Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Bauhaus Buddha

Paul Klee's nickname gives a hint about the artist's influence when he was on the Staff at the prestigious institution.

"Paul Klee: Life and Work " by Boris Friedewald is a book filled with details and pertinent anecdotes about the artist's life. It includes also numerous quotes and reproductions of his major works. All this material is presented in a chronological order to build the story of the painter.

During his childhood and youth in Switzerland (1879-1898) near Bern, he started to draw with colored pencils, a gift from his grandmother. He developed a fondness for the "Images d'Epinal" and other French popular prints. However, his father and mother were musicians and he was brought up to become a violinist. After much hesitation, Klee decided that music was a "downward path" and concentrated on drawing. From 1898 till 1906, the young artist moved to Munich where he led a free-spirited life, attending concerts, carousing with some debauchery, all this considered part of growing up: "Put simply, first and foremost, I had to become a person; art would follow." He spent a few months in Italy, visited Paris and produced mainly drawings, etchings and disappointing paintings.
The years 1906-1920 would see the artist mature and his reputation grow in Europe. First he married Lily, a pianist who supported the couple for a while and had a son Felix. Klee enjoyed his domestic life and at the same time, he met Kandinsky and became a member of Der Blaue Reiter. Klee stayed independent from other artists and followed his own artist's path. He visited galleries, discovered the works of French artists and made a short trip to Tunisia in 1911 with August Macke. It proved to be a turning point in his career: the artist discovered color.

Klee's career accelerated with his move to Weimar in 1921, due to his professoral appointment at the Bauhaus. He mingled with painters, architects, musicians, composers and established theories about art, creativity, movement, forms, colors.... His classes became so popular that students had to be turned away. The book gives a great insight in the daily life of the school. Klee with his cool demeanor and humor knew how to defuse the tension between the Staff members. His moral authority earned him the nickname Bauhaus Buddha.

But teaching was taking a toll on Klee and he moved to the Academy in Dusseldorf in 1931 for a short period. The Nazis were rising in power and in March 1933, his works were confiscated then returned after his protest. The artist moved back to Swizerland where he died in 1940. His final years were overshadowed by the symptoms of scleroderma, a disease which precluded him from playing violin. However, it did not slow down his creativity and the artist who had developed a sparse style produced more than 1200 drawings, some colored and 43 paintings the year before is death. At that time, the artist had reached fame and Picasso met him during a trip to Switzerland.

A pleasant way to browse the book is by looking only at the numerous illustrations. By doing so, the reader can acquire a visual memory of the artist's work.

As a footnote, the children's book of a the month at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston in March was "Paul Klee for Children" from Silke Vry. I found ironical that the book cover is Der Bayrische Don Giovanni (The Bavarian Don Giovanni), 1919. In this work, Klee represents himself on a ladder loooking for new erotic adventures and the names printed on the canvas amid the colors and shapes representing windows are the first name of his mistresses!

Klee was interested in children and challenged individuals. He wrote:" There also exist the primal beginnings of art as found in the ethnographic museum or at home in the nursery...for children are equally capable...The more helpless these children, the more revealing their art."

An exhibition of Paul Klee's work "Polyphonies" took place at La Cite de la Musique from October 2011 till January 2012 in Paris.

photographs from Wikimedia Commons, public domain

"Twittering Machine" 1922

"Burg and Sonne", 1932

"Ohne Titel" 1939-40

Monday, March 12, 2012

Coloring Clouds

Revelation: Major Paintings by Jules Olitski at the Museum of Fine Art Houston is a small but well researched exhibition about the work of Jules Olitski, the painter, omitting the sculptor and print maker, with more than thirty monumental canvases representing 50 years of his career.
Just across "King Tut", on the mezzanine, the paintings are inviting with several murals from the Color Field Painting period of the artist in the 60s, with "Patutski in Paradise", 1966, pink-violet to green-yellow or "Exact Origins", 1966, yellow-green, pink-orange-violet, shimmering in the light. The thin, luminescent colors give a liquid texture to the canvas.

