Art exhibition reviews- Paul Klee: Making Visible
Tate Modern Exhibition: until 9 March 2014
by Jill Hawkins
Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible (Klee, 1920)
I happened to be in the Tate Modern on the second day of this exhibition and I went up the long escalator expecting the sort of queues one normally expects with a new show that has so much on offer. One eye on my watch, I had 90 minutes before closing time to take in what promised to be the ultimate Klee collection, and I was twitchy about crowds and the potentially annoying lack of easy access to his works. I needn’t have worried: no queue, no crowds, just a surprising number of works in a surprising number of rooms, alarmingly spaced out, with plenty of musing time alone at each one. A stranger tracked me, peering closely at Klee’s use of colour, muttering about his genius, maniacal in reverence: I was certainly more attentive as a result, moving close to the tiny canvasses in an attempt to miss none of what the stranger saw.
Curatorial notes ensured I knew lots about Klee: there is a timeline installed in the first room that tracks his life from birth in 1879 to his untimely death in 1940 from a painful wasting disease. The rooms are chronologically arranged to match the time-line, taking us through the political upheavals of Europe in the first half of the 20th century and the artistic responses. I was not short of information: I therefore have no-one and nothing to blame for the fact that I emerged from the collection still puzzled by Klee. Maybe most people are. At once cubist, expressionist and surrealist, often in the same month, his style changed freely literally from one work to the next, and he continually defies our innate need to pigeon-hole him.
In many ways the works on show here also tell his life story. He was an accomplished violin player and the viewer can find musicality in his carefully placed geometric shapes – his ‘magic squares’ – placed deliberately on a distorted grid as if they were notes in a symphony, the canvasses sometimes offering rotational symmetry for good musical measure. We can see the impact that a short but much celebrated stay in Tunisia had on his use of colour (‘Colour and I are one’, he proclaimed, post the revelations of intense African sunshine and ochre earth.) His artistic relationships can be spotted in the show: he had a dalliance with Blaue Reiter (expressionist), a long friendship with Kandinsky (abstraction), taught at and exhibited with the Bauhaus (modernist and arguably constructivist), and flirted with Picasso’s cubism. His political views and hatred of Hitler were his personal undoing and the late works show a heaviness of heart as colours become more sombre and black lines thicker. As he became sick he was amazingly prolific, producing over a thousand works in 1939 as he used impending death as his muse. I may not have been able to categorise his work but I certainly got a sense of his up times and his down times.
His extraordinary range of artistic styles is made all the more obvious by the chronological organisation of the works on show, for which there is compelling logic as Klee himself numbered his completed works in his Oeuvre catalogue which began in 1911 – a year after his first solo exhibition – and lasted over 30 years. This must have created both a curatorial dream and a nightmare, on the one hand being certain of the order and dates of paintings, and on the other being constantly wrong-footed by the style in which he painted consecutive works. See for yourself - the dates are there on each canvas.
Klee: They're biting(1920)
Klee slips between narrative paintings and the abstract. Ships in the Dark (1927) does just what it says on the tin, depicting boats bouncing on waves at night with a huge blue moon providing minimal light. Closeby in the show are some exquisite quasi-pointillist abstract works, in which Klee uses tiny squares in place of the dots we might more normally associate with the style. He is prone to incorporating humour and satire into his work – some of his figures are sad and funny at the same time, his line drawing capturing the personality like a modern-day caricaturist. Fish play a big role in his motifs – They’re biting (1920) explores their movement in the ocean, his interest in the three dimensional movement of fish having originated in watching them move through the tank he had in his house. His famous Rich Harbour (1938) gives us an unusually large canvas, with a busy motif that provides the shop outside with the perfect print opportunity for mugs and shopping bags.
The show is rich in Klee’s diversity and is a major achievement, bringing together so many of his works from which we can ponder the versatility of the man. He shouldn’t be pigeon-holed, that’s probably the point.
A short video by The Art Fund on this exhibition can be found here