Review – Paul Klee at Tate Modern

Paul Klee 1879-1940, Fire in the Evening 1929
MoMA, New York © 2013 Digital Image, the Museum of Modern Art, New York/ Scala. Florence

I’ve found that photographers are often disappointingly indifferent to other forms of visual art, particularly those that aren’t straightforwardly pictorial. As a result I tend to avoid reviewing art exhibitions that don’t have at least some element of photography about them. For once though I make no apologies in doing just that, and specifically reviewing the new retrospective of the Swiss artist Paul Klee, on now at Tate Modern.

The reason I feel able to so brashly ignore my usual reviewing remit is I think photographers have as much to learn from Klee as from any modern artist, perhaps more. If photographs are on a very simple and purely aesthetic level, a jumble of coloured forms, then Klee’s works are a beautiful insight into how these forms impart meaning and feeling to viewers even before these forms become obviously recognisable objects. More than that, Klee’s paintings are the work of the type of quiet genius which is notably absent from the contemporary art world, so often defined by a tendency to try to compensate for a lack of content with sheer visual volume.

Born in German speaking Switzerland in 1879 to musician parents, Klee looked likely to enter the same profession until teenage rebellion and disillusionment with contemporary music turned him towards fine art. After a fairly unimpressive start as an artist, during which time he supported himself by playing the violin and working as an illustrator, Klee fell in with Der Blaue Reiter group, among them Franz Marc and Wassilly Kandinsky. This circle of artists had a critical influence on him, cementing his interest in movements like cubism and expressionism. A trip to Tunisia in 1914 was the final, vital contribution, instilling Klee with a fascination with colour, something he had previously struggled with.

The work on show in this vast seventeen room Tate show is a year by year exploration of Klee’s artistic evolution from slightly before this point and on until his death in 1940. Start and end points are punctuated by darkness, like many artists of his generation Klee was evidently deeply affected by the First World War (Marc and August Macke, another friend of Klee’s, were both killed in the conflict). Oblique references to war seem almost to appear in a number of these early works, for example in Sunken Landscape (1918), and then increasingly overtly in works like Aerial Combat and Memorial to the Kaiser (both 1920). Towards the end of his life hints of the terminal illness he laboured again seem to appear in his paintings as a series of dark visual motifs.

It’s in the period between that Klee produced some of his most interesting work. A shy man working relatively apart from other artists, he was a constant innovator in both the practice and theory of his art. He developed new working techniques throughout this period, like the oil transfer process, a method of reproducing drawings with a resulting style that for many has become characteristic of Klee. These paintings are a strange mixture of stark, definite lines, and blurred edges that seem to imply a frenetic movement, making them for me amongst the most compelling of his works. Sadly the one I most hoped to see, the iconic Angelus Novus (1920), is not on display.

On the theoretical side, Klee developed important and original new ideas about colour use, and put them into practice. His ability to convey with simple cubes of colour is clear to see in works like Fire in the Evening (1929). Partly as a result of this ingenious blending of colour many of his paintings have an uncanny knack of appearing two dimensional at a distance, but seem to variously recede into the wall or lunge out at the viewer as he or she approaches. Similarly compelling are his attempts to transfer musical techniques like counterpoint into his use of colour, almost a logical reversal of the synaesthesia suffered by the composer Rimsky-Korsakov, which caused him to perceive sounds as different hues.

Excitingly undogmatic in his approach to art, Klee was reputedly popular with his students at the Dessau Bauhaus where he taught from 1921, often adapting his own painting methods into exercises for them. His open attitudes and his interest in naïve art also seem to somewhat pre-figure the later acceptance of outsider artists, to which Klee’s unconventional and yet precise and obsessive canvases often bear comparison, as in for example Structural II (1924). Outsider art was still a fringe interest however, it’s adherents and practitioners set to be decimated by the rise of the far right. For Klee too the early thirties were a difficult time, and in 1933 he was forced to resign his teaching post, fleeing soon after to his native Switzerland where he died.

I’m not a fan of massive shows, I’d much prefer a handful of carefully selected works, but given Klee’s massive output and constantly evolving approach to art it for once feels justifiable to dedicate such a huge space to a single person. He rigorously documented his production process and order, and this has formed the basis for many of the curatorial decisions behind the exhibition. Klee also established what he called his Sonderklasse or ‘special class’ which eventually numbered over three hundred paintings he considered too important to sell. However apart from a brief mention in the exhibition there is no demonstration of what this group consisted of, perhaps a slightly missed opportunity.

Returning to my original point about Klee and photography, a number of critics have pointed out the similarities between his artwork and the microscopic photography which was becoming increasingly common in the inter-war period. For Klee however the role of art wasn’t to ‘reproduce the visible, but make it visible’. This ambition has increasing relevancy to photographers in a time when (as I noted in a post earlier this week) it increasingly appears as if all that can be photographed has been. Throughout his career his art work was concerned with evoking and expressing feelings and states of being that eluded easy expression. In 1925 he wrote brilliantly that ‘The visible world is merely an isolated case in relation to the universe…there are many more, other latent realities’. Paul Klee: Making Visible is on at Tate Modern until 9th March 2014.

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