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Robert Rauschenberg at Tate Modern

6 Feb

In 1964 Robert Rauschenberg, whose works are currently on show at Tate Modern, became the first American to win the Gran Primeo at the Venice Biennale with his pioneering screen prints. It was the culmination of a highly successful 18 months. The previous year he had been given a major retrospective at the Jewish Museum in New York; it was followed by an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London which broke attendance records.  Whereas his contemporary, Warhol,  used his own popularity to feed the market, turning out thousands of screen prints, a strategy which even today sees him rank second after Picasso in auction revenue, Rauschenberg had a radically different attitude. The day after his Venice success, he phoned his assistant and asked him to destroy any silk-screens left in the studio so he would not have the temptation to repeat himself.

Only someone highly confident of his ability to come up with fresh ideas  would  make such a decision. Tate visitors  can see that this confidence was fully justified. Everywhere you look, you see how he tried things nobody had tried before and which led to avenues which are still being explored by artists today.  Perhaps even more important than this confidence was the desire to enjoy himself; repeating himself would have been work; what is abundantly clear is that Rauschenberg wanted his art to be fun.

He was one of the first artists to introduce objects into his works – the Combines. Some worked better than others.  I rather liked the fans in the painting shown below but was less keen on one which incorporated a small table light.p1000947

It was good to see the goat, correctly titled Monogram – lent  by the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm; it is fragile and rarely travels. Mounted on a horizontal canvas on the floor, it is,  fifty years later, still a striking piece – though somewhat pointless, though I suppose that is the point. But what fun he must have had with  it: –  finding it in a used furniture store, fixing it first to a vertical canvas, then to a horizontal one,   daubing its nose with paint, playing with the tyre, so that finally  in his words, they came to live happily ever after.

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Robert Rauschenberg: Monogram

But if tyre-wearing goats are not to your taste there is so much more to discover. One visit can hardly do the exhibition justice. I was intrigued by a small light-box, Shades, apparently a one-off as it was dedicated to his son Christopher. It contained six lithographs, only one of which was in a fixed position; the others could be re-ordered. Many artists would have created a practice around the concept; Rauschenberg was happy to make it and move on.

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Robert Rauschenberg: Shades

I loved the image of the tyre tread running along 20  of sheets of typing paper. Ruauschenberg had poured black house  paint in front of the back wheel of John Cage’s car and then got him to drive over the paper. There was the carboard scuplture which made me want to play around with cardboard myself.

p1000954 Most striking of his ‘art is fun’  works, must be  Mud Muse bubbling in a satisfying way with the sounds amplified so that it feels as if you are in the cauldron.

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Robert Rauschenberg: Mud Muse

All good art makes you see the world in a new light; I find myself pushing cardboard into new shapes, eyeing the table lamps and art now intrudes into breakfast; making porridge will never be quite the same.

Robert Rauschenberg is showing at Tate Modern until April 2.

 

Art in pens at the Tate

15 Sep

Initial fear of crowds combined with the summer holidays meant that I have only just made it to the new Tate extension. I wanted to see the Georgia O’Kieffe exhibition before it closed. It was excellent, though for me  it failed in its stated objective to dispel the cliches about her work, by which I presumed they meant the entirely understandable tendency to consider her paintings as tending towards the erotic. On coming out, I crossed the upper bridge, relieved the that the balustrade was high enough to counteract the vertigo inducing view of the Turbine Hall, took in an interesting room devoted to  Louise Bourgeois and worked my way down the wide staircase.

On the whole I was impressed with the space, though the decision to leave the wood on the stairs unsealed seemed odd; three months in and there are already thousands of stains. As I progressed down, I was pleased to see so many women artists has been included but became increasingly annoyed with whoever decided that visitors could not be trusted and that art-works should be put behind what looked like little electric fences. Fortunately, someone, in Health and Safety perhaps, has ensured you do not actually get a shock if you touch one.

Often these barriers went against the clear intentions of the artist. Take Helio Oiticica whose works Tropicalia and Penetrables were, according to the information on the wall, supposed to mimic the colourful dwellings of Rio de Janerios favelas, complete with sand and Macaws to give the sense of the tropical nature of the city. They were called penetrables because people were encouraged to enter them. Well not at the Tate. Stuck behind a little fence, the sand looked ridiculous; indeed the whole thing looked like a send-up of art with the sign stating that because of visitor numbers the Macaws had been returned to their owners.

