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Paul Klee – Making Visible at Tate Modern


By Anna Leung

‘Il faut cultiver le jardin.’ Voltaire, Candide



We may think we know Klee, feel that, with his wit and whimsy, his is the presentable face of modernism and take pride and pleasure in our ability to access his strange hybrid world that was based on the fourfold schema of artist and object, the earth and the cosmos. But as this exhibition demonstrates there is much more to Klee than meets the eye, and despite the exhibition’s subtext, more than making visible. He’ll entrap you, as do his far from innocent flowers, and lead you into a discomforting world, a place of enchantment where optically nothing is quite what it first seems to be. Klee staged impossible landscapes of the mind that operate according to his own idiosyncratic logic effectively overstepping the ‘isms’ of his day. Indeed it is this openness to the two contending forces that dominated the art world in the inter-war period, Constructivism and Surrealism, that could have been construed then as a failure to commit himself to either but is now more likely judged as a balancing act he played between them, that has contributed to the respect and the affinity that the public feels for him. As will become clear it is this ability to negotiate extreme opposites and reconcile polarities both on the formal and political level that characterises this most versatile and resourceful of artists.


However, it might well have surprised and appealed to Klee that he has come to be seen as a classic modernist, judging by the popularity of this exhibition. Like Kandinsky, Klee is known for his pedagogic contribution to the Bauhaus but subverted by sleight of hand its pictorial laws in his own art production. Something of his style has subtly permeated our consciousness. We can now relate this cultural phenomenon to a post-modernist acceptance of ornamentation and decoration that rejects Adolf Loos’ declaration ‘ornament is crime.’ But what ultimately distinguishes Klee is that despite his detailed analysis of pictorial means and unlike many of his Bauhaus colleagues he never went down the road of the purified modernism that characterised Constructivism and its virtual monopoly over the second period of the Bauhaus. But then it is also true that he never espoused the contrary aesthetic of the transgressive that was associated with Dada and Surrealism. Indeed André Breton may have elected him as a founding father of Surrealism and printed his essays in the Cahiers D’ Art, recognising in the playfulness of his graphic line and his hieroglyphic weaving of signs and symbols a fellow traveller, but Klee’s work was hardly the result of automatism. It was a calculated coming together, effected through the observation of nature, of imagination, intuition and logic. Elements of fantasy and a fairy tale quality, it’s true, were there from the start, and the one criticism that can be levelled against this exhibition concerns the exclusion of the graphic work that characterised his very early career when he attempted to take up cartooning and caricature as a livelihood with the satirical magazine Simplicissimus.

This essentially detached view on life remained a characteristic of his artistic output, surfacing from time to time, as for example in his chilling 1920 oil transfer drawing of A Christian Sectarian. Had we been given this as evidence of his critical and even cynical attitude to society, encrypted in his series of Inventions in 1905 and evidenced by the fact that he exhibited with the Berlin leftist group The November Gruppe in the anarchic aftermath of the war, we could have had a far better insight into his darker, more satirical turn of mind that becomes ever more pronounced by the end of the thirties when politics and sickness took their toll. But on the whole this exhibition, despite its chronological structure, provides us with an essentially formalist examination of Klee’s work that does not adequately credit the complexity of Klee’s extremely varied artistic production. Moreover despite Klee’s meticulous cataloguing, which he had started in 1911, he often reworked paintings so that dating is not quite as accurate or as useful as originally supposed.


