Making Visible – Paul Klee at Tate Modern

Last week I saw the Paul Klee exhibition at Tate Modern. I hadn’t anticipated the scale of the show – 17 rooms (not sure I’ve ever been to one with more rooms) – or the scale of the works – mostly very small. There’s a good review of it here on the Guardian website but I thought I’d just record some of the highlights here.

I think I first encountered Klee’s work when I studied art history as part of A-level Art many years ago, but because he was so prolific I’m still finding out new things about him and his work even 20 years on. So, for example, at the Bauhaus: Art as Life exhibition at the Barbican a couple of years ago I saw his startlingly contemporary-looking puppets for the first time; and at Tate Modern, despite 17 rooms and dozens of pieces, the majority of them were new to me.

The exhibition commentary summarised Klee’s work as an interplay between abstract and more figurative, natural elements, saying that this “oscillation between experience and imagination would become characteristic”.

It was interesting to learn how some familiar images had been made, using Klee’s ‘oil-transfer’ system (described in a little more detail in this article on Klee). I’d always seen a certain sweetness in some of Klee’s work but the exhibition also introduced me to a lot more humour too, in some of the pieces I’d never seen before.

From an early stage, Klee numbered all of his works and applied the numbering system consistently throughout his career. The following were among my favourites works from the show, in chronological order, along with a couple of quotes from the commentary.

Redgreen and violet-yellow rhythms, 1920, 38

Room perspective with inhabitants, 1921, 24

Pottery, 1921, 68

Analysis of diverse perversities, 1922, 170

Architecture, 1923, 62

Picture of a town (red-green gradated), 1923, 90

“The artist of today is more than an improved camera; he is more complex, richer, and wider. He is a creature on the earth and a creature within the whole, that is to say, a creature on a star among stars.”
Klee, Ways of Nature Study, 1923

Structural II, 1924, 126

Pastorale (rhythms), 1927, 20

Once more bewitched down to the ground, 1927, 287

Fire in the evening, 1929, 95

Summer-house, 1929, 347

“I have never seen a man who had such a creative quiet. It radiated from him like the sun.”
Jankel Adler, Memories of Paul Klee, October 1942

Walpurgis Night, 1935, 121

New Harmony, 1936, 24

Earth Witches, 1938, 108

Forest Witches, 1938, 145

I was conscious that I might have chosen some almost for the name alone, as well as choosing some because they included some of my favourite colours. With the latter, the worry is that you start to view art (in fact, art which was once condemned as ‘degenerate’) with almost an interior design eye – not helped by the fact that the exhibition shop was selling cushions with Klee reproductions on them! But I also remembered that there were many great modernist clothing and furnishing designs at the Bauhaus show too, and that the Bauhaus approach especially was about the coming together of different disciplines, skills and media.

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