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Helio Oiticia: Tropicana, but without the Macaws

It was also impossible to walk among these sculptures by Ana Lupus; you can see the little fence on the left; the lighting did them no favours either, which was a shame as they were interesting but, properly lit, could have been so much better. She had originally started a project in the 1970s to encourage local people in a rural area of Transalvania to create large wheat wreaths and arrange them in their own farmyards. But due to social and economic changes the processes stopped and the wreaths began to decay; so in 2000, she began encasing them in metal – she called them tins = which echoed the original shape and potentially allowed them to last forever.  So they were designed to be tough but, according to the curators, not tough enough to be viewed up close.

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Ana Lupus: Wheat Wreaths

Go down further into the main gallery to Between Object and Architecture and the pens continued with most of the works corralled in their own little rectangles.

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It even went against the Tate’s own expressed intentions. Again, the blurb on the wall explained that “since the 1960s” artist had thought in new ways about objects…..they were brought down from the pedestal  which had traditionally separated them from the viewer and placed on the floor…The viewer could now interact more directly with the object as they occupied the same space”

Mercifully the curators had allowed Roni Horn’s completely wonderful cubic glass sculpture, shown here only illuminated by sun-light to be protected only by a line on the floor and a notice that it was fragile.

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Roni Horn: Pink Tons

It was very touch-worthy but nobody was touching it.  Indeed, further up, the public was in the main walking round, rather than on, Marwan Rechmaoui’s  rubber map of Beirut, Beirut Caoutchouk  even though it is designed to be walked on.

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It is sad that once you become successful enough to have your works displayed at the Tate, they becomes so valuable that their impact is diminished by wires and ropes. Living artists should protest. Alternatively, now that visitor levels have fallen back from the initial peaks, the Tate curators could decide to be a little braver.

Nature abhors a vacuum at Tate Modern

1 Feb

Things are beginning to grow in Empty Lot in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern. When I first saw the installation back November, shortly after it was set up, it looked too boring for me to pay it much attention; that has all changed. The work by the Mexican artist Abraham Cruzvillegas comprises dozens of triangular planters each filled with earth donated from different parks around London. Water and light is provided but nothing else has been added apart from time.  Ten weeks ago, all the triangles looked sterile but clearly they were not; today little patches of green are beginning to appear.

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It is the sense of possibility and uncertainty that makes this project interesting. The explanation on the wall, written when it was first set up, points out that there was a risk nothing might grow; that certainly hasn’t happened. The notice also recognised the possibility that the public might introduce seeds. To what extent they have done so, it is currently impossible to tell but might well become clear over the coming weeks. If this happens I imagine it will only be to the nearer plots; most are safely out of reach unless anybody manages to smuggle in a seed scattering drone.  I did make out what looked like a number of donated cherry stones in one patch, along with a few 2p coins and the odd bit of silver paper– it seems we can make a wishing well out of anything.

Could some of those seedlings that are optimistically putting up first leaves possibly be marijuana? – I am not a good enough gardener to tell but I could see that might appeal to somebody’s sense of humour; I was more certain about identifying dandelions, cow parsley, a baby sycamore a stinging nettle and in several plots the current bane of my gardening life, bindweed, both greater and lesser. There was a very healthy looking spikey shoot in one plot, presumably from some overlooked bulb. As yet there are no flowers but give it a few more weeks and I’m sure they will appear.DSC02587

 

The explanation on the wall spoke of the sense of hope that was represented by the work, which just goes to show how all artworks can be subject to individual interpretation. For me, it was a pretty good demonstration of why I hate gardening. You work hard to get a plot free from weeds,  turn your back for a moment, and it is as if you had never bothered.

 

 

Moved by Alexander Calder

20 Nov

Back in the summer of 2014 I admired an installation at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nice, by Belgian Artist Arnie Quinze, a Tribute to Alexander Calder. In one way the work did not seem particularly about Calder at all. After all, it was Calder who invented the mobile; the work in Nice was static. But having just visited the Calder exhibition at Tate Modern, I believe I can see the connection.

Calder was born in 1898 in Pennsylvania;  his parents were both artists but knowing the insecurity that this can bring, they encouraged him to  train as a mechanical engineer. So, his artistic career did not really start until his mid twenties. The Tate exhibition concentrates on the early works and mobiles, many of which have not been on public display  for decades.  The result is both playful and joyous. Just what anybody needs to help counteract a week of grim news. Until now, my knowledge of Calder had been almost entirely through photographs. That is no way to see any sculpture but particularly not sculptures such as these where the relationship with the surrounding space is so important.

