Review of Paul Klee, Making Visible, Tate Modern

The year of 1879 when Paul Klee was born in Münchenbuchsee near Bern in Switzerland also marked the establishment of the Kunstmuseum Bern, the oldest art museum in the country. Today, the museum houses many works of the artist who, back in those early years of its establishment, worked hard to become the world-renowned artist he is today. The name Paul Klee now echoes throughout the 17 rooms of the Ernest & Young sponsored exhibition named after the artist and his philosophy on art, Paul Klee: Making Visible. The vast display of works curated by Matthew Gale, Head of Displays at the Tate Modern, marks the UK’s first large-scale Klee exhibition for over a decade.

One of the important aspects of this Paul Klee retrospective is that anyone interested in art could just walk in without having to know anything about the artist; it is highly informative for any and all who care to visit. The first room of the all-encompassing exhibition is dedicated to a detailed chronology of the artists’ life and the zeitgeist from the late 19th to the 20th century. The room evaluates Klee’s life-story while also revealing his punctilious hand-written oeuvre catalogue; a facsimile of the original in Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, which he began to keep in 1911. It lists the titles of the works completed, their dates, and if they were sold or exhibited, to whom and where are detailed. It might be interesting to state that through this time-consuming and meticulous practice Klee was actually making his own art visible to himself (approximately nine years later he would stumble on the idea that “art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible”) by keeping such a detailed record of his practice.

In the winter of 1912 Klee joined the editorial team of the almanac Der Blaue Reiter, founded by Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky. One of the works in the exhibition that is reflective of Klee’s artistic tendencies at this point in time is When God Considered the Creation of the Plants (1913). Pen-drawn, black rectangular and mirror-like boxes resonate Klee’s interest in abstract art and architecture. By this time the realm of this type of work had already become an important subject of discussion in European art circles. An early breaking point in Klee’s art can be coincided with his travel to Tunisia for two weeks in 1914 with August Macke and Louis Moilliet, where he was introduced to the music, architecture and culture of the Arab world. His study of the oriental would seep into his works bit by bit from then on. One of these works that carries an oriental essence through abstraction is the watercolour entitled Space Architecture with the Yellow Pyramid, Cold-Warm (1915).

As an artist Klee wasn’t easily accepted into the artistic milieus of the time. In 1910 when his first travelling exhibition opened at the Kunstmuseum in Bern, later conveyed to Zurich, Winterthur and Basel, he received mixed responses to his work. Several respected viewers in Winterthur were so disappointed and distraught by what they saw that they asked the museum authorities to stop displaying the paintings at once. This sense of opposition to Klee’s work continued until much later in his career, and possibly until his death and beyond within certain circles of art. His major breakthroughs were in the years 1919-1921 during which he first signed a five-year contract with Hans Goltz and later when he joined the faculty at the Bauhaus in Weimar at forty-one. Naturally, during and after this time he also had his share of “cruel-critics” who were not ready for the change brought about by comprehending concepts referred to by the increasingly symbolic and progressive canvas. One of these works was purchased by Walter Benjamin, namely the oil-transfer drawing and watercolour Angelus Novus (1920). Benjamin later referred to the painting as “this is how one pictures the angel of history… The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress”.

However, it must be remembered that during his lifetime (1879-1940) Klee experienced numerous wars, heightened levels of poverty, and death, as did most artists of the time. The death of August Macke in 1914 on the western front in Champagne, France and Franz Marc in 1916 in the Battle of Verdun proved particularly devastating. For two years Klee himself was drafted into the infantry reserves (1916-1918), the amount of death and pain he saw must have had great effect on him. That 61 year period points to an epoch of convulsive change all around the world, not just in Europe. As a man surrounded by criticism he had to have the ambition and the hope to pursue his art and that it would survive beyond his lifetime. Not only so, but Klee obviously couldn’t stick with one aesthetic style, he had to experiment and change with the times not merely to keep his mind lucid but also to keep adding vast numbers of works in different artistic styles to his oeuvre catalogue. After all, in times of war and socioeconomic change the desire to attain financial security holds a significant place in any artist’s psyche. Thus, this versatile exhibition traces Klee’s journey from expressionism to cubism and surrealism as it takes us on a walk through Klee’s lines, colours and techniques. Two works, Around the Fish (1926) and Aquarium (1927) showcase a completely different Klee when compared to other drawings such as View of a Mountain Sanctuary (1926) and Clouds (1926). Klee not only changed his artistic style from one painting to the other but he also did so simultaneously. A later painting Fire at Full Moon (1933) draws attention to Klee’s political persecution by the Nazi regime and the image of the full moon from there on becomes a reference point in Klee’s art.

Paul Klee: Making Visible is also an attestation of Klee’s often questioning yet unwavering stance to art. The exhibition comprises over 130 drawings, watercolours and paintings from collections around the globe and traces his blossoming artistic style year by year. It makes one wonder what he would think of this exhibition. Often painted in contrasting colours of ash-white and pitch-black (Klee also had a wall painted black in his studio on which to display works), the walls stay true to his aesthetic essence. The many styles he adopted throughout his artistic life are explained in carefully-written captions that include his unique oil-transfer technique, his colour gradations and multi-coloured pointillism.

Rooms 16 and 17 of the exhibition summarise the last years of Klee’s works (1938-1940) and include Blue Night (1937), defining the character of Klee’s later art. Considering Klee’s 61 years on earth, most of which he spent working independently, and the 65 years that it took to establish a centre that now houses almost 40 per cent of his works, it should be fair to say that the Tate Modern have done Paul Klee great justice with this most colourful, poetically systematic and informative homage

Paul Klee: Making Visible will be on display at the Tate Modern until March 9, 2014.

Hande Eagle

1. Paul Klee 1879–1940, Fire at Full Moon 1933, Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany.

Der Blaue Reiter