Most histories of Klee take as their starting point his trip to Tunisia, when he wrote in his diary ‘Colour possesses me. I do not have to pursue it, it will possess me always, I know it ….colour and I are one. I am a painter.’ He was particularly taken with the gently diffused light of dusk and dawn that give rise to colours close together on the chromatic scale, especially in the last years of his life. Significantly, he wrote this in 1914. Up to this point, Klee believed that ideas unlocked an image as opposed to a picture originating through engagement with formal pictorial elements, but this he began to realise was a false beginning. His education as a painter rather than an illustrator was very gradual. Indeed even after studying at the Munich Art Academy under Franz Stuck in 1900 he had been unable to make up his mind between music and painting and between 1902 and 1906 played the violin for the Bern symphony orchestra. Eventually he opted for the visual arts, reasoning that whereas in music Bach, Mozart and Beethoven had reached their respective pinnacles of greatness, this remained to be done in painting and it was within his powers to do so. The use of colour presented him with a particularly uphill struggle, for his natural leaning was towards illustration and draughtsmanship. Nonetheless by 1906 he was beginning to participate in group exhibitions; he had his first solo show in Bern in 1910 – distinctly not a success - and began to experiment with watercolours. By this time, having ignored modern developments on his first trip to Paris in 1905 when Goya’s etchings took precedence over the avant-gardist paintings of artists such as Picasso, Braque or Matisse, he was finally introduced to Kandinsky and the Blaue Reiter group and contributed an essay to their Almanac on the relationship between developments in modern art and the marginalised art of children, untutored artists and the mentally ill. In 1912, armed this time with letters of introduction from Kandinsky, he made a second trip to Paris with the express purpose of visiting Delaunay in his studio.

This meeting was pivotal and prepared the way for his mythologised conversion to colour two years later during a two-week trip to Tunisia with Macke and Moilliet. Klee was so taken with Delaunay’s Orphic paintings that he translated his theoretical essay ‘On Light’ into German for Herwarth Walden, the progressive owner of the expressionist gallery and magazine Der Sturm. What Delaunay proposed was that painting renounce representation and create an architecture of colour by concentrating on the simultaneous relationships of colour in depth. He also spoke of discovering the laws of painting and compared the transparency of colour to musical tones all of which, with his musical intelligence, made perfect sense to Klee even though for the moment its realisation eluded him and needed further study. Surprisingly, an opportunity was provided by the outbreak of the First World War. For, unlike his Blaue Reiter friends Marc and Macke who, in their patriotic fervour immediately volunteered and died tragically on the front, Klee, because his father was German, despite being Swiss born, could not escape conscription but was given preferential treatment as an artist and allocated clerical work which afforded him time to paint. The war then acted as a catalyst, with Klee, echoing Worringer‘s thesis in Art and Empathy, explaining in a letter to his wife Lily that ‘the more horrible this world …the more abstract our art, whereas a happy world brings forth an art of the here and now.’


From the moment Klee determined to be a painter he was faced with the challenge of needing to reconcile his predilection for narrative with a more structural or architectonic approach. Basically the crux of the problem centred on introducing colour into his drawings but without having to colour in shapes. What Klee came up with was an oil transfer technique that enabled him to introduce a linear narrative into a graduated colour field as we see in Battle Scene from the Comic Opera Fantasy ‘The Seafarer’ 1923, probably one of his most popular works. Most of his colour drawings of 1921 are based on monoprinting, which became one of his standard methods. At the same time Klee, with his musical sensitivity, was aware that once the artist’s focus was no longer limited to the study of what is visible, the actual means of painting, rather than any intrinsic meaning, would become the autonomous factors that were to determine an artist’s intentions--line, shape and colour were the expressive agents in the making of the work. These were to become the objects of Klee’s theoretical and empirical studies in his Pedagogic Notebooks that set out to establish a scientific and rational foundation in the instruction of the visual arts. With reproducing the visible world no longer the rationale behind an art work, a new orientation was needed and Klee structured his teaching at the Bauhaus, which he was invited to join in 1921, by concentrating on the relationship of opposites; light and dark, division and unification, expansion and contraction, compression and stratification, regularity and irregularity, identity and difference and centrifugal and centripetal forces. It’s this multiplicity of themes that distinguishes Klee from an artist like Mondrian whose aim was to create a dynamic equilibrium by dogmatically expunging all naturalistic components from his aesthetic world. Klee by contrast was not searching for a formal static equilibrium but a means of reconciling contradictions and sources of dissonance within a state of fruitful tension, or in his own words within a potentially ‘unstable equilibrium’. This is borne out in the artist’s extraordinary cross fertilisation of styles, though his artistic output continued to be linear with the basic element in his creative thinking remaining the point, the line being ‘the point that set itself in motion.’