Before going, I would have expected the defining feature of Calder’s work to be in the movement, as the name mobile suggests. This expectation was heightened  by the title of the Exhibition – Performing Sculptures. The movement is of course there; very gently, at times almost imperceptibly, the different elements sway and twist in the air currents. For me, it was not the movement which I found so arresting, though of course it was important, but the shadows. As I walked round the exhibition, I found myself concentrating on the shadows on the wall, rather than the solid and coloured hanging shapes that made them. In some cases the shadows somehow seem more convincing that the real thing; a piece of twisted wire becomes a man’s head.

I suspect this may have been what fascinated Quinze as well, for it was the shadows and reflections of his soaring wood constructions that I found so interesting in Nice. Of course with shadows, the creative achievement is shared in a small part by whoever sets up the lighting. The works will inevitably behave differently in the gallery than in Calder’s studio. But the Tate has done a splendid job.  In some cases, the shadows were sharply defined. In others they appeared absent until you noticed that they were falling on the floor rather than the wall. In others the positioning of the lights allowed some, but not all, parts of the sculpture to cast a shadow, so that what you saw on the wall and the metal and wire reality appeared as two different works in dialogue.

Unfortunately the shadows do not appear in the available photographs – perhaps it is the flash photography that eliminates them. The day I went, the photo police appeared particularly diligent so frustratingly I cannot show you examples. To see what I mean you will need to visit.

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Alexander Calder:Black Widow 1948

For me one of the tests of a good art exhibition is whether it has the ability to make you perceive things differently. As well as being cheering, the Tate exhibition meets that criterion.  In his later works Calder moved from the geometric to more organic forms. Sitting here as I write this, I can see the shadow of a tree on the wall opposite, though not the tree itself. The unseen tree must be moving. I look at it and think of Calder looking at something similar.

Why all women artists (and all men) should see Phyllida Barlow’s Dock

11 Jun

Are female artists as good as male artists? If you are a woman, particularly a woman artist, you might instantly respond, ‘of course’. But is that what you really believe? Unfortunately it is more likely that, deep inside, you have doubts however much your conscious, liberal mind argues to the contrary. This is the issue that was so perfectly expressed by Sally Kempton, “it is hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head “

There are tests that show what we profess to believe and actually believe are not the same thing. Enter the Implicit Association Test, designed by researchers at Harvard. The Harvard website explains that the test,

“measures the strength of associations between concepts (e.g., black people, gay people) and evaluations (e.g., good, bad) or stereotypes (e.g., athletic, clumsy). The main idea is that making a response is easier when closely related items share the same response key

Researchers have used them to measure attitudes to a multiplicity of things and it can be disturbing to find that your unconscious is less politically correct than you are. If you want to find out more about your own prejudices follow this link and have a go.

I don’t know whether an Implicit Association Test has been specifically designed to measure attitudes to women artists but I would be prepared to bet quite a bit we would not do well. But it has also been demonstrated that positive experiences of any group can change scores. Indeed, the Harvard site recommend that people should seek out such experiences to rid themselves of unwanted preferences. There is a possible remedy if not a complete cure any negative attitudes to women artists; all it requires is a visit to Tate Britain to see Phyllida Barlow’s Dock.

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I advise go quickly for you will have had a lifetime of negative messages to neutralize. You know of course that female artists have historically been less well represented in galleries. You will know that women don’t make the big money in the art auctions; in 2013 the top 20 places were still all held by men and German Artist George Baselitz told Der Spiegel,

“Women don’t paint very well. It’s a fact, they simply don’t pass the market test, the value test. As always the market is right”

A similarly dismissive view was put forward by Brian Sewell in 2009, writing in the Independent

The art market is not sexist. The likes of Bridget Riley and Louise Bourgeois are of the second and third rank. There has never been a first-rank woman artist. Only men are capable of aesthetic greatness. Women make up 50 per cent or more of classes at art school. Yet they fade away in their late 20s or 30s. Maybe it’s something to do with bearing children.”

BBC 2 to its great credit has been trying to remedy this viewpoint but, I believe, only partially successfully. In the recently finished three-part series, the Story of Women and Art, we saw the works of some remarkable women artists. I particularly liked the family portrait by Lavinia Fontana, which shows a marvelous range of expressions, the cruel, the calculating and the wary; this apparently benign painting tells the story of a family feud and a disputed inheritance.

