Paul Klee An Artist’s Artist: New Tate Modern Exhibition Review

Paul Klee is an artist’s artist.  One thinks of him as a free artist with his fluid lines, blocks of colour and naïve child-like images of cartoonish people, fish and plants but there is so much more to him. 

Klee was a meticulous artist, superb draughtsman with a deliberate, scientific approach to his work.  Hugely influential in terms of both the art he produced and the writings and teachings on art he left behind. Phrases like: ‘A line is a dot that went for a walk’, “Colour possesses me. It will always possess me’, ‘The more horrifying this world becomes (as it is these days) the more art becomes abstract; while a world at peace produces realistic art.’ and the quote that gives the exhibition its title: ‘Art does not reproduce the visible, rather it makes visible’ have guided artists and art students through the 20th century and beyond. After his first exhibition in Bern received bad reviews, Klee began to keep a handwritten catalogue, assigning a year and number to each work, which he maintained until his death in 1940.  This exhibition follows Klee’s own classification and is organised chronologically enabling the viewer to dip into a particular period and get a feel for how he was working and what intrigued him at any given point whether it be colour, architecture, fish motifs, plants, faces, abstraction or lines.

 Born in 1879 near Bern in Switzerland, Klee moved to Munich to study painting while working as a professional violinist.  In Munich he met Wassily Kandinsky and the other members of the Blaue Reiter expressionists. A visit to Paris in 1912 introduced him to cubism and early abstraction while a subsequent trip to Tunis in 1914 exposed him to colour: both experiences changed and formulated his artistic language.  He taught at the Bauhaus in Weimar for ten years from 1921 and produced his guide to understanding the creative process Pedagogical Sketchbook in 1925.  He must have been a stimulating teacher.  He was ultimately dismissed by the Nazis and took refuge back in Switzerland with his family, while his works were removed from collections and labelled ‘degenerate art’ in Germany.

 A warning – this is a large exhibition – 17 rooms in all and it is overwhelming.  So many of the works are small scale and filled with details in line, colour, texture, techniques that demand close attention and there are so many wonderful works that you need and want to spend time on each one.  It takes time to get into the flow of the exhibition.  At first it seems a strange display with so much space given to such tiny pictures – often one per wall with the caption quite a way from each piece.  The small works work better when hung on the darker background and often get lost on the white walls.  However, you soon get into the spirit of the show – dipping into a particular period to explore the artist’s working methods.  He often had several canvasses on the go at the same time.  Make no mistake there are so many beautiful works here you’ll want to keep going back.

 Words: Sara Faith Photo: All © artlyst 2013

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