Paul Klee – Making Visible @ Tate Modern

This is a marvellous, inspiring, life-affirming exhibition covering the full career of the Swiss-German artist Paul Klee (1879-940) in 17 rooms containing some 130 of his wonderfully vivid and innovative paintings.

The five paintings I include here are the ones authorised by Tate for inclusion in reviews. They show a little of Klee’s variety and development over the main years of his career from 1920 to 1940.

Redgreen and Violet-yellow Rhythms, 1920. An example of Klee’s ‘magic squares’ though still with recognisable, figurative elements ie the trees. Maybe this is a mountain scene with fir trees, but with Nature abstracted and reinvented into pure colours and forms.

Redgreen and Violet-yellow Rhythms, 1920

Redgreen and Violet-yellow Rhythms, 1920
Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1984 (1984.315.19)
Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Source: Art Resource/Scala Photo Archives

Comedy, 1921. An example of Klee’s technique of ‘oil transfer’, as well as his experiments with grading colours ie bars of deepening colour. It also shows  his cartoon-ish approach to figures which are stick-like, moving to strange abstract shapes. The nominal subject is the imaginative fancy dress parties held at the Bauhaus where Klee started to teach in 1921: as one witness commented Kandinsky went dressed as an antenna, Klee as The Song of the Blue Tree.

Comedy 1921 Watercolour and oil on paper support: 305 x 454 mm on paper, unique Tate. Purchased 1946

Comedy 1921
Watercolour and oil on paper
support: 305 x 454 mm
on paper, unique
Tate. Purchased 1946

Look at the border of Comedy. As the exhibition continued I found myself noticing the contrast between the unfinished rough edges of the paintings and the highly finished edges of the frames: a contast between intuition and rationality; or between inspiration and the Swiss clockmaker precision of the detailed catalogue Klee kept; or between art and the calculating world of commodity capitalism it has to be packaged and marketed in.

Almost none of the paintings have straight boundaries. They are straight-ish. And almost none of them are on traditional canvas, but on a wide variety of surfaces including, later in the show, oil and watercolour on burlap sacking prepared with plaster!

Static-Dynamic Intensification, 1923. Another ‘magic squares’ painting. Note a) the colours aren’t random; the more you look the more there appears to be a pattern which, at the same time, stays elusive, is not mathematically rigid b) it’s another novel surface: this is a watercolour and transferred printing ink on laid paper with gray and green gouache and black ink mounted on light cardboard; in an unobtrusive way most of the works are collages ie made of more than one surface laid on another c) the title: I didn’t read any commentary on this, but it seems to me that Klee experimented with words as much as with colour and line: what happens if we combine these words in a title? what impact does it have on the viewer’s response (if any)?

Static-Dynamic Intensification, 1923 Watercolour and transferred printing ink on laid paper with gray and green gouache and black ink mounted on light cardboard 381 x 261 mm Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Static-Dynamic Intensification, 1923
Watercolour and transferred printing ink on laid paper with gray and green gouache and black ink mounted on light cardboard
381 x 261 mm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Steps, 1929. After a trip to Egypt Klee experimented with abstracts where the magic boxes had been expanded to become bars of colour stretching across the picture. The crucial element remains the non-mathematical nature of the lines; he is not Mondrian. In their imprecision, quirkiness, non-rationality, they give a strong feeling of instinct and intuition, maybe a childlike sense of freedom.

Steps, 1929 Oil and ink on canvas 520 x 430 mm Moderna Museet (Stockholm, Sweden)

Steps, 1929
Oil and ink on canvas
520 x 430 mm
Moderna Museet (Stockholm, Sweden)

Fire at Full Moon, 1933. Use of bolder, brighter colours, though with characteristic ‘quirky’ lines and squares.

Fire at Full Moon, 1933 Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany

Fire at Full Moon, 1933
Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany

Park near Lu, 1938. In his final years, stricken with a wasting disease, Klee’s paintings became significantly larger and lost the flat, magic square aspect, to become more a case of bold black lines surrounded with a penumbra of vibrant colours. Gone are the scratchy little detailed cartoon people or fish of the 20s although you can, at a pinch, read some human or biological aspect into the shapes. Or not. Reminiscent of late Matisse, maybe.

Park near Lu, 1938 Zentrum Paul Klee

Park near Lu, 1938
Zentrum Paul Klee

This is an absolutely brilliant exhibition by a quiet genius of the 20th century. Everyone should see it in order to learn just how free and light and joyous, how unguilty, expressive, funny and awe-inspiring Art can be.

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1 Comment

  1. Paul Klee use of colours – My awesome stuff! :3

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