeded to set himself free to experiment with all manner of surfaces and materials. His lectures Writings on Form and Design Theory, published in English as Paul Klee Notebooks, held in as high esteem in relation to modern art as any writings on any genre of artistic composition graced many an art student’s bookshelf during Klee’s lifetime and beyond, are now, unthinkably, out of print.
An ardent cataloguer of his work, Klee’s outpouring, each piece meticulously numbered, totals, by his count, some 9,500, 130 of which are displayed here, and those on show are, collectively, fluid enough to keep any art enthusiast pondering, not only the whys and whens of Klee’s work, but also, the ‘how’s’. Ever experimenting, Klee created on all types of surfaces - paper and plywood through cardboard and a variety of fabrics, including coarse burlap, in order to marry the grains and textures of his backdrops with his unusual blend of materials, oft utilising oils and watercolour together on the same work in conjunction with other mediums, including, near the end of his life, coloured paste. The results on all works displayed are striking, often fascinating, as much for their marked dissimilarities as for their workings, inner and surface. Artworks are thankfully observable here, as they are arranged as chronicler Klee would have wished, in numerical order, possibly, for the first time ever in any museum, with enough room around each work to allow viewers to ponder them. Walls in some of the rooms, which vary greatly in size, are black, in accordance with Klee’s actual studio space at the time the artworks were originated, and many of the placards displaying titles also tell of an artwork’s initial exhibition. Beginning with Klee’s maiden voyage to then art mecca Paris in 1912 where he first encountered cubism, and subsequent experiments with influences understandably, absorbed there, then, taking his pivotal Bauhaus years of abstraction in the 1920’s as its’ focal point, when his art was first gaining international recognition, the exhibition spans three decades, exploring each artistic innovation along the way as the artist himself discovered and exhibited them.
But Klee’s life experiences variously informed his work and equally expressive writings, from his first days in Munich in the 1910’s, where he joined Kandinsky’s innovative Blue Rider group in 1912 and visited Paris, through his preparation for and gloried in trip to Tunisia in 1914 which, encouraged more colour in his work, his own involvement in WWI, his breakthrough exhibition in Munich in 1920, years spent teaching in Weimer Germany during the ‘20’s era of Bauhaus, of which he was a member, again, alongside friend Kandinsky, until his dismissal from his teaching post by the Nazis, who labelled Klee’s art amongst the ‘Degenerative’, removing it from German galleries thereafter. In Bern following the outbreak of WWII, during the time leading up to the sadly ironic, degenerative end of his life, Klee worked through his prolonged, painfully philosophical physical decline, during the final two years of which he had a tremendous burst of artistic activity, quite different to, but nearly as prolific as that of his early days. His glib, reflectively brave quote, ‘Eternity takes time,’ typically ironic then, does not pertain to Klee’s body of work in the least, much of which is still incredibly timeless for its’ way of drawing viewers ever closer to the artists’ feeling and intent, affording a freer, more open perspective.
Klee’s architectural paintings, with their alluring blocks of colour are each, compelling in their own right, but a grouping of them makes for ecstatic viewing. Standing before them, bathed, as it were, in their incomprehensible, undeniable beauty, one is curious, as to what makes them so intensely compelling, like a story you can’t stop reading, which, though a far cry from the traditions of literature, has a rhythm and pace uniquely its’ own, with its’ own music and cadence. ‘Redgreen and Violet-Yellow Rhythms’ (1920) with its’ fir trees peeping out from amid a forest of blocks harkens back to Klee’s native Switzerland, abstracting the scene as if to say, I am in a city, yet I am among the trees.
Only Klee could have produced a work as dualistically intriguing as ‘A Young Lady’s Adventure,’ (1922) featuring an ethereal, earth hued figure, pleased, or not with herself, depending on one’s perspective, seemingly, unaware of nature’s inevitable ways. Sans title her tadpole like form enables us to perceive this shadowy, pod like creature as young, and her watery, Mona Lisa hint of smile inspires speculation.
A Young Lady's Adventure 1922
Watercolour on paper
support: 625 x 480 mm frame: 686 x 510 x 20 mm
Purchased 1946 DACS, 2002
In Room 12, entitled ‘Hovering,’ exhibiting, to quote Klee, ‘exactitude, winged by intuition’, showing spray painted and other exploratory works, a deceptively unassuming piece hints at clouds via clusters of grey and red specs rendered in pen, coloured inks and watercolour, with small white spaces in between. It somehow seems to offer a sense of childlike anticipation, and I cannot supress a smile at the title, ‘Threatening Snowstorm’ (1927) which, is, hailing from a place with ‘real’ winters, exactly what it reminds me of! But again, we are looking at the inner life of a moment here, rather than the obviously visible. Klee revisited this theme in mesmerising, ‘Before the Snow’ (1920), layering delicate tones of pink, strangely chilly reds, shy greens and deep, hovering black, suggesting heavy winter sky. Yet, there is a sense of warmth in the work, as if the scene was observed from a safe, even cosy place.
Conversely, if ever an enthusiast was to doubt the vastness of Klee’s artistic experiments, they’d only to access the naturally chronological juxtaposition of two seemingly, worlds apart works, vividly recognisable ‘Ships in the Dark’ (1927) with its buoyant vessels and shining moon, and the superbly vibrant abstractive blocking that is ‘Harmony of the Northern Flora’ (1927), aiming at innerness. These two works seems to be a metaphor for the exhibition itself, which quietly, but none the less effectively for it states, Art is all about freedom of expression aka freedom to experiment!
Poetic beyond words, ‘Insula Dulcamara’ (1938), one of Klee’s larger works seems an elongated expression of joy! Its’ colours and lines sing from the newsprint their oils are spread, dabbled and sprayed on, and the work’s burlap mount adds texture. Here his line transfer technique reaches full fruition, linked with a combination of original painting styles. This monumental work expresses understated triumph in the way that it marries all of Klee’s former experiments, blending them into one surprisingly refreshing, ever captivating work.
In the closing room of this landmark exhibition, viewers may well find themselves torn between hope and sorrow as they immerse themselves in the final works Klee ever created for his penultimate show, the last painting of which, aptly named ‘Twilight Flowers’ (1940) is moving for its’ colourful child-like beauty and seemingly, naïve sense of trust. Though Klee last days were painful, inner joy is still evident.
In the case of so many of Klee’s works, as if by magic, as he intended, so they speak, via rippling colours, shadowy bursts, variously rendered mists of unfettered expression, set to his own rhythms and music. At every turning, one discovers new avenues, unfurling onto still more new and different landscapes, exploring and opening possibilities for still more exploration. Klee may be physically gone, but his work is very much alive, in the context of his originality, as it retains its’ uniquely inviting sense of presence.
This masterfully mounted exhibition offers unprecedented insights into unassuming modernist master Klee’s artistic process, progression and, preoccupations, through a vast array of varied and variegated works, journals and respectfully pensive ambiance, making valid arguments for long unfashionable chronological arrangement as it quietly and effectively does so. It’s a considerate staging of artful subject matter designed for viewing and re-viewing. If there was ever a good reason to become a member of Tate, enabling free, unlimited viewing of exhibitions, Paul Klee: Making Visible is surely IT.
Paul Klee, Fire at Full Moon 1933
Museum Folkwang (Essen, Germany)