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 surrealismby James Woodall / September 18, 2013 / Leave a comment
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…