The stain paintings, influenced by Frankenthaler are like watercolors, dripping on the canvas, smudging with a poetic touch.
Each period of the artist 's work is represented. The 60's with his thin, ethereal colors, The 70's with brown tones and thick impasto, going back to the heavy paintings from the 50's. The texture brings roughness to the canvas, a sculptural rendering. "Loosha Lone" 1970, "Third Indomitable" 1970s getting thicker during the action painting period like "Absalom Passage #10", 1973, ripples and waves. Some works look like a satellite view of the earth with canyon, mountains, valleys.
During the High Baroque period in the 80's, the artist attempted to recreate the chiaroscuro of Rembrandt in an abstract world. His paintings like "Of Darius" 1988, "Vive La France II" are like an explosion.
"Creation Flood", 1983, represents destruction and death.

The late paintings are orbs of different colors, abstract, a tormented glob, a world trying to be born, a magma of undiluted pigments, perhaps the world after death. The "Love and Disregard Series" are the last message of the artist.
From light and fluffy paintings like clouds on a Summer day to tormented works like rivers after a storm, the painter may have reached his goal:
"What I would like for my paintings is ...just a cloud of color that remains there transfixed."
Beyond this, the message stays superficial.

Photographs were not allowed.
Photographs MFAH's Website.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Side Line

The setting is perfect for the display of Richard Serra's drawings and paintings at The Menil Collection. The works are in harmony with the white sharp lines of the building designed by Renzo Piano. The exhibition includes two rooms dedicated to smaller drawings. Sketches drawn on small pocketbooks during the artist's travels are on display behind a glass case in the hall. Material for his inspiration, they are a prelude to his bigger installations, paintings and sculptures. The visit progresses to larger textured drawings, shapes like volcano craters, dark dusty, drawn with paint sticks and wax, grease crayon. The display brings the visitor to the big paintings, laid against the walls from floor to the top of the high ceilings, creating a cathedral effect and redefining the space. His "Installation Drawings" of the mid-70's like Abstract Slavery, 1974 are menacing, flat black shapes. The black color accessory to the shape does not reflect the light. The color is not the subject but creates optical illusions, the walls and ceiling are not straight, the space is skewed and creates a dizzying effect. There is no story. This is it.

These works are the basis of the language of the artist, the material from which the sculptures are born. It should be the introduction to the exhibition which took place in 2007 at the MoMA Richard Serra: Forty Years.
"I had always an affair with drawing and a natural hand-eye coordination" is a modest statement from the artist.

...a low key exhibition of major proportions.

photographs were not allowed

photographs by the author at the East Wing, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (2011)

Thursday, March 8, 2012


Sao Paulo, New York City, London, Los Angeles, Taipei...The exhibition of the 12 Zodiac heads from Ai Weiwei arrived in Houston, March 3 and is located at Herman Park till June 3. The park is within walking distance of the Museum of Fine Art Houston and the Rice University campus.

I had been browsing at the site and found out I would be in Houston during the sculptures tour and it was with anticipation that I walked on the Plaza near the lake but also some concerns that I might be deceived.
The sculptures are at a perfect location near the zoo, along the lake. One can look at them with child's eyes: giant animal heads (standing 10 feet tall on their pedestals, weighing 800 lbs each) not too scary and parents were carrying toddlers on their shoulders to pet them.
The history of the sculptures give them another dimension. The originals were made in China by two European Jesuits (one Italian, one French) for the Old Summer Palace outside Beijing, a la mode of the European Chinoiseries. They were looted by English and French troops during the second Opium War in 1860. In 2009, a controversy brought the sculptures back on the international scene, when two of the heads came up for sale at the auction of Yves Saint-Laurent's estate. The Chinese government claimed them as a national treasure and attempted to stop the sale. West, East, West, should they return to China?

Ai Weiwei recreated the sculptures, some of them copies, others his own interpretation. I relish the very Chinese dragon and the very Gallic rooster.

The international venue for the exhibition reminds us of a shrinking world and brings up bigger questions like art and war, destruction of art and in the process destruction of memory, of a culture and assimilation.

The artist states: " I want this piece to be seen as an object that doesn't have a monumental quality, but rather is a funny piece, a piece people can relate to or interpret on many different levels, because everybody has a zodiac connection."
In the spirit, I looked at the Snake, my Chinese zodiac animal. I am also a Capricorn for the Western zodiac.
photographs by the author at Herman Park in Houston (on a rainy day)