This Tate Modern exhibition celebrates an incredibly rich creativity of the legendary abstractionist Paul Klee (1879–1940), who is not associated with any “ism”, hence cannot be pigeonholed or categorised but he certainly belongs to the most recognisable artists of the twentieth century.
He was both a playful and a radical figure in European modernism. The curator Matthew Gale explains that the exhibition’s title derives from Klee's idea that “art does not reproduce the visible, rather it makes visible”. Matthew Gale is Head of Displays and Curator at Tate Modern, whose specialism lies in classic modernism. He has been working on The EY Exhibition: Paul Klee – Making Visible for the last three years.
Tate Modern is a modern art gallery located in London, housed in the former Bankside Power Station on the banks of the Thames. The 17-room exhibition (spaciousness is one of its advantages) brings together over 130 colourful drawings, watercolours and paintings from collections around the world - Paris, New York, Bern, Edinburgh, Stockholm, Vienna, Ottawa, Berlin, etc. It is a great chance to come and see the extraordinary diversity of Klee's production. It focuses on three decades of his career: from his emergence in Munich in the 1910s, through his years of teaching at the Bauhaus in the 1920s, up to his final paintings made in Bern after the outbreak of the Second World War.
It is an enormous opportunity to witness Klee's visual language evolving down the years. In order to read his complex, encoded language, I spared a few hours and was fully immersed in a great number of symbols - arrows, fishes, trees, stripes, staves, squares, numbers, grids and many more.
The way in which the exhibition is structured derives from Klee’s own numbering system, which he started in 1911. Referring to it, the curator has been able to highlight continuities in Klee’s work and illustrate the complexity of his production at any given time. Gale was expecting that the composition of the exhibition would enable visitors to feel that they could “transgress” – step out of time and into Klee’s studio. Despite his unpretentious style, he is acknowledged as an artist facing the challenges of the modern turbulent times, far more profound than he may first appear. 'I hope that we’re going to inspire a new generation to look at Klee in a different way’, said Gale.
The exhibition begins with the facsimile of Klee's lecture notes from the Bauhaus era, which reveals how much Klee cared about the ideas development. He was invited to join the faculty of this school under Walter Gropius, where taught on the bookbinding, tapestry and stained-glass courses. Because he did not have previous experience, he took his preparations very seriously. The facsimile can be considered as an introduction to one the main exhibition's ideas to show scrupulousness of the artist. This contradicts to visitor's chaotic experience triggered by his variety of works.
Colours of the walls have been chosen to reflect Klee's studio. He had two coloured walls in his studio in Dessau, one was black and one was blue; Gale chose only black and white walls, using the black "to really give strength to the more subtle works". Indeed, it changes visitor's experience. For instance, Fishes in the Deep (1921), Untitled (1921) hanging in a row with other sea life paintings create delicate mystery of darkness and makes you sit down on the bench in order to observe this black ocean (I admit my favourite theme among Klee's paintings is sea life and aquariums, thus I took my time to explore them). By putting benches in front of the tiny works, Gale perhaps intended to encourage visitors to pay extra attention to the whole conception of the composition (paintings and the black wall) - no one could fully admire Fishes in the Deep, of which size is 16 x 21.7 cm, within a few meters distance. When I came closer, I was charmed with smudgy lines reminding me of quiet, undulating seawater and greenish piscine bodies twisting above weightless water plants.
Redgreen and Violet-Yellow Rhythms (1920) is one of the curator’s choices as well as greatly advertised on the exhibition's posters. Thus, it has become the most seen work of Klee's exhibition. This magic squares painting was created after Klee's visit to Tunisia where he discovered a new world of colour and texture. The structure of this painting embodies an incredible energy. Trees depicted in this painting convert this abstraction into decorative work and witness that Klee always contained love to the natural world. Interesting that these trees assemble Baltic symbols of goddess Laima responsible for people's destiny. The artwork is positioned very conveniently in the room - on its own on the entire wall, even though its size does not require it.
Rich Harbour (1938) is the largest painting from Klee's exhibition and probably the most expansive one in his entire life. Created two years before his death it depicts such recognizable forms as ships and plants, delights with bright, upbeat beige background. Klee who liked to "take a line for a walk", composed a rather cubistic landscape which may imply the safe haven of Switzerland in troubled times. Klee moved to Switzerland in late 1933 - shortly after Gestapo searched his home and he got fired from the Bauhaus. Understandable that Switzerland appeared to be a luminous shelter. Those cubistic shapes somehow resemble Baltic symbols of flame, sky and earth.
I was completely overwhelmed by this 17-room show, which shed light on Klee's multifaceted personality. After all, I am pleased to witness that his paintings astonish with rich variety of works, delight with lively colours, often amuse with childlike imagination and uplift with deep artistic ideas (some of them printed on the walls). This experience can be strengthened by the curator's blog and regular talks on Glee's art. Lastly, inexhaustible originality of his works and ideas requires more than one visit, thus it is strongly recommended to dedicate more time to this exhibition.
Exhibition dates: 16 October 2013 – 9 March 2014
Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG, United Kingdom