Reality, distorted

Everything in Paul Klee’s art is clear, yet we never quite know what we’re looking at. An exhibition at Tate Modern shows his unique combination of realism and surrealism
September 18, 2013

Comedy (1921) shows Klee evoking earthly and the somewhere-else, with a bizarre parade of half-recognisable figures. (© Tate Modern)

Paul Klee, born in Switzerland in 1879, was at his most inventive at a moment in modern art when traditional realist painting was considered dead. He, like many artists, thrived on a Europe-wide challenge to old-fashioned forms of representation in painting. By the end of the First World War the roots of cubism and expressionism had grown deep. It was at this moment that Klee came into his own as a painter, but he never became militantly abstract. His work operates playfully between realism and abstraction, between recognisable forms and the wilfully opaque.

A wiry composition from 1921, City Between Realms, shows Klee’s combination of the defined and the otherworldly. Beneath a small orb at the top—he relished spheres and circles, whether suns or moons or balloons—spindly black lines, against a yellow-hued background, seem to be busy going nowhere, fighting each other, building their own shapes in an attempt to be autonomous. On the left hangs a crooked arrow, perhaps a bolt of lightning, or a signpost; to its right a riot of turrets, pathways and roofs unfolds beneath some kind of heavenly city. The effect, as so often with Klee, is mysterious yet full of something “known”: between realms.

“Art does not reproduce the visible, but rather makes visible,” he famously pronounced; hence the title of Tate Modern’s major new show, “Paul Klee: Making Visible,” which opens on 16th October. Klee’s idea was that an artist should not try to depict an objectively agreed-upon reality, but rather produce pictorial ideas from within: to create new worlds whose dimensions the viewer’s eye must decipher for what they are, not for what they might symbolise.

Another famous painting from the same period as City Between Realms, entitled Comedy, shows Klee emphatically evoking the earthly and the somewhere-else. A queue of figures reveals one identifiable female human (second from left), while the other nine include a curious reptile and someone possibly from the Ku Klux Klan. The ensemble might be dancing, or acting, or posing on a catwalk. Equally, they could be dangling, marionette-like, on hidden strings from a ceiling, or being prepared to be rolled into a tin like sardines.

The bizarre parade is held in strict, almost geometric, beauty by the narrow-to-widening horizontals across the painting, a thick black stripe offsetting the figures’ luminosity to stress that they are fragile and transitory. Everything is clear—Klee’s precision and structural sensitivity are part of his genius—yet we don’t quite know what it is that we’re looking at.

In both these wonderful pictures Klee gave us a teasingly referential art that tickles and fascinates. But his borrowings and influences are never easy to pin down. Though influenced by expressionism—a style of painting particular to First World War Germany and which formed part of the artistic turn against representation—Klee remained, especially as the 1920s advanced, idiosyncratically himself.

Despite his love of the human imagination, Klee accepted that the “real world” was inescapably an artist’s starting-point. House fronts, sea creatures, ships’ sails, shell forms, fir trees, children’s toys, birds, plants, hills and roads: all are detectable in Klee, adapted and distorted. “All art is a memory of age—old things, dark things, whose fragments live on in the artist,” he said. However strange, what you see is what you get, and what you get is really, in Klee’s case, unlike what anyone else was doing at the time. This has made him one of the most distinctive—if slippery—of 20th-century artists.

He was born to a Bavarian father and Swiss mother. A sister, Mathilde, was three years older. He went to school in Bern and drew copiously from an early age, particularly objects from nature. He also had a gift for music, inherited from his parents, and played the violin until the end of his days. Even after he had studied art in Munich (from 1898 to 1901) and embarked on the life of a painter, his only source of income in the early 1900s came from concert engagements, back in Bern. He was 30 before he had his first solo exhibition.

The work of Klee’s twenties and early thirties was largely graphic—pencil, pen and ink, etching and engraving—and satirical, even grotesque in content: attacks on religion, fashion and social stereotypes. It was a trip to Kairouan in Tunisia just before the outbreak of the First World War that got him thinking about painting and colour. There, he was overwhelmed by gradations of hot reds, yellows and ochres. Over the next 25 years so much of what Klee painted, even when led by harsh blues or full browns, or blacks, was softened by the warmer hues of the south, the Mediterranean, the desert.

“Colour possesses me,” he wrote of the experience in Tunisia. “I don’t have to pursue it. It will possess me always. I know it. That is the meaning of this happy hour: colour and I are one. I am a painter.” The result, a watercolour, In the Style of Kairouan, was the first in a series of abstracts that owe as much to Cézanne as to Maghrebi light. Klee’s blocks, circles and fingers of colour share with the Frenchman’s tessellated style an insistence on showing themselves to be more the subject of the painting than the landscapes that inspired them, as in the later work Fire At Full Moon, pictured above.

A German national, and by 1914 married with a son and living in Munich, Klee was conscripted into the army in 1916. He worked in aircraft maintenance and finance, and was never in combat. The conflict robbed him of a great friend, artist August Macke, but the evolution of his ideas and the intensity of his work went largely uninterrupted. By 1921 he was commuting from Munich to Weimar to a job as a teacher at the Bauhaus, the socialist art school whose guiding principle was to modernise traditional crafts and to manufacture, to make a new, lean aesthetic out of the utilitarian. Klee, who became a substantial and well-paid Bauhaus figure until the early 1930s, gave classes in bookbinding, stained glass and mural painting.

“Making Visible” will bring together 132 works to give a taste of Klee’s enormous productivity. Because his approximately 9,000 works are scattered across Europe, the US and elsewhere, it has never been easy to see him in the round. Just under half are today housed in the Zentrum Paul Klee, a spacious museum on the edge of Bern. Borrowing generously from it, Tate Modern’s show will underline Klee’s desire to sharpen and re-invent the known and the familiar by inscribing and modifying them with the stamp of his own private formulations. He was not a surrealist but he was a dreamer of sorts: a lucid, even systematic one.

In the early 1930s, numerous, remarkable “dot” pictures began to emerge. These included Memory of a Bird, a shimmering mosaic of square dabs of red, brown, yellow and blue which gather themselves into colour fields that seem to sing—perhaps the multiple warbles of a million remembered birds. The larger and more geometric Polyphony could easily be blocks of music, interlocking to form a complete score of ricocheting colour. Many of Klee’s works can be thought of as a kind of musical notation. Of course they do not amount to real music, any more than words on a page of Milton or Heaney do, but Klee’s mind when painting was ordered around the rhythm and logic of music.

Klee’s career in Germany was cut short in 1933 by the arrival of the Nazis. The Bauhaus, by then in Berlin, was an obvious victim and immediately closed. The Nazis included Klee’s work in their category of entartete Kunst (degenerate art); he was fired from a teaching post in Düsseldorf and took refuge back in Bern. There, from 1937, he suffered from a wasting disease of the skin, scleroderma. He died in Muralto-Locarno in June 1940. Tate Modern’s partial resurrection of some of his best work will help an enigmatic master be much better understood in the 21st century. “In this world I am not graspable,” he once said. Three-quarters of a century since Klee’s death have perhaps been necessary to make him so: to bring him, graspably, into brilliant, contemporary focus.