I have been to the Klee exhibition at Tate Modern four times now. First, I went to the opening during Frieze week, where I visited eight of the 17-rooms in the show. Then I went on my own (to try) to see the second half. Next I went on the curator tour led by Matthew Gale (Tate Modern’s own Richard Gere!). And lastly, on my own again, to better “absorb” the works, accompanied by the excellent audio guide. ‘Paul Klee – Making visible’ is at Tate Modern until March 9.
Tate curators, Matthew Gale and Flavia Frigeri, have divided the exhibition space into 17 rooms to provide intimate spaces for intimate – i.e. small format – pieces; the layout is actually very similar to that for the Lichtenstein exhibition. The curators have used black walls to replicate Klee’s studