Paul Klee: Making Visible

November 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

Paul Klee delights. His paintings and drawings are fantastical and witty, magical and surreal; many exert a charm which, together with their intimate scale, has at times worked to diminish his stature. From its earliest public viewings Klee’s art has met with critics who saw it as decorative, over-subjective and therefore lacking in weight. Even today a hint of this critique underlies some of the press enthusiasm for the Klee show currently at Tate Modern. Yes, there is whimsy, but for Klee play was a route to art and coming across his own childhood drawings at the age of 23 proved of great importance. He was a notable teacher whose thinking had a strong influence on later art education. He argued that the art of children and the mentally ill should be taken far more seriously – as indeed became the case, in the later recognitions of Art Brut, Outsider Art and Cobra; Klee’s work mattered a great deal to the Cobra artists, one of whose founders, Asger Jorn, was also involved in setting up the Situationist International.

Klee’s lightness contains a deep seriousness: life as a Sisyphean enterprise as well as a source of joy. His mode is the tragicomic, so his metaphors touch us and make us laugh even while they delineate struggles against demons and ordeals of perseverance (in this respect he makes me think of the dance genius of Wuppertal, Pina Bausch, who was born the year he died: 1940).  His art expresses menace, dread, panic and melancholy as well as the plenitude of dreams. This show encourages us to grasp that complexity by looking closely.

Paul Klee: Making Visible shows us how he worked – by setting paintings together as they would have existed in his studio (he would work on several simultaneously), by explaining his innovative techniques and their significance, and by exemplary captioning which tells us everything we might want to know, including details of where the work was first exhibited. The chronological framework joins the work to Klee’s life and its wider artistic and political context, from membership of the Blaue Reiter group, contact with Dada and Cubism, the ‘discovery’ of colour in Tunisia, to his tenure at the Bauhaus, Nazism and his flight back to Switzerland in 1933; then the final period when illness impelled him to an even more prolific output than before.

You can see the lateral impact of all the artistic avant-gardes: Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, the Suprematism of Malevich, but Klee’s response to them is quite distinct and original. The Surrealists loved him, first of all admiring his abstraction and its relation to the unconscious: he began with lines and marks that would take him towards intuitions of overall shape and eventual meaning. ‘A complete museum of the dream’ was the summation of René Crevel, who wrote of Klee’s ‘soulful animals, intelligent birds, heart-fish, dream plants’. But beyond this gentle pictorial world where mysteries lurk behind Klee’s ‘magic squares’, his explorations produced a dynamic diversity of worlds, often bolder and fiercer, in which the vitality within nature and at work in human life is made visible. Klee’s is an art of metaphysics, and its endless inventiveness moves it ever forwards towards art’s future.

For all the thousands of works he produced, he never seems hurried. His rigour is apparent in the degree of technical experimentation. Early on, he developed his oil-transfer method of tracing, a first stage in the design of a drawing, producing a matrix of outlines, yet apparently allowing for an element of chance in the density of colour absorption. In one of these, Room Perspective with Inhabitants (1921), the scorched effect around an orange wash of colour scarily intensifies the flattening speed and momentum of perspective on human figures. Chance also features in his use of different materials to paint on: cotton, gauze, linen, plywood as well as canvas. The coarse weave of burlap produces an uneven, mottled surface in Fear (1934); the fear is diffuse, colour murkily seeping across the ellipses of a silent scream.

Klee doesn’t come often to our museums: every 12 years or so. My first acquaintance with him must have been more than 30 years ago. I remember the big Hayward show in 2002, co-curated by Bridget Riley, and I’ve seen Klees in Italy and in Berlin. But this show has presented his work with exceptional clarity and care. It also offers new and surprising biographical insights: I learned that in Munich in 1919 Klee joined the Action Committee of Revolutionary Artists during the short-lived and little-known Bavarian Soviet republic.

Space, depth, balance, shadings of colour and light – these continuing concerns are beautifully apparent in The Invention (1934), where the geometry of a face, faint shadow nose and mouth, eyes large and asymmetric at opposing picture edges, conveys widening thought and wonderment. Paul Klee: Making Visible is an exhilarating experience because Klee repeatedly stimulates and energises thought. The show takes its title from his famous dictum that ‘art does not reproduce the visible; rather it makes visible’, and it demonstrates the aptness of Bridget Riley’s gloss on Klee’s words: ‘… The opening up of our vision to the fuller span of the generative force of life’.

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