Small is beautiful

Paul Klee's greatness lies in his miniatures, as a rare showing of his Bauhaus period proves; EXHIBITIONS
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
PAUL KLEE'S modest yet potent paintings and drawings are among the marvels of 20th-century art, and the new exhibition at Berggruen & Zevi suggests how much they are to be treasured. This beautiful show is subtitled "The Bauhaus Years", but it doesn't really tell us much about the German Modernist academy. Instead, we find an artist who is loved and preserved for his unique self.

Most of the works are from Swiss private collections. Their rarity and high quality emphasise Klee's particular gifts: his humour, inventiveness, sublime neatness and so on. We still ask why we suspect him to be a major rather than an agreeable artist. The answer must be in his ability to give wide or universal meaning to the miniature. Classic modern art has produced occasional miniaturists, but Klee alone takes smallness as a complete and natural rule - and not just in the literal size of his work. He telescopes distances, puts cities and continents into the compass of a postcard, dwarfs mountains - all in the service of his own vision.

Hence his liking for reachable stars, tiny zooming birds and aeroplanes, minuscule architectural fantasies. It seems that Klee did not like extensive spaces. Throughout his art is a feeling for the local, things and places in proximity. He liked routine, taking the same short walks each day, and there's a crazy correctness about the procedures of his drawing. The craziness comes from a superabundant creative store. What other artist had so many ideas at the same time?

Klee was in his forties when at the Bauhaus in Weimar from 1921-25 and then in Dessau in 1925-31. It was the most fertile period of his life: by some counts he created around 5,000 drawings and watercolours during these years. The Berggruen show indicates that even when engaged in some comparatively routine exercise, Klee brought vivacity and unexpectedness to daily tasks. So a drawing exercise could become an adventure. Red Nuances of 1921, for instance, exemplifies the shading and tinting of circular, triangular and rectangular forms. It could have been an ordinary drawing. Yet Klee unbalances our expectations. The shapes loom or withdraw as though with a personal force that could not have been predicted by the artist who devised them.

This unpredictability is characteristic. Klee's drawings are logical within their own terms, however bizarre his inventions. At the same time there is a fussiness about the way he presents his musings, like a small- town watchmaker or eccentric artisan. His son Felix Klee recalls how thrifty he was (and needed to be). Thus he developed personal ways with papers, pigments, glue and cardboard. The drawings were done on different kinds of paper - rough, thick, shiny, woven, or whatever - then stuck down on cardboard with flour glue, leaving room for Klee to write the drawing's title, often underlined with a ruler. Those titles were important to him, and of course they often give the clue to a work whose themes would otherwise be impenetrable. The ruddy-red View From a Cave is of this sort. So are Brewing Witches and a splendid pair of drawings, The Great Kaiser Armed for Combat and The Great Kaiser Rides into Battle, seen together for the first time since the early 1920s.

Another Klee invention was the "transfer technique". This employed a kind of carbon paper made by covering a sheet with moist black paint. This sheet was then placed over a blank sheet of paper, before Klee traced on to it from a previous drawing. He did this with a stylus. So we get a wiry sort of impression on the bottom sheet together with accidental and happy blotches, subsequently touched up with watercolour or gouache (the drawing of witches is of such a kind). I think of Klee as a bit of a nutty jobbing-printer as well as an anarchic watchmaker. Perhaps it's something in his South German background that suggests this type of odd but pedagogic craftsman.

Provincial German he remains, though with a magic power of flight. The feeling that his art was capable of taking off in any aerial direction probably accounts for Klee's limited interest in oil painting. Oil pigment was too dense for him and tended to hold back the movements of his drawing. This said, he was a superb painter when the occasion was right, as Palace Passing By of 1928 (above) demonstrates. Visitors to the show (who will have to pass through at least two barriers of the latest Mayfair security) will envy me for having had the privilege of taking this picture out of its glass case to look at the frame, fashioned by Klee himself, and the back of the stretcher. Evidently he painted his palace on board and then delicately gummed and nailed everything together. There's a sturdiness to the construct, but the mood of the painting is quite as fragile as in any of his watercolours.

The calligraphy and sign language of Palace Passing By are special to Klee, yet have been taken up by many an artist since. The question of Klee's greatness is surely allied to the nature of his influence. Without a doubt, he liberated the young from their feelings of obligation to previous good pictorial behaviour. He offered a sort of carte blanche. If you want to put your handwriting in a picture, go ahead; if you fancy leaving some parts unpainted, okay; be yourself, untroubled, and then let's see the results. Precepts like these entered art education, mainly after Hitler's war, and often with Klee's pictures (reproductions, actually) as a starting-point. But he started no school. He wasn't magisterial. As for those reproductions: none of us had a sense of the original. Because we didn't see that he was an inimitable miniaturist a hope went abroad that he might inspire epics and murals. Not so. Best to look at the man himself as a one-off, all the more cherishable because his spirit is now so distant.

! Klee: Berggruen & Zevi, W1, 0171 495 8867, to 14 July