Sunday, 9 March 2014

Paul Klee "Making Visible" exhibition at Tate Modern, London

Paul Klee in 1911

“First of all, the art of living; then as my ideal profession, poetry and philosophy, and as my real profession, plastic arts; in the last resort, for lack of income, illustrations.”

—Paul Klee.

I visited the Paul Klee exhibition at Tate Modern in London this week. Klee (1879-1940) had always seemed a mythical figure to me, inaccessible and remote in his iconic status and his enigmatic paintings and writings.  I approached with trepidation. This was going to be hard work, I thought, and time to put the “effort” cap on.  It turned out in fact to be a most rewarding experience.  This is a large exhibition, and it was organised sequentially, with particular emphasis on Klee’s constant experiments with different techniques.

This meant that it was possible to see the full range of his work, from the most detailed early fine drawings to the extremely vague spray paintings, via delicate abstract watercolours, and this helped me to understand and admire him as someone who bravely experimented throughout his life, had his frustrations and (ultimately) great successes, and it was an opportunity to see all his work as a unity.  I also understood him as someone more accessible that I could learn from. 

View of Kairouan (1914)  watercolour

My holiday photo of Kairouan medina (2012)

The personal and historical aspects of Klee’s life were well described:  for example, the significance of his friendship with Macke, Marc and Kandinsky (some other members of the Blaue Reiter group).  Only when he met artists such as this was he able to clarify and develop his ideas more fully.  A brief trip to Tunis with these friends in 1913 was, famously, very important to him. For the first time as an artist he felt confident about using colour, particularly in an abstract way.  Colour and I are one” he wrote “Colour possesses me.  I don’t have to pursue it.  It will possess me always; I know it”.  For Klee, colours had their own spiritual, emotional and symbolic properties which are distinct from colours found in “reality”.

Battle scene from the Comic-Fantastic opera "The Seafarer" (1923)

Many artists of Klee’s generation were rethinking art in the contemporary industrial world, and also in the light of a new awareness of the subconscious.  Nowadays we are rethinking art in the new digital world, but in contrast I don’t think we are so concerned with the subconscious, rather more we are exploring the mysteries of the mind and body as a form of neuroscience.  For Klee art was always a balance between the rational and the intuition, and the successful resolution of that tension is one thing that makes his work so strong.  It is a theme that runs through all his work, and unites the different “styles” of his paintings.

Ghost of a genius (1922)  Oil transfer drawing and watercolour

Crosses and columns (1931) pointillist method
 The styles reflect his constant experimentation with techniques. These range from extremely precise drawing to the vaguest cloud paintings.  He is celebrated for his “gradations”, in which he builds up layers of overlapping colour, either in watercolour or oil paint.  Another favourite way of working was to reproduce the spontaneity of the quick sketch (statement from the subconscious?) by monoprinting it onto a clean sheet of paper which could then be worked in other media to build up the colour.  Later he experimented with spray paint and pointillisme, and with different surfaces such as raw burlap.

Fire at Full Moon (1933)

I was also very impressed with the extreme meticulousness with which he approached his art, particularly when working out a system of teaching, and in cataloguing and numbering every single drawing and painting, so he had a quick overview of all his work.  How much simpler life would have been for him in the digital age.

The visit was a most positive and inspiring experience for me.

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