Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Rediscovering Klee

Finding Tate Modern is easy along the South bank of the Thames. Getting there can be trickier and the day of my visit involved a walk through a tunnel and back streets filled with construction sites. Real estate is booming in London.

Tate presents a retrospective of Paul Klee's works and the exhibition organized in chronological order starts with a brief review of Klee's life and the display of a handwritten catalogue by the artist who kept records of his works in a meticulous way.
This short introduction is followed by an abrupt plunge into Klee's adult life in 1912-1913. Then thirty three years old, he had matured from an adventurous young man playing violin to a married painter supported by his wife, lived in Munich and was a member of Der Blaue Reiter founded in 1911. The paintings on display in the next seventeen rooms represent his legacy, allowing the visitor to retrace the artist's path and his brush with Expressionism, Surrealism, Cubism, Pointillism or Abstract. His search for color underlines his work and his skills for drawings which he developed early on, are displayed in his satirical pieces, referring to the absurdity of wars and governments. His caricatures could be categorized as Dadaist but his statements stay measured, he was not a provocateur. Each room concentrates on a particular event and its repercussion on Klee's works from the subject to the palette of colors. A series of abstract watercolors follow a trip in Tunisia, carpet inspired motives and variations in brown a trip to Egypt. Profoundly touched by the war and its atrocities, he produces a series of caricatural drawings alluding to its horrors. His poor health overshadowed the last years of his life and the progression of scleroderma left him unable to swallow or play the violin, however, he kept painting and his drawings became purified, "bare to the bones", like skeletons to support the colors.
Klee experimented with new material for his paintings on  burlap or new techniques developing his "oil-transfer" method. He was also a respected teacher nicknamed the "Bauhaus Buddha".
The visit confirms that Klee was Klee, an independent artist, involved in different movements, but who did not embrace fully any. Klee did shine in small, intimate paintings or watercolors and drawings. Some periods are more narrative, others pure geometric abstract. Rarely using primary colors, he invents new colors, by mixing them and making them bleed on each other, finding half-tones and creating a palette of chromatic colors.
What is missing in the exhibition is the human side of the painter, an aspect well presented in 2011 at the Cité de la Musique in Paris. Photographs of Klee with his students, his teaching tools at the Bauhaus... This may have been a distraction for this superb exhibition gathering works from Le Menil in Houston (with my preferred Gaze on Silence, 1932), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum Folkwang or the Kunstmuseum Basel and more. A small informative booklet was published for the exhibition and is provided with the purchase of the ticket.

The conclusion after the visit comes from Klee himself. In 1902, a defiant young artist, he stated "I am my style". True to himself, he developed his style over the next  forty years.

Coming back from the museum was even trickier. The Thames went over its banks during my visit (a few hours!) and, under a torrential rain, I had to climb fences to reach the bridge!

View of Tate Modern by the author
"Flora on Sand", 1927 and "Fire at Full Moon", 1933 from Flickr photo sharing

book review: "Paul Klee: Life and Work", Boris Friedewald, Prestel, 2011

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