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Although the programme featured celebrated sculptors and painters including Angelica Kaufman, Vigee Lebrun and Anne Seymour Damer and showed the obstacles they had to overcome, it also included a wide range of more traditionally feminine art. Whilst it is possible to put up a tolerable case why paper cuts or textile design, painted porcelain or mother of pearl coated chinoiserie should be included in the series, they tended to be more indicative of artistic potential, or overcoming adversity, rather than measuring up to true aesthetic greatness. Some of them were actually not all that good, despite presenter Amanda Vickery’s relentless enthusiasm. They were unlikely, I reluctantly concluded, to convince the likes of Sewell or Baselitz and might even confirm them in their prejudices that women artists were more suited to water colours, fashion, craft and beautifying the domestic – “something to do with their brains,” they might say.

Such views about the female brain and its suitability for this or that are, of course, bunkum. I’ve just been reading Cordelia Fine’s book Delusions of Gender; it contains a fascinating analysis of the science behind all those claims that have been put forward over the years that women’s brains are somehow different from, and inferior to, those of men. These have ranged from the highlighting of the 150 gm weight difference which Victorians believed made women less intelligent, to MRI scans which have been claimed to show that men were better at analysis and women at primary emotional reference, suggesting that women were biologically better at low paid, caring occupations such as soothing fevered brows, whilst men were better at doing the high status, well paid stuff, like maths and engineering, architecture and so on.

As Fine so convincingly shows the science behind these often quoted studies has been highly flawed, showing such fundamental design failures as pitifully small samples, the absence of double blind testing and deeply subjective observations. On the MRI  scans, a different group of researchers were even able to reproduce similar results with a dead salmon.  Time and time again researchers have bent and doctored the data to confirm their own prejudices. What she does show, however, is the horrendous suggestibility of the human (not just the female) mind. For instance, the very act of filling in whether you are male or female before a maths test, makes women score worse as does even decor which is aggressively masculine rather than neutral. The reason for this is that the tick box or the decor can remind women that men are stereotypically better at maths. Why should this affect them adversely? One might have thought it would have made them more determined to do better, but that it turns out is the problem; if the brain is engaged in trying to combat negative thoughts, it is not giving 100% to the problem solving task in hand. So it goes on, the power of suggestion can distort the performance of men, women or indeed any social grouping.

Apart from overt discouragement and discrimination, and there has been plenty of that, the drip, drip, drip of this confidence sapping barrage over the years, the lack of role models, the exclusion from training, poor networking opportunities and lack of sponsors are all ample reasons why women have until recently failed to reach the top the artistic dung heap.

But perhaps things are finally changing;  more women are finding their voice. Dock is a beacon. It is perhaps the most exciting work in London for years and the proof of what women can achieve given the chance. Best of all, it needs no special pleading of the kind shown in the BBC2 series.

The scale of the thing is enormous. It is strong, it is bold. Inspired by Tate Britain’s position near the Thames it fills the Duveen Galleries with material in complete contrast to the classical lines but, oddly, it still complements the surroundings.  If it had been constructed by a man, it might have been called masculine but it has not; it is by a women and it proves that women can be every bit as daring. Look out at the exhibits in the nearby galleries and it makes everything else look rather tame.

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I have always loved the way that Barlow uses non-traditional art materials and in Dock you find canvas, polystyrene, cardboard, crates, rope, timber, rags, foam and paint. Enter the gallery and you are faced with what looks like a suspended shipping container, frozen at the point of being loaded or unloaded. Walk round and you can see into the interior; there are jagged edges. The inside is as interesting as the outside. You look up at things that are suspended precariously.  Is that huge canvas bundle cargo? Or is it something alive?

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You look through difference parts of the construction and get different vistas. There is fabric there and plastic. It is almost as though Barlow has taken the contents of all the recycling centres of London to grow this vast anarchic piece. Yet there is a rhythm to the work and it all fits together; precarious yes, but also balanced. It is a work of opposites; in part playful in part aggressive. It is made of discarded bits and pieces but there is such grandeur.

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The sheer confidence and exuberance of the work is breathtaking; mainly sculpture of a kind, there is a large-scale  painting there; a huge abstract  tipped on its side; there are also amazing bits of detail. Pallets are built up in a construction which reminded me of the scaffolding involved in ship construction, but look at them closely, they are smeared with paint and each one can appear like an abstract painting in miniature, leaving me speculating about how they came to be there and how much was accident, how much design. In fact that applies to the whole thing; how do you start working out an installation of this kind of complexity?

