KLEE AT THE TATE: A Distinct Imagination


IT’S A STRUGGLE viewing art at the Tate Modern. Last Sunday, early enough, I’d hoped, to have outwitted the Sunday strollers, but I was defeated at every turn by phalanxes of children running around, screaming, scampering, crying for attention to anyone who would give it to them, but especially from their mothers – smartly dressed with smartly dressed spouses or partners in tow, creating space for themselves with bus-sized prams and strollers. All this at 10am, just as the place opened. I tried to run ahead of them, nipping past roomfuls of Klee’s to find brief moments of solace. That failed; so I tried to let them run ahead of me. But there was such a tonnage of them that, like an invading army, they kept coming and coming. Shouldn’t there be a time and place for this battering of bourgeois babies? Shouldn’t they be corralled and contained in a romper room somewhere?

No matter, at least I had Klee to pacify me. The new Paul Klee exhibition on at the Tate Modern is vast: rooms upon rooms of his works, carefully curated, allowing viewers to follow the chronology of his oeuvre (Klee numbered each of his works, so it’s a no-brainer to figure out the order of their production). At times (battling against the invading toddlers) it was overwhelming. So I opted to do what I’d read somewhere: compromise on seeing everything, focus instead on those that simply caught your eye. Better to spend quality time with a few (always surprisingly small) works than quantity time with everything.

Klee (and Kandinski and that whole Bauhaus crowd) is probably one of the most academic and eloquent of that cluster of masters who redefined the idiom of art between the wars. This is a man who wrote thirty pages on the meaning of the dot; and then apologized (without irony, for he seemed to have little of that) for his brevity. So I find it important to resist looking at all his works through his own instruction manual (mainly The Pedagogical Notebooks) and just let the art skin in.

That said, it’s informative to begin with a quote from Robert Delaunay, a French artist who was greatly admired by Klee. Delaunay wrote, “so long as art is subservient to objects, it remains description.” Klee from an early age had liberated himself from the tyranny of observed reality to create a grammar entirely free from the baggage of cultural references we all drag along with us, and to construct a world that became idiosyncratically his own. To me Klee’s works exist in two major – often blended – dimensions: Klee the colorist (he once said, “colour has taken possession of me…colour and I are one. I am a painter”, and Klee the draughtsman: “when a dot becomes movement and line, time is involved”).

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Let’s look at these two paintings, executed nine years apart in 1920 and 1929. They are “Redgreen and Violet & Yellow Rhythms” (the lower painting) and “Steps”

With both of these paintings, what we have are brick like shapes of colour – almost colour without form (as Rothko would perfect a few decades later). There really is no center point, no central image to act as a guide to the viewer. In “Redgreen…” there are a few tree-like forms that are there more as highlights rather than as having any narrative point. Rather the painting seems to have been built almost organically with the slabs of colour nestled against each other not upon any outside image or object, but entirely upon the painting’s own inner logic. The sizes of the rudimentary forms and the colours chosen have been selected exclusively as complements or contrasts with the other forms and colours around them. The work has created its own dynamic and delivers its effect, its power as a result of its self contained inner coherence.

Klee approached his art almost like an archaeologist unearthing long buried objects. His approach was to experiment with materials so that they would be as integral to the finished object as the colours and forms embedded into them (and for that he blended scraps of fabric with wood laminated onto board etc) and then to build up the work, allowing whatever emerged do so intuitively. (Both Goethe and Kant spoke of the power of “intuitive judgment”). The paintings evoke worlds and moods that have therefore arisen from the artist’s extraordinary ability to internalise memories of places, incidents and random ideas and recombine them in his art. We don’t so much as look at a Klee painting as enter into a relationship with it. For he offers scant reference points for us to hold on to. (Klee has said that, “the artist abandons the world immediately around him and instead builds a bridge into another world”). Rather he drags us outside of the boundaries of our known and familiar experiences – our consciousness – and invites us to enter into his consciousness. With his art, we don’t so much see as re-experience the world through another perspective, through the intuition of another. The colours and forms of his art becomes the viewer’s new terra firma.

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In this work, “A Young Lady’s Adventure”, we see out of Klee’s wandering line emerging this spectral figure. Unlike the two shown initially, this painting quite clearly has a central focus. Did it start with this in mind, or did this emerge from his act of painting organically as it certainly emerges from the painting itself? What is her adventure? It seems to be nighttime and she seems to be bathed in some sort of glow or light. There seem to be animal-like shapes around: is this her dreamscape? The painting offers us just enough information to deduce (imagine even, as we add our own experience to almost complete the picture and bring it into our own imagination) that she’s quite young. Maybe a child, unafraid, going out into a dark world?

Who knows. Franz Marc, a German painter and printmaker notes that, “art is probably a sleep-walker’s vision of the typical.”

The key point is that with Klee, you leave your world behind and submit to his imagination and these two dimensional signals it has produced– signals that are not  records of things seen (the exhibition is called “Making Visible”) but signs that have passed through many psychic layers.