11 November, 2013Issue 23.3The ArtsVisual Arts

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Making Visible

Scarlett Baron

Klee_ExhibitionThe EY Exhibition: Paul Klee
Tate Modern
16 October 2013 – 9 March 2014
Adult £16.50
Concession £14.50

Tate Modern’s current exhibition of the works of Paul Klee is a marvel. In 17 spacious rooms it showcases 150 moments in a career of more than 9800 paintings and drawings. The sensitive hanging of these masterpieces, in a chronological arrangement which follows the order of Klee’s own comprehensive catalogue, reveals the flowering and chameleonic metamorphoses of a luminous artist.

From a distance, the small canvases of Klee’s early works may seem momentarily underwhelming—cautious in their diminutive frames and modest in their understated palette. But such impressions dissolve in the instant of the beholder’s close encounter with the surfaces of these assured and serenely daring creations. To follow the lines and tonal pathways of Klee’s paintings is to enter an exquisitely crafted realm: the eye dances to the tempo of his chromatic progressions, gliding along the alternately focused and mischievous trajectories of pencil, pen, and paintbrush.

The cumulative effect of this repeated experience is elating. To travel from room to room along the arc of Klee’s innovations is to witness an acutely perceptive visual mind at work, to sense its thrill in its own conceptual inspirations and technical breakthroughs, and to observe its meticulous exploration of the possibilities of any theme, medium, or style.

The variety of Klee’s work is dazzling. The exhibition features paintings from each of the key stages in the artist’s career, documenting his alignment with the expressionist Blaue Reiter movement; his discovery of colour during an epiphanic voyage to Tunisia in 1914; his retreat into abstraction in the face of war; his development of the oil-transfer technique subsequently exploited in many semi-narrative vignettes; his decade-long affiliation to the Bauhaus as a teacher; and the contexts which led to his colour gradations, fantastical still lives, and neo-impressionist pointillism.

Although the exhibition rightly highlights Klee’s involvement in several group endeavours, what emerges most strikingly from the paintings on display is his artistic individualism. The colour gradations (or “magic squares”) with which he experimented after the First World War are typical in this regard. Their references to Picasso, Braque, and Bauhaus constructivism notwithstanding, Klee’s adventures in geometry—syncretic endeavours carried out at the intersections of painting and music, and painting and architecture—are unmistakably idiosyncratic. Lines and figures which at first glance evoke the symmetrical, orthogonal structures of his modernist contemporaries in fact achieve their special atmospheric powers through Klee’s use of asymmetric counterpoint, symbolic detail, and unexpected colour combinations. In Redgreen and Violet-Yellow Rhythms (1920), branches turn the vertical lines of approximate squares and rectangles into tree trunks: by such impeccably gauged minimalist intervention, a “Cubic Construction” (the piece’s alternative title) is transformed into an enchanted landscape, providing a perfect illustration of the “exactitude winged by intuition” which Klee was wont to advocate.

Redgreen and Violet-Yellow Rhythms, 1920‚Ä®. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The precision of Klee’s execution is underpinned by his rigorous theoretical musings. Klee called for “Exact Experiments in the Realm of Art”, ascribed numerical values to colours in his Bauhaus lectures, and referred to his studio as his “laboratory of painting technique”. The scientific tenor of such pronouncements is reflected in many of his titles. The seriousness of his inclination to think about colour in terms of musical effects is manifest in such titles as Polyphony (1923), Rhythmic Landscape with Trees (1920), and Harmonised Disturbances (1937). Likewise, his tendency to apprehend real spaces, and predilection for composing his canvases, as fields of interaction between physical forces, is intimated in the naming of Static-Dynamic Intensification (1923). In this variation on Klee’s many experiments with colour gradation, rhythmical rotational movement is imparted to static blocks of colour by the acentric positioning of darker rectangles along each outer border, while the use of whites and oranges within creates a zone of vivid interior light.

Static-Dynamic Intensification, 1923. 
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In an only slightly less abstract vein, the penumbral underwater worlds of Klee’s fish paintings reap mystery from the suspension of gravity. Fishes in the Deep (1921) and Aquarium (1921) position arrays of oddly schematic fish within the same shadowy one-dimensional plane, conjuring the semblance of dreamlike encyclopaedic plates. In The Goldfish (1925), the aureate stylisation of the principal character seems poised between the reverence of religious iconography and the irony of caricature. As these examples suggest, Klee’s work evinces a fascination with the hidden lives of animals and objects. “Art,” he claimed in his “Creative Confession” (1920), “does not reproduce the visible, rather, it makes visible.” The surrealists were prompt to recognise a kindred spirit. While André Breton listed Klee alongside Matisse, Braque, Duchamp, Picabia, Chirico, Man Ray, Max Ernst, and André Masson in his First Manifesto of Surrealism (1924), the writer René Crevel praised Klee’s otherworldly universe of “soulful animals, intelligent birds, heart-fish, dream-plants”, identifying his oeuvre as “a complete museum of the dream”.

The Goldfish, 1925. Hamburg Kunsthalle.

The surrealists were not alone in their admiration. Though the Nazis branded him a “degenerate artist”, including 17 of his works in the infamous “Entartete Kunst” exhibition held in Munich in 1937, Klee was by then widely recognised as one of the pre-eminent painters of his day. Having sought exile from Hitler’s Germany in Switzerland by the end of 1933, Klee found he had also to deal with the private disaster of scleroderma, the degenerative autoimmune disease which would eventually kill him in 1940. Yet the intervening years—after an initial period of accommodation to these concatenated catastrophes—were to prove uniquely productive. The large canvases of this final period chronicle the artist’s personal and political anguish. In Outbreak of Fear III (1939), an abstract dismembered body appears to scream and contort in terror; in Walpurgis Night (1935), owlish and wolverine creatures peer threateningly from a streaky blue darkness. But in paintings like Le Rouge et le Noir (1938) and Park near Lu (1938), Klee rekindles those sublime festivals of light and balance which had characterised his work in more peaceful times. Like so many of their predecessors, these late, seemingly miraculous harmonies trigger in the viewer those moments of awed arrest in which the recognition of high art is nested.

Park near Lu, 1938. 
Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern.

Scarlett Baron is a Lecturer in Twentieth-Century British and American Literature at University College London. She is on the Board of Advisors at the Oxonian Review.