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But then Barlow has the experience under her belt.  She has taught for more than 40 years, most recently at the Slade School of Art and had generations of students pass through her hands. Finally at the age of 70, when many are enjoying retirement, she is showing this extraordinary energy, finally getting the recognition she deserves and giving women art students of all ages everywhere, not just at the Slade, a most inspiring role model.

Dock runs until 19 October, admission free. tate.org.uk

 

 

 

Richard Deacon and the flat-pack approach to Sculpture

8 Mar

It is a problem that must give many a sculptor a headache: your ambitions are huge but your studio space is a whole lot smaller. You would like your pieces to be 12 foot high and 30 foot wide but doors and stairs are designed primarily with people in mind. Large is great but, if you want to work in wood, or steel, or clay, it is also heavy.

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The joins add to the interest

These days, Richard Deacon most probably has an army of helpers with huge biceps and a studio the size of an aeroplane hanger but, like the rest of us, he must still have the doors and stairs problem. He has come up with a solution to the practical problems of working large and adopted what you could describe as,  ‘the flat pack approach to sculpture.’ His elegant creations, currently on show at Tate Britain, clearly come to bits; the visible joins, far from detracting from the works, adds to their interest.

For a moment, I had this rather delightful image of him crawling around on the floor, saying “the Allen key was here a moment ago, who’s taken it?” or “aren’t there supposed to be six screws here; I can only find five?” or, “where on earth does this curly bit go? Oh, I suppose I should know: I made it.”

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Where is this curly bit meant to go?

But if the construction principles are the same as for an Ikea wardrobe, the results are far more interesting, and, so far as I could tell, even lack wobble. With the exception of the works in Room 4, Art for Other People, which were designed for domestic situations, the works start big and get bigger.

Interestingly, the ideas for the sculptures came originally not from anything physical but from drawings that he made in the US back in 1978, which in turn were  based on Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s highly lyrical sonnets to Orpheus, which Rilke viewed as a metaphor for the transition between life and death.

There upped a tree, O absolute outstripping
O Orpheus singing, O tall tree in the ear.

At first, I could not see the connection; the drawings can be seen as reflecting the body parts mentioned in the verses:  the ear, the eyes, the mouth. There is undoubtedly lyricism in the forms in the curves and  flowing lines, but there was another characteristic that did not seem to be derived from Rilke’s influence; the drawings look in some way industrial. At first sight I took them for the technical plans for the sculptures.

Richard Deacon’s drawings were inspired by Rilke

Then I  realised Rilke’s  55 poems in the Orpheus series are all sonnets and have a strict rhyming scheme and so exuberance and metaphor are constrained by formality. This is in essence what Deacon does: lyricism constrained by engineering requirements.

This early influence of Rilke seems to  follow through into all Deacon’s work. I found them extraordinarily satisfying; there is scale; there is complexity; the engineering skills are breathtaking and the materials he uses are just so pleasing, whether it is the galvanised iron of his 1980 Untitled, the rich colours of ceramics in the 2012 work Fold or the laminated wood which  is a favourite of his and which he appears to bend and twist as easily as if it were clay.

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Richard Deacon: Fold 2012

Occasionally though, I felt he took the work beyond the point where it might have been better to stop. Generally I rather like work where elements are hidden but did Tall Tree in the Ear really need the blue canvas covering over one of the curves; it looked rather as if a piece of packaging had not been removed.

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Richard Deacon: Tall Tree in the Ear

The, ‘wouldn’t it be better without’, issue was most striking in the case of the work used to publicise the exhibition After. This is a wonderfully sinuous sculpture which coils across room 5 of the exhibition. But every single photograph of the work that I have seen, seems to minimize the woven steel fence which runs along the middle. The fence seems to have been a late addition to the concept; there are pictures of other similar constructions which he has made, where the folds are allowed to work by themselves.

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Richard Deacon: After

The Tate notes explain that ‘the the steel strap links the ends apparently drawing them together….Deacon was intrigued by the contrast between the taut line and the liveliness of the undulating form and the play of light.’ To me, the steel seemed a distraction; it looked almost as though it were propping up the structure, which was a shame because one of the impressive things  about Deacon’s work is how these really complex works are self-supporting. Most photographers appear to take the same view.

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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