Tate Modern's Autumn Exhibition brings us a comprehensive view of the work of modernist artist, Paul Klee. Focusing on the period 1910 – 1940 taking us through two World Wars & a time when abstract art was sweeping across Europe.
The beauty of a Klee work is the impossibility in which to categorise. A mixture of genres incorporate to provide an alternative experience including elements of abstraction, expressionism, cubism & the figurative form. With complex overlapping rectangular planes, geometric shapes and a sense of boldness serving to create a visual language of his own. The core of a Klee work, however, is in the colours used to script its form. Klee was an avid admirer of colour viewing it from a depth not often witnessed.
< Mischief-maker: Remembrance Sheet of a Conception, 1918
One of many journeys Klee took in his life, which had a profound effect on his art, was to Tunisia in 1914. Upon visiting he proclaimed, 'Colour possesses me., Colour and I are one' & it was this passion that accompanied him throughout the rest of his career. After arriving home he painted his first pure abstraction with the rectangular shapes that became the basic building block of his creations. Some who have studied his work liken their use to a musical note in which rectangular shapes of colour are set against each other to provide the overall musical composition of the piece. His selection of a particular palette would either compliment, or be in contrast to setting the musical key. These comparisons emanate from Klee's earlier talent as a child violinist where he showed an incredible level of competence, but which failed to inspire him to pursue much to the disappointment of his musical parents.
His new found mastery of colour theory propelled him into public attention as one of the most exciting modernist painters in Germany & his reputation for the avant garde earned him a teaching role at the infamous Bauhaus in 1921. He became as famous for his teachings as for his art proving to be an inspirational figure in developing new approaches & techniques. His writings are celebrated even today as being as important as Leonardo da Vinci's on the Renaissance.
'Art does not reproduce the visible, rather it makes visible’, Klee lectured as he created his own reality believing everything was possible in the world of art where he could play god to his creations. Klee approached his work with a level of confidence, which captivated its viewer. He succeeded in taking art to new places by pushing its boundaries in search of something new. So much so that his own work changed on a daily basis free from constraint.
'Rich Harbour', 1938
The Second World War impacted on Klee more than most. He went from being one of the leading figures of the European modernist movement in the 1920s to being the despised target of the Nazi party's campaign against modern art. The same museums that had purchased & displayed his work with esteem suddenly rendered him unworthy of such accolade. His works remained on show, but in a very different light. The Nazi Party produced an exhibit titled 'Degenerate Art', showcasing the 'corruption of art' featuring no less than 17 of Klee's works. This served to remove him from favour in the German art scene. He was sacked from his teaching post, mistaken as a Jew, labelled mad & exiled to Switzerland, which is where he remained painting until his death at 61.
The Tate chooses to present Klee in 130 paintings spread across 17 rooms following the artist's own classification and is organised chronologically. Klee famously numbered every painting he ever made. The beauty of assembling Klee's paintings in the order they were created is in witnessing the dramatic change in styles. Take 'Ships in the Dark', 1927, a more figurative piece, which was created immediately before 'Northern Flora' a truly abstract piece with no representation to figures, just colourful rectangles & squares. It is a tribute to the artists craft that although a distinct contrast of styles in each painting exists a Klee remains instantly recognisable. “They are apparently different languages, by putting them together you start to read each in a different way.” said curator Matthew Gale.
Some artists do not benefit from having their work shown en masse, and look better in mixed shows. We saw this recently with the repetitions of the Lowry exhibition. This comprehensive retrospective begs a different assessment. Klee's work remains diverse enough not to warrant such labelling. His work does, however, require more appraisal to acknowledge the subtleties in his work. This is lost in a display as extensive as this. Giving each painting the time it requires to truly experience can be exhausting & the viewers curious exploration of the work reduces as the exhibition continues. The scale of his work is generally small with very few larger pieces available. In this respect it is repetitious as a variation in size would have provided a different outcome.
The Tate can, however, only work with what is available & allowing us to explore the artist in the order he would have wanted is truly enlightening. It is as if the artist has curated the display himself from beyond the grave. Klee continues to inspire with his fabulous use of colour & this show is certainly worth a visit. The overall sensibility is dependant on the viewers engagement with the art on display. A fair assessment would be to say it is an exhibition, which is best seen in instalments to ensure the artist retains the level of appreciation deserved.
'Northern Flora', 1927
'Fire in the Evening', 1929
'Fire at Full Moon', 1933
'Redgreen and Violet-Yellow Rhythms', 1920