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Paul Klee: Polyphonies, Cite de la musique, Paris


A composition – ‘putting together’ – can be paint on paper, or notes in a piece of music.

We speak of the ‘architecture’ of a musical work, and of architecture as ‘frozen music’; of a musician’s ‘palette’, and of the ‘tonal contrasts’ a painter achieves; the primary goal of every cellist and violinist is ‘tone colour’. Our language about the beauty of what we see and what we hear reflects the fundamental congruence between their guiding principles: at a very deep level, art and music are hard-wired together into our genetic make-up.

Scriabine and Messiaen composed ‘in colour’, and Mondrian and Franz Marc found their own way of representing a tune with paint, but the most glorious symbiosis of art and music lies in the work of Paul Klee, as evidenced in the remarkable exhibition ‘Paul Klee: Polyphonies’, on show at the Cite de la musique in Paris until January 15. This Swiss leader of the Modernist avant-garde was a professional-level violinist as well as a painter, and with other string players (plus his pianist wife) he played Mozart and Beethoven most nights of the week; he’d had a struggle to decide which profession to espouse, concluding finally that while music was his beloved, art was his wife. 

The most iconic painting in the Paris show is his ‘Fugue in red’, and the work it’s juxtaposed with – ‘Pottery’ - shows how small the jump was from semi-abstract representation to the most expressive and pure abstraction. From a distance the two works seem almost the same; come closer and you see how the overlapping lines of jugs suggest – with just the smallest stylisation – the swelling, diminishing, echoing and interwoven lines of a fugue. It’s a serenely happy painting, as are so many others here. ‘Rhythms of a plantation’ takes a Van Gogh-style delight in cross-hatched patterns; an echoing patchwork of warm reds makes ‘Chorale and landscape’ look a lovely place to reside; ‘Sound of bells’ has a Heath Robinson exuberance; with one single labyrinthine line, ‘Song to the moon’ wittily conjures up a dog’s nocturnal serenade; rare film footage shows the painter playing his violin. And the associated book contains an essay in which Pierre Boulez spells out his musical debt to the insights Klee’s paintings have afforded him. Fascinating.