Klee encompasses all that we expect of the modern artist. Starting his career at the turn of the century, caught between one war and the foreshadowing of another, the exploration of form mingled with ideology and political tension, the research for the transcendance of colour beyond personal struggles. All too often however, despite Klee’s formal detachment from his time and perseverance to depict despite his inner demons rather than constantly mirror them in his work, this seems to be what we focus upon.
We remember the artist struggling with a degenerative disease destroying his body. We remember the member of the Blaue Reiter, the case study of the artist facing the rise of antisemitism and seeing his work dubbed as degenerate art by a party he was forcibly opposed to and that he escaped from at the earliest opportunity. But do we often have a sense of the artist as a methodic, modernist researcher of form and colour? Of the artist as art teacher at the Bauhaus period? The exhibition at the Tate does not want to leave anything out concerning this artististic and technical process and through this retrospective attempts to conciliate several aspects of Paul Klee; Klee as the witness of war with Klee the teacher, Klee the tragic artist with Klee the meticulous promoter of his own work through carefully curated exhibitions and precise documentation and cataloguing. With a desire to trace throughout Klee’s entire career, the exhibition let us follow into the footsteps that led him into aspects of cubism and abstraction, leading us through several periods of his life that have all to a certain degree influenced his works and his perception of the world. A timeline retraces his life at the beginning of the exhibition and, as per usual, a small explanatory text introduces each new section. The exhibition is chronological, and the works as such do not enter within distinct categories of genre or medium. Each room represented one or two years of his career, from the beginning to his unfortunate, early end.
Watercolours are juxtaposed next to oil transfers and larger paintings, both lavish and self-contained.
His abstract works happily cohabitate with his dreamlike, humorous and almost surrealist scenes of fish and fishermen and fantastical creatures that belong to his own personal, secret narratives, showing either inner peace through the fish flitting through planes of colour, or turmoil as distorted figures of witches create jarring and mesmerising thick lines and jagged dancing whirls upon the canvas, in the last years of his life.
They contrast with the vibrant colours of a serene still life with flowers, the last work he ever sent out to the exhibition he was unable to curate due to his illness, shortly before his death.
The evolution and technical process appears clearly as the exhibition evolves, and letting the work speak for themselves is complemented by clear explanations concerning the techniques that Klee elaborated – such as his oil transfers or his gradient stripes of colour creating a tonal shift that allows him to explore colour theory in his work as well as teach it. In fact, these were my favourite parts of the exhibitions…and I would have preferred to see more of the same. I also discovered aspects of his work I was unaware of before (such as his experimentations with pointillism).
Most of the explanatory text was concerned with delivering quotes about other people concerning Klee and his attitude towards his own art…yet seldom were by him about his own work, aside from those key quotes that always make it in large letters on the wall. All in all, the main focus seemed to be on Klee’s time as a teacher and the way that this influenced his work – this was at least the theme dedicated to the largest rooms.
Something that does tend to happen with exhibitions featuring small works, and works on paper, is the tendency to cram them together in a smaller space. When managed successfully this could pass off as “intimate”. When visitors have to shuffle past each work or crowd around to see it, intimacy as an accurate term is akin to describing the Central Line during rush hour as “cosy”. But this was certainly not the case. The rooms are large and spacious, leaving sufficient space for the small, luminous works to breathe…and for the visitors to breathe as well. No-one was struggling for space to see the works…although it could also be argued that the white space surrounding the works could sometimes menacingly dwarf the works that they are meant to showcase.
Most of the time, the works could be approached and appreciated up close…apart from several roped-off works that triggered an obnoxious alarm every time you approached them too closely.Other than that – the works were presented beautifully, in an airy space that remained thankfully devoid of too much cluttering or colour, letting the works speak for themselves. Grasping the transparent luminescence of one of his watercolours, the fine ink lines of his spontaneous yet delicate drawings is a pleasure that the eye washes upon without effort, the intensity of the shapes and tones he pieces together always an eternal source of inspiration. The works shone through the display and lighting.
There is a slight discrepancy between the notion of artist process and progress and the fact that ultimately, these are all finished works. I was expecting more drafts, more first versions, scrapped versions and tentative splashes to test the numerous colour schemes. Having solely finished work to accompany an exhibition concerning the research and creativity of an artist can fall slightly short…but the flawless presentation of the works and their immense diversity makes up for this. In the same way, I would have liked to see more documentation about his life, Klee as the cultured violinist we are told about in the beginning of the exhibition…before this fact is cast aside and not really brought up throughout the rest of the exhibition.
However, the bewildered question of a visitor to one of the museum guards does sum up the main problem.“How many rooms are there?” 17 was the answer. And with a desire to cram everything into one exhibition while at the same time while not providing an overall clear focus or pathway…the exhibition does tend to drift off-course at certain times. I enjoy exhibitions that throw me upon a route, a journey, capturing my interest and making me leave an exhibition with a slightly different viewpoint on the artist than when I first entered. In a sense this did happen…but I feel as though I had to hang on tight for this to happen. What I certainly feel is that anyone without a certain knowledge of Klee before entering the exhibition might feel slightly lost. I feel as through a retrospective should be less concerned with finding all it can and more concerned with showcasing less and making us focus more upon the key points of his career. It could have been more tight-knit and although I loved the exhibition in itself albeit my criticism of it, I know that feelings around me were more than mixed, finding it either too monotonous or too busy…if not a mix of both. But maybe this is something that has less to do with the curating of the Klee exhibition and more to do with the format of retrospectives and their struggle of quantity and coherence versus quality.
Despite some problems in managing the general focus of the exhibition in my opinion, the formal qualities and transformations of Klee were beautifully handled and displayed. Yes, there were a few shortcomings. But did the exhibition make the complexity and diversity of Klee’s experimentation in colour and medium visible? It certainly did.