Paul Klee: Triumph of a 'degenerate'

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Denounced by the Nazis, Klee is one of the best-known Modernist artists, yet he has not been as influential as his contemporaries. A new Tate exhibition will change that, says Adrian Hamilton

"I cannot be grasped in the here and now," the artist Paul Klee wrote as the first line of his own tombstone epitaph. Which in one sense is the opposite of the truth. There are few among the leading Modernist painters who are not more readily known than Klee, with his spindly lines and squared block colours, and even fewer who are more readily loved. Picasso and Matisse seize you with their vision, Klee has the knack of making you feel a partner in it.

Click here or on 'view gallery' to see more of Klee's works on show at Tate Modern

And yet there is something elusive, unknowable indeed, about his compositions, hovering as they do between natural observation and imagination, neither the one nor the other: "Somewhat closer to the heart/Of creation than usual/But far from close enough," as he puts it in the same epitaph. It is a delicacy of feeling that has made him, however popular, seem less imposing than his great Modernist contemporaries and less obviously influential.

Tate Modern clearly intends to change his standing if not his popularity with its autumn blockbuster devoted to his work. The show may not have very much new to say. It is, after all, only 10 years since the last major show devoted to the artist. But this one aims to be the most comprehensive, taking Klee from his first entry on the art scene in 1910 to his death from a wasting disease aged just 60 in 1940. In between we are given, over 17 rooms, every phase of his enormously productive output (he completed nearly 10,000 works) and every twist of his endless innovation.

You can never have too much of Klee. The joy of his work, however small, and however persistent his themes, is that he seems so endlessly fresh in the result, whether you are looking at his first passionate embrace of colour on visiting Tunisia or in the bigger, freer oils of his final spurt in the last year of his life. Whether you come much closer to understanding the springs of this reticent man is more questionable.

For a man who taught with great effect in the Bauhaus schools as they moved from Weimar to Dusseldorf and finally Berlin in the 1930s, and had his lectures published and still read for their lucidity of thought, Klee found it remarkably difficult to express exactly what he sought in his pictures. Trained as a violinist and married to a pianist, he was remarkably precise in the way he organised his work. From very early on he catalogued his paintings and drawings in the way a composer does, giving each a number and date according to their sequence in time, keeping back some as special and taking great care over what he would send to show.

His working methods were equally deliberate. He would, according to visitors to his studio, work on several paintings at once, sucking for long periods on his pipe before going to one easel or another to develop his compositions. Like several of his colleagues in Germany, he believed and sought fundamental scientific principles behind his art.

If this gives the impression of an almost constipated effort, it was anything but. The process of reflection followed by application gave a sense of spontaneity to his work that made him popular with the Surrealists, seeing in him an artist of the unmediated subconscious. That certainly helps explain why the viewer feels so complicit in their working. "Take a line for a walk" was his injunction to students and that is what his lines seem to do.

And yet his paintings have too strong a sense of composition to be passed off as purely autonomic. Not for nothing did Klee earn his way as a professional musician until he sold his first pictures in his thirties. Nearly all his works, even the squared abstracts, have a sense of rhythm to them, a feel of a developing theme over the picture.

The Tate exhibition makes much of his continuous experimentation with technique, the "oil-transfer" method, which he developed in 1919, making drawings in paint by laying a sheet of painted paper on a blank one and then impressing the lines, the graded build-up of colour in the early 1920s and the later pointillist abstracts he produced with such glorious effect in 1932.

But technique was only part of his genius, and not the main one. One of the remarkable things about Klee is the consistency of his imagination. The watercolour of 1915, Brown Striving at Right-Angles, is not so very different in tone or mood from the squared abstracts of the early 1930s, nor the imaginary landscape of Above Mountain Summit of 1917 from the pointillist Plants in the Courtyard of 1932. He moves in and out of abstraction at all points of his careers and often in parallel, just as he skips from lighter to darker palette without any particular sense of sequence.

The exceptions seem to be when he becomes more emotionally involved with his work. There is a remarkable room in the show devoted to his work in 1921-2. It was the time when he first joined the faculty of the Bauhaus in Weimar and, free to spend time on his painting, he experimented with newer, more geometric compositions and gradations of colour.

What is so striking about these works is less their formal innovation than the way, for the first time, his compositions seem to be unstable. Even his Room Perspective Pictures of the period have an unnerving feeling of tension, while his oil-transfer drawing In The Wilderness and his later Ghost of a Genius from 1922 have the sense of a self-portrait of an artist out of focus.

He was not to express such unease again until the 1930s. With the rise of Hitler and the troubles with the Bauhaus (which was closed in 1933) events pressed in on him more personally. He was dismissed from his teaching post at the Dusseldorf Academy, his art was labelled "degenerate" and he was impelled to move to Switzerland at the end of 1933.

The titles of his works of the period – Fire at Full Moon, The Face of the Future, Bewitched-Petrified, Fear – give some indication of his state of mind and so do the paintings, with their compressed shapes and darker hues. A single image, Gaze of Silence from 1932, is deeply disquieting in its sense of menace and fear.

Klee was no Expressionist and it is a mistake to read too much of the personal in his works or to treat him as an ironic observer of the century in which he lived. He didn't really do angst. His reaction to the First World War, in which he lost some of his closest friends and was himself called up to do clerical work, was to make satirical drawings of warfare rather than confront it. A period of depression when diagnosed with illness in 1935 was followed by a surge of excited and open work in his final years. The colours brighten, the lines become more energetic and the show closes with a series of heart-warming flower pictures done with wax paint on burlap.

The Tate boldly declares this as the EY Exhibition, a title imposed, one assumes, as the price of a major three-year sponsorship deal with the company more commonly known as Ernst & Young. The question is whether the money is being used simply to reinforce what the museum expects to be popular or whether it will go to make possible shows that would be impractical without it.

Klee is a big name to start off a big exhibition series. Too big perhaps. The effect of so many rooms and so much wall space around the paintings is to monumentalise an artist who was anything but grand except in his ambitions. Klee's works are ones that draw you in to take part in his inspiration. Draw back too far and you view them as statements not processes of the imagination. You can sense him in as few works as many. Go, pick a few rooms and lap him up. He doesn't need a regimented march across his life story.

The EY Exhibition: Paul Klee – Making Visible, Tate Modern, London SE1 (020 7887 8888; tate.org.uk) Wednesday to 9 March

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before