One of the highlights of our holiday in Berlin last summer was our visit to the Museum Berggruen. Our main reason for that visit was to see their excellent, large collection of works by Picasso. However, we found ourselves spending the majority of our time there looking works by the Swiss-German artist Paul Klee, of which they had an extremely large number.
Although I’d heard of Klee before the visit I’d never really paid much attention to his work, but while wandering round the Berggruen I found myself becoming more and more fascinated by his work – the brightly coloured, small scale pictures, painted in different styles, that occupied room after room in the Gallery. The interest was reinforced knowing that Klee was a major figure at the Bauhaus during it’s Dessau period, and I’ve become particularly interested in the history of the Bauhaus in recent years. So when I heard that the Tate Modern were to hold a major retrospective survey of his work, we arranged to take a brief holiday in London early January before I got too busy at work.
The exhibition, which occupies 17 rooms on the third floor of the former power station certainly did not disappoint. It was a chronological survey, the pictures displayed in the order in which they were produced. Made easy by the fact that Klee had a meticulous numbering system for his paintings.
As an artist he defies categorisation – although he was unquestionably an abstract painter, his style changed over time. He was an accomplished draftsman and he sometimes incorporated cartoon like figures into his works. But for me he is particularly notable as a real master of colour. He knew how to combine colours, what to put next to each other to contrast and complement. Often employing the colours on a grid like structure.
Paul Klee, Redgreen and Violet-Yellow Rhythms (1920)
Paul Klee Steps (1929)
In the 1930’s he adopted a pointilist style, although still abstract, for many of his paintings, such as this one
Paul Klee Polyphony (1932)
He worked in a range of different media – including oils, watercolours, tempura, collage – applied to all sorts of surfaces. He even invented a new technique – oil transfer sketches – where line drawing were traced onto a canvas from his original drawing using a type of oil based “carbon paper” that he’d invented. The following work Twittering machine is an example of such a work. He’s traced his cartoon like drawing of a group of birds standing on a wire or roughly sketched branch, connected to some sort of hand crank, onto a blue and black watercolour painted background. On one level it’s quite an amusing sketch, but also rather sinister and disturbing.
Paul Klee Twittering Machine (1922)
Surrealist influences are evident in some works, such as this one.
Paul Klee, Comedy (1921)
Although essentially an abstract artist he did incorporate figurative elements in many works. He seemed to have a particular penchant for fish which appear in several works including this one,one of my favourites in the exhibition.
Paul Klee Fish Magic (1925)
I found this this later work quite striking. At first it looks like a mess of randomly drawn blue and black squiggles. But a closer look reveals the features of a group of witches gathering on Walpurgis Night, the eve of the first of May, to perform rituals to ward off evil.
Paul Klee Walpurgis Night (1935)
There was a lot to see and we spent about two and a half hours wandering through the rooms. But it wasn’t oppressive. Although busy, it wasn’t crowded. Just as well or it would have been difficult to look at and study the largely small scale works. But we had time, and room, to do just that. And were even able to wander back and have another look at some of our favourites.
My only criticism was that I’d have liked to have seen more contextual information about Klee’s life and work and more information on his theoretical work – he wrote several books, and published the teaching manual he wrote while he was a Master at the Bauhaus, das Pädagogisches Skizzenbuch (‘Pedagogical Sketchbook’). But an excellent exhibition and the chronological approach worked for me as we were able to see how his work developed, evolved and changed over time. As with many such large scale shows it would benefit from further visits as there was really too much to take in during the course of a few hours. But I got a copy of the catalogue for Christmas and downloaded the Tate’s iphone / ipad app so can relive the experience to some extent (although not as good as a re-visit to see the works “in the flesh”)