Blockbuster: Paul Klee is possessed by colour at Tate Modern

By Mark Sheerin | 24 October 2013

Exhibition review: The EY Exhibition - Paul Klee: Making Visible, Tate Modern, London, until March 9 2014

Colour painting of tesselllated fields of colour with a landscape feel
Paul Klee, Fire at Full Moon, 1933© Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany
In some ways this show has been curated by its subject from beyond the grave. Matthew Gale and Flavia Frigieri from Tate have struck lucky with an artist who catalogued every last painting and one of the books he used can be seen in Room One, in a vitrine as if a work of art in itself.

The rest of his art is set out, with plenty of space, in 17 block busting rooms (plus a well stocked gift shop). The order is chronological with notes on Klee’s biography at every turn. Even the souvenir guide is little more than a timeline.This show plays with a very straight bat, as well it might.

Tate gets the painter’s most quoted expression out of the way in Room One with his reference to “an active line on a walk”. But it is colour rather than line which offers the most lasting impression. His palette is warm, luminous and never less than captivating.

“Colour possesses me,” said the young artist on a trip to Tunisia in 1914 and indeed he painted his way through the war. Friend and fellow painter Franz Marc was killed in action, so when Klee was drafted it was to an air force maintenance company well behind the lines.

Perhaps the draft board also considered paintings like Green X Above Left, enough to rule the painter unfit for service. It’s a work of peaceable introversion. Said to be figurative, only Klee himself may have understood how. Like all his work, it hints at mysteries.

Colour painting with a pathcwork of colour fields and the outlines of trees
Paul Klee, Redgreen and Violet-yellow Rhythms, 1920© The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Source: Art Resource/Scala Photo Archives
Call him intuitive, esoteric or plain weird, there are a number of reasons why any discussion of Klee might cleave to the facts. From the very first work in the show, When God Considered the Garden of Plants, it appears the painter prefers to reinvent the world rather than represent it. The tessellated rooftops of this delicate and quite small work pull you through the veil into Klee’s alternate reality.

When he invents a new drawing technique, known as oil transfer, the results look archaic, decadent and passing strange. One example of such is a convoluted fishing scene, complete with childlike fish and fishermen. Klee calls the 1920 work They’re Biting. It screams allegory, but offers few clues.

Then alongside this we have a serpentine figure in which Klee’s line has very much gone for a “walk”. The surface is as scratchy and dusty as any oil transfer work. But the title this time is Memorial to the Kaiser. It is too strange and geometric to be satire. Fish may be biting, but Klee himself wasn’t.

Given these introspective tendencies, whenever Klee does come up against history, it is saddening. In 1921 he goes to teach at the Bauhaus. But only two years later Hitler the Munich Putsch and the clock begins ticking on Klee’s rewarding and successful new role.

In 1933 the school is closed by National Socialists, Klee’s home in Dessau is searched, and letters to his wife confiscated. The painter finds himself included in the notorious German exhibition of degenerate art. It is a harsh fate for a painter with such a gentle and light touch.

Difficult then to snatch a happy ending from this life story which ends in 1940. But Klee’s death from degenerative illness scleroderma comes soon after a pair of landmark exhibitions, at both Kunsthaus Zurich (1940) and Kunsthalle Bern (1935). Works from these shows are grouped together in triumph.

Tate, for this show at least, have become art historical trainspotters, leaving Klee’s obscure works to mumble for themselves. Facts aside, the works are given room to breathe and work their magic. But somewhere in these pictures is another Klee show with a more daring and thematic strategy.
  • Admission £16.50 (£!4.50). Open 10am-6pm Sunday to Thursday (until 10pm Friday and Saturday)

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an abstract artwork of abstract figurative shapes against and brown and green background
Paul Klee, Comedy, 1921© Tate. Purchased 1946
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