My first reaction on walking into the Paul Klee exhibition at Tate Modern was to the small scale of the works, which was somewhat ironic given its title of ‘Making Visible’. Apparently, I have an artistic bias as follows: large canvases are best placed to capture the bold and expansive shapes of the abstract style; small canvases are better suited to finely detailed, realistic studies of things like plants and people.
I’m glad to say it didn’t take long for this bias to disappear.
Not even out of the second room, I was already drawn to Klee’s highly focussed approach. In particular, I found myself responding very positively to what I can only describe as the curiosity of his works. Curiosity, directed both at the world and painting itself.
Some works displayed a furtiveness that reminded me of a child trying out a new technique or tool for the first time, such as Flower Bed (1913).
There were hints of school room doodling, at once repetitive and exploratory. His methods were also child-like in nature, such as tracing quick sketches whilst inverted over canvases using his ‘oil transfer’ method and painting backgrounds to look old and tea-stained.
Other works, like Transluncencies ‘Orange-Blue’ (1915), indicated a passionate – and almost fierce – command of the brush.
Moving from room to room, I couldn’t help but feel I was witnessing Klee going through artistic puberty. All artists develop over time, of course, but something in the fluctuations of confidence and breadth of his experimentation made it feel like a very familiar journey, one that I – and I’m sure many others – can relate to the adolescent experience. At points I reacted as one would to a tale of teenage naivete, equal parts knowing pity and longing. I even found myself thinking some works were cute!
To say this quality was due only to the early stage of Klee’s career would be a mistake. As I moved through the show, I formed the idea that all he was in fact doing was attempting to capture the world in simple terms, which manifested at times in a ‘child-like’ quality.
In this vein, I also saw many points of reference with ‘outsider art’, which is art created by individuals without any formal training and falling outside of the traditional art world. Key examples are Christian Sectarian (1920) and Structural II (1924).
Christian Sectarian (1920), oil transfer drawing and watercolor on paper on board;
Structural II (1924), gouache on paper laid down by the artist on board
The latter specifically reminded me of the obsessiveness of Norimitsu Kokubo, a psychiatric patient whose work (see below) was shown at last year’s excellent Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan exhibition at the Wellcome Collection.
Detail from The Economically Booming City of Tianjin, China (2011),
pencil, coloured pencil and oil-based marker on watercolour paper
Similarly, Klee also seems to reference ancient art. Above Mountain Summit (1917) carries many similarities with cave painting, for example, and They’re Biting (1920), Aerial Combat (1920) and In the Wilderness (1921) include the ‘X-ray’ style seen in Australian aboriginal imagery.
They’re Biting (1920), watercolour and oil paint on paper;
Aerial Combat (1920), oil transfer drawing on paper
With the Rotating Black Sun and the Arrow (1919) evokes Native American art; and he’s even explicit about this ancient association in some of his titles, such as Hieroglyph with the Parasol (1917) and Primeval-World Couple (1921).
Primeval-World Couple (1921), oil transfer drawing and watercolour on paper,
bordered with ink, spots of glue, mounted on canvas
It’s easy to describe this overall style as ‘undeveloped’ and ‘primitive’, but these words really don’t do justice given their negative connotations. What’s so amazing about Klee’s work is that in his attempt to capture the world simply, he actually managed to create incredibly rich and affecting works of art. How much of this was fully planned out and intentional, and how much unknowing expression of pure talent, is difficult to say.
I actually became less interested once Klee narrowed in on higher degrees of order, such as Static-Dynamic Gradation (1923).
Static-Dynamic Gradation (1923),
oil and gouache on paper, bordered with gouache, watercolor, and ink
Continuing with the analogy of adolescence, it was as though I was reacting against the perceived order and dullness of adulthood with these works; Klee had ‘matured’ and become too structured.
Nevertheless, I walked away from this exhibition with a newfound awareness and respect for Paul Klee. I wholeheartedly recommend that everyone reading this checks him out.