28 November 2013

Paul Klee at Tate Modern

A post here last year about the Bauhaus exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery mentioned three painters who had spent time in Weimar and Dessau: Paul Citroën, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. Searching on Google, I can find no evidence of a recent retrospective of Citroën’s non-photographic work but Kandinsky is widely exhibited (eg currently at the Guggenheim in New York), and Klee almost as much (eg earlier this year in Rome). Nonetheless, a full retrospective is always worth seeing for any artist and The EY Exhibition: Paul Klee – Making Visible at Tate Modern is the first large-scale showing for Klee in London for over 10 years.

Klee was born in Bern in 1879 and moved to Munich to study painting when he was 19. He began to establish himself as an artist in his early thirties and the Tate exhibition shows 128 examples of his work from 1912 until his death in 1940. Klee produced and carefully catalogued about 10,000 paintings, drawings and other works. In 1911 Klee met Jawlensky, Marc, Kandinsky and others and joined the Blaue Reiter group (Landscape with Flags 1915, left). In 1914 he travelled to Tunisia and its colour, light and landscape would influence his subsequent work. From 1916 to 1918 Klee served with the German air force. His 1920 Aerial Combat (below left) is in sardonic contrast to Nevinson’s Futurist Spiral Descent 1915, seen recently at Dulwich, while his experience of the chaos of postwar Germany reflected in Memorial to the Kaiser (also 1920, below right) shares the viewpoint of his contemporaries like Grosz. Both these works were produced by the oil-transfer method, tracing over painted paper then transferring onto a blank sheet.

Klee joined the staff of the Bauhaus in 1921 at Weimar, moving in 1926 to Dessau. In 1922 in Berlin he encountered Russian constructivism in the form of works by Malevich, Tatlin and others. Klee’s work in his Bauhaus years involved colour investigation in both constructions and imaginative surreal pieces (Pictorial Architecture Red, Yellow, Blue 1923 and Around the Fish 1926, below left and right). In 1930 his work was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and that year he left the Bauhaus to teach in Dusseldorf. In 1933 Hitler became Chancellor of Germany and within a few months the Bauhaus closed. Klee and his family left for Switzerland in December. In poor health after 1935, he died in 1940, the same year as his father.

Brian Sewell in the London Evening Standard liked the Tate’s catalogue but had reservations about both the exhibition and the artist, as did Andrew Lambirth in the Spectator, although of a different kind. Klee described himself as possessed by colour and since reproductions fail to do justice to the subtlety with which he used it, the opportunity to visit The EY Exhibition: Paul Klee – Making Visible and view source works is worth taking. The exhibition continues until 9 March 2014.

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