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
Published in October 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.