Paul Klee and the Art of Experimentation

22 Jan

One of the great disadvantages of looking at reproductions of works rather than the original is that, even if you are diligent enough to read a painting’s dimensions, you tend to get no real  impression of size.  This is particularly so when an artist such as Paul Klee, currently subject of a major exhibition at Tate Modern, Making Visible, is popular among the producers of posters. Small wonder when an image is reproduced in six different sizes in order to fill differently sized gaps on bedroom walls that you come to expect the original to be poster sized, although perhaps if I had first seen the Tate’s rather fetching offering of tableware, I might have expected them to be mug-sized.  As it was, Making Visible was the first time I had seen original Klees. I was surprised at the outset how small many of the paintings were and at the same time how despite being small, they were so powerful.

The Tate has assembled over 130 of his works which are intimately hung in 17 rooms making it easy to study them and appreciate the fine draughtsmanship, the intricacy of the works and Klee’s amazing sense of colour. Klee was obsessive in keeping records and numbering his paintings, and in all he created over 9,800 works.  While this does not equal Picasso’s achievement of an estimated lifetime achievement of 50,000 works, it is still a huge number of paintings. It shows he was working consistently and fast. He started his diary and numbering system in 1911 and kept it up until his death in 1940, meaning that over the 29 years of his productive life he was averaging 338 works a year, close on one a day. If the art student can take just one single thing away from this exhibition it is the virtue of keeping working.

So, 130 paintings represent only a tiny fraction of what Klee achieved, but it still seems like a lot. As a number of reviewers have reported, it is too many to study at once and there is a danger of so much richness becoming indigestible. The Tate has assembled his works in chronological order; this allows you to see how the artist developed and how experimentation with colour, materials and form was at the heart of his practice.  It also shows how varied his practice was at any one time. At the same pont that he was producing exquisite abstract watercolours, in other paintings he could also be incorporating representational elements. He could be working on cardboard, on board, on burlap – quite possibly on anything that happened to be at hand.

The early works are mainly etchings and satirical drawings, he applied unsuccessfully to be a cartoonist on the satirical magazine Simplicissimus in 1906. It is interesting to see the effect of circumstance on his work. The early works are small by necessity as he was working without a studio and therefore had the inconvenience of being forced to paint in the living room or kitchen. Over time we see his paintings gradually grow in size until the year before his death and suffering from illness, they became quiet large.

Extraordinarily, seeing that colour was to become so important in his work it was absent until 1910. And even then in a fairly subdued way.  But the playfulness that characterises so much of his work is present from the outset. It was in 1902 when he was 23 that he returned to Bern to live with his parents and discovered some of his childhood drawings in his parents’ attic, he described them to sculptor Lily Stumf who was to become his wife as “the most important thing” he had done up to that point. This element of childlike wonder continues to be a major influence.

It can be quite clearly seen in works such as a Young Lady’s Adventure, created twenty years’ later in 1922. This is a somewhat strange work. The young lady’s face has a cartoonlike quality. Whilst predominantly in profile, there is the suggestion of a second eye or possibly ear. Her body is oddly proportioned with a wasp waist and just the merest suggestion of feet. In the background the shapes can resemble fish, or birds. While some have considered that the work was a portrayal of a fashionable lady, the more common interpretation is that it is erotic and the adventure she was seeking was sexual; the arrow is thought to be phallic. It is possible that it does not have this connotation, in Bauhaus where Klee taught, the work was known as the English Miss. Red arrows feature in a number of his other works apparently without phallic intent.

A Young Lady's Adventure 1922 by Paul Klee 1879-1940 

Ghost of a Genius completed a year later when he was 43, is similarly playful. The painting is thought to be a self-portrait and is clearly slightly self-mocking. It was produced by an interesting copying  technique which he developed, a bit like carbon paper, by which he painted black oil paint on the underside of a drawing and then used a stylus to transfer some of it onto board  or canvas. The black marks in the painting show where his hand rested.

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Fish Magic completed in 1925 is also fundamentally a light-hearted work but here the richness of the colour is what makes the painting so arresting.

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This importance of colour really started in April 1914 when just four months before the outbreak of war he spent time in Tunisia and was deeply struck by the colours of the landscapes.

He wrote in his diary “colour possesses me. I don’t have to pursue it. It will possess me always I know it…. I am a painter.” The exhibition shows the way that Klee used different permutations of colour in different works, experimenting day by day, sometimes with pure abstracts, sometimes more figuratively but always achieving a richness which is immensely enjoyable. What I find particularly interesting is the way that Klee never settled on one style. He was constantly changing his approach and yet all his works undoubtedly bear his touch so that we can recognise them as his. We know from his numbering system which order he painted them and so we see Static Dynamic Gradation a work which is pure abstract painted immediately before Assyrian Game.

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Whilst many of Klee’s works are light, enjoyable and perhaps warrant that dread term decorative, there was a darker side. Klee was drafted into the army but benefited from Germany’s unofficial policy of keeping successful creative people away from the front line. With friends not so similarly lucky, the tensions become visible in his art. Organisation is one of the painting that comes from this time. There is the playfulness that we associate with Klee, but the zigzag lines, the staring eyes and the partial heads, surely allude to the horrors of war.

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Worse was to come. While Klee had emerged from the First World War with an enhanced reputation, with the rise of Hitler,  he became subject to Nationalist Socialist attacks and was condemned as degenerate; he and his wife Lily decided to take refuge in Bern. It was personal ill-health rather than injury which was to cause him the most suffering. He was diagnosed with Schleroderma, an auto immune disease which causes thickening of the skin and which in extreme cases, of which he was one, can also affect internal organs.

Over the years Klee’s paintings had gradually been growing in size, perhaps reflecting better studio space, more funds to buy paint and materials, perhaps growing artistic confidence. Schleroderma brought a step change in scale. With his hands too stiff to undertake the small, intricate paintings of his youth, Klee took to working large-scale, using canvas and oils rather than paper and watercolours, the works became bolder, though as can be seen in this detail of one of his most iconic works Rich Harbour, many of the motifs which had been seen in his work of earlier years remained.  Klee died in June 1940  from heart failure associated with the disease.  In the final year of his life he produced 1300 works.

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It is perhaps one of the most impressive things about Klee – his sheer determination to keep experimenting right to the end so that the freshness remains.

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