I must confess that my knowledge of the work of Paul Klee was limited and this retrospective at Tate helped me understand it. It is an overwhelming show that needs to be digested and possibly needs a couple of visits, to say the least. Klee’s works were small and abstract which means that there is not story being represented and the size of Tate Modern dwarfs anything, starting by the visitor. However, I think that it is, in the excessive number of images and the size of the room that the viewer can see his work not as a series of individual images but as a whole project and it is at that level where this show is a triumph. Matthew Gale curated the show on two parallel levels: firstly, how Klee negotiated his own artistic persona by interacting with institutions and secondly, the way those interactions proved unfit but allowed him to perfect a rather imprecise project. In other words, Klee is always in the wrong place but at the right time and that is what this show conveys and explains.
From the very beginning, Paul Klee maintained an ‘oeuvre catalogue’ which was a comprehensive listing maintained over thirty years. Though coded, the personal structures devised through this ‘catalogue raisonné’ were displayed in public, as evidence of this system is on virtually every one of his works on paper. This way of structuring his ‘investigation’ on form and colour was part of his lifelong artistic project and has allowed the students of his work to understand it. Although, at the beginning of his career, his work seemed not to be accepted and depended on his wife Lily Klee’s piano lessons to survive, his listing traced a defiantly mountainous productivity at that time. It seems that Klee knew what he was doing.
Draughtsmanship was Klee’s natural metier, and his passage from symbolism to abstraction in the years before the First World War came to be associated with his desire to extend this to painting. It was at this time that he was influenced by Robert Delaunay and entered the circles of Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc’s Blaue Reiter in Munich through his friendship with the painter Louis Moilliet. In fact, Klee reviewed Kandinsky’s ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’ and the Blaue Reiter exhibition in January 1912, extolling the examples to be found in ethnographic art and the art of children and the mentally ill. In that occasion he said: ‘All that, in truth, must be taken far more seriously if present day art is to be reformed’. It is easy to see the parallelisms between today’s ‘Outsider Art’ and this statements but the difference lies in the systematisation that artists like Paul Klee embarked themselves into. Reviewing the year, it should be interesting to compare this exhibition to Massimo Gionni’s Palazzo Enciclopedico at the Venice Biennale where art was reduced to a series of totemic ornaments that promised some sort of presence that the viewer could not see or perceive. From this point of view, Paul Klee shows that presence is a matter of theorisation and hard manual work. All this was part of a cognitive process that would keep him committed for the rest of his life and when successful, he would see fame as a threat to that commitment to the point of isolating himself and leaving the dealings with the ‘world’ to his art dealers.
The beginnings of his career were times of change in Germany and Paul Klee’s own cultural politics were laid out privately in a letter to Alfred Kubin that touched on the ideal of art reflecting a community: ‘that part of us which somehow aims…for eternal values would be better able to receive support in a communist community….we would be able to channel the results of our inventive activity to the body o the people’. The institution that gave him the opportunity to systematise all these projects into a ‘political’ project was the Bauhaus. As founding director, Water Gropius had issued a manifesto in 1919 within which architecture was foreseen as the uniting project: ‘The old schools of art were unable to produce this unity: how could they, since art cannot be taught’. Gropius invited Klee to join the Bauhaus in October 1920 and by January 1921 he was already teaching. His first involvement with teaching was as master of the stained glass workshop and this is evident in the way he explores colour and light as translucent. At the same time, he developed a further technique that, again, touched on the relations of order and chance. It involved spraying liquid watercolour across ink drawings, bringing into direct confrontation the rigidity of the original and the unpredictability of the diffusion.
Of course, Paul Klee participated in the aesthetic debates that were happening at the time at the Bauhaus which concerned the limited capacity of abstract art for meaningfulness because of its bourgeoise (on easel) nature. That is why the Bauhaus always coupled art with architecture as a way of linking it to that fundamental component of communism which is ‘the public sphere’. From this point of view, Klee was always in a difficult position. That is the reason why he first taught glass making and later textiles and this had an impact on the decorative and ornamentalist aspects of his work and also left him trying to justify the ‘subjectivist’ aspects of his work in front of that ‘collectivist’ drive that the Bauhaus’ sustained. It was at this point that he said: ‘Art does not reproduce the visible, rather it makes visible’. One might say that what Klee’s art makes visible is art’s privateness in its own historical moment, that is, making that ‘material’ context evident.
By the end of the decade, he was popular not only at the Bauhaus but also because of his shows with Hans Goltz’ Neue Kunst Gallery in Europea. He cultivated a rather bohemian persona with a full beard framing his face and his head topped by a big fur cap. He was seen as an eccentric and an obsessive compulsive. He prepared his lectures meticulously down to the last word. His pedagogical estate comprises over 3000 manuscript pages which means that he tended to rationalise and theorise on everything. Even though, Klee was one of the most beloved teachers inside the school, he differed from the Bauhaus philosophy in some important ways. While he could relate to the idea that art and technology should form ‘a new unity’;, he did develop some reservations towards the idea of the collective. Collectivism was a concept that painters preferred to leave to the realm of craftmanship, thus deepening the gulf between the fine arts and the crafts that the Bauhaus had wanted to bridge. For Klee artistic production expressed the personality of the maker, which turned art into an intrinsic quality. That is why he said: ‘Genius is not even partly hard work….Genius is genius, grace, it is without beginning and end. It is creation’.
The Tate show upstages the way his work did not fit the Bauhaus and the reason why in 1942, André Breton said that Klee was among the Surrealists’ (partial) automatism. He was right because Klee’s ‘constructivism’ had such a ‘mystical/subjectivist’ approach that was closer to Surrealism than to the ‘collective’ functionality of the Bauhaus. This can be seen in the way he embraces ‘constructivism’. At the show, there are many ‘square paintings’ which allow the viewer to see how they were manifestly hand-drawn and often heavily worked and address colour sequences that were extended through Klee’s theoretical teachings. Effort, thought and systematisation all the way. I would say that this is one of the things that the overwhelming (sometimes, excessive) number of works placed in front of the viewer at this show achieve. If the viewer steps back from looking obsessively at each one of them and sees them as a whole, the issue of colour, rotational systems, gradations, subversion of symmetry are present as theses. According to Klee, since his paintings had been liberated from the optically based requirements of realism, they were open to either ‘earthbound’ or ‘cosmic’ non-optical experiences. It is at this point when one can appreciate the limits of making visible the invisible. Grace, according to Klee is not only a quality that the artist should have but it also belongs to the viewer. Just a couple of thoughts.