As I said earlier, Klee had embarked on his artistic career as a satirical cartoonist whose point of engagement was through an idea. Subsequently he attempted to distance himself from this intellectual response by allowing his line to lead him. This was to be the original movement as he wrote, ‘a line comes into being. It goes for a walk, so to speak, aimlessly for the sake of the walk.’ While endearing him to the Surrealists, this linear automatism was never related to their understanding of the irrational workings of the unconscious but more to studies in morphology in response to the intense interest that Klee had already developed as a small child in all levels of living organisms from the micro- to the macroscopic. His emphasis was therefore not on a particular result or a perfected form but always on process or formation.


What particularly fascinated Klee were the artistic and the biological laws that govern growth and the analogies between them. It was the study of these analogous laws and the forces behind them that predominantly concerned him and formed the basis of his teaching while at the Bauhaus. All creation was fundamentally a matter of allowing form to take place and the artist’s ultimate goal was to create like nature by coming to understand the fundamental forces that continually operate between formation and dissolution, e.g. Clouds 1926 and in the same year View of a Mountain Sanctuary. Content however was never completely subsumed by form, nor form by content.

Klee’s appointment to the Bauhaus helped to clarify his ideas and examine the building blocks of his own creativity as well as those of his students. It has been suggested that Klee’s taste for analysis may have been motivated by his need to comply or at least keep up with the Constructivist spirit that was rapidly gaining ground within the precincts of the Bauhaus, first covertly with Theo van Doesburg’s attempt to infiltrate the Bauhaus and entice its students into his own de Stijl camp, and subsequently, with technology ousting craft, when Moholy Nagy superseded Johannes Itten as the master of the compulsory preliminary course. However, despite the constructive and analytic bent of Klee’s teaching with its emphasis on making visible the invisible laws that govern the world of Nature and the parallel operations within the world of pictorial invention, no amount of cerebral cogitation can change the dynamic energy that lies coiled within a Klee painting. For though intuitive and expressionistic they have little to do with self-expression. Klee saw himself as a mediator or conduit and compared himself to the trunk of the tree which, rooted in nature and society, was able to channel the creative energies that become visible at its ‘crown’. i.e. the art work. He was a go-between. It is for this reason that the naming of a picture came not at the beginning of the process bound by intention, but at the end with recognition. Titles were nevertheless not mere add-ons but integral to the work.


Henceforth much of Klee’s work was aligned to his teaching. Setting out to explore aspects of a modern as opposed to an academic pictorial practice, e.g. perspective when it is no longer called upon to create an illusion of distance, the creation of dynamic tension through deviations from the horizontal or vertical, or the dynamics of a colour harmony gained by layering transparent washes of colour that create an optical rather than an illusory sense of depth exemplified in his many fish and plant paintings of 1921. These studies are also foundational to a whole series of colour sequence paintings produced in in 1923 which are mathematically structured in terms of their chromatic variations, a term common to colour and to music. He called them his ‘magic squares’ introducing contrapuntal variations through the use of rotation, reflection and the sequencing of odd and even numbers, e.g. Architecture, with its ten by seven grid, which evokes a city by night through the inclusion of two bright triangles within its yellow/ purple matrix, and the late New Harmony 1936 with its mirror imaging of vertical squares. These magic squares - that are not necessarily square - provided Klee with a yet another way of reconciling the poetic and the architectonic. The inclusion of a schematic tree or a dome, acting like clues in a cubist painting, ensured that the picture would be read as a landscape.


But it was his adoption of what at first sight seemed the Post-Impressionist Pointillist technique that subsequently invested his paintings with a new source of liveliness and a renewed sense of rhythm. Rhythm, with its closeness to music, had always played a major part in his creative thinking, giving him the freedom to transpose elements from one schema to another as he played with overlapping, divisions, or the not quite regularity of repetition of individual units. The pointillist point was no longer a purely graphic point giving birth to a line but had now become a carrier of colour that, bringing colour forward as a dynamic facet of his paintings, introduced an extra polyphonic dimension to his magic squares. The array of coloured dots functioned as complex mosaic tesserae or the warp and weft of a tapestry that, with the inclusion of a few graphic elements, introduced a figurative element suggestive of a city or seascape into an essentially abstract space. At the same time Klee, true to type, had been working on other forms and techniques. Often directly influenced by children’s art, including that of his son Felix, he produced a series of script-like paintings based on recurrent marks or symbols. These create a rhythmic balance between regularity and irregularity that can be interpreted as referring either to nature or to ancient cultures. One of the best examples is Pastorale 1927 in which the stratification of motifs seems incised into the surface of the canvas like some ancient archaeological relief.

In the mid-thirties the recently opened New York Museum of Modern Art honoured Klee by giving him the first retrospective of a living European artist. But at the same time his world was beginning to fall apart. In 1929, aware of the seismic political changes overtaking the Bauhaus and mindful that teaching was taking too great a toll on his creative energies, he accepted an offer of a teaching post from the Art Academy in Dusseldorf, taking it up in 1931. In 1933 Hitler took over the Chancellorship of Germany and Nazi fascist and racist ideology began to directly impact the art world. Klee was presumed to be Jewish--he was not but had always chosen to believe he had Saracen or African ancestry--and anyway for the Nazis association with the Bauhaus was sufficient proof of non-Aryanism, and therefore by April he had been dismissed from his new position in Dusseldorf. He returned to Bern where he spent the next and last seven years of his life. By 1937 his work would be included in the Degenerate Art Exhibition touring Germany to be exposed to vilification and mockery. This must have been very painful for Klee whose culture was decidedly German. His heroes were Goethe and Mozart and he saw himself as ‘cool romantic’ whose yearning for the transcendent was ever tempered by his worldliness and yet whose worldliness, by his own admission, was detached and lacked human warmth. He described himself as a distant star looking out across the world.


By 1935 a large exhibition of his recent work was organised in Bern. But it coincided with a decline in his health and a diagnosis of scleroderma, an incurable auto-immune disease that hardens the skin. For a year he was unable to work. Klee took it philosophically and realised that an artist must understand the rhythms of nature, and must accept periods of decline as well as those of growth, but in the last three years of his life suddenly became incredibly productive looking back to the years of his childhood as a realm of play and fantasy that inspired new work. The disease meant that his dexterity was impaired and his images became increasingly gestural often taking up the whole expanse of whatever support he chose to use – burlap and coarse parchment as opposed to the fine canvas and paper that he used to prepare for his earlier pictures. There was too a new dynamic and scale to his motifs which yet embodied a new fragility and vulnerability. His small scale paintings were abandoned and his script-like paintings transformed into clusters of black hieroglyphs, e.g. Park near Lu 1938 and Twilight Flowers 1940. Poster paint and pastel replaced watercolours, giving his last paintings a crepuscular feel.


And yet these paintings coming from a darker space within himself that he had, from the outset, associated with the cosmos acquired an extraordinary new force and inventiveness, e.g. Outbreak of Fear, 1939.And then there were the Angels who like him inhabited an in-between realm. Klee died on the 29th of June. Death as The Drummer had already inhabited his body for a long time.



Paul Klee – Making Visible

Tate Modern, LONDON

16 October 2013 – 9 March 2014


© Anna Leung, December 2013

Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions.



Paul Klee,

Fire at Full Moon 1933

Museum Folkwang (Essen, Germany)


Paul Klee

Comedy 1921

Watercolour and oil on paper

Tate Modern

Purchased 1946 DACS, 2002


Paul Klee

Fire in the Evening 1929

© 2013 Digital Image

The Museum of Modern Art, New York/ Scala. Florence


Paul Klee

Redgreen and Violet-Yellow Rhythms 1920

The Metropolitan Museum of Art,

The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1984 (1984.315.19)

Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Source: Art Resource/Scala Photo Archives


Paul Klee

Remembrance Sheet of a Conception 1918

Norton Simon Museum (Pasadena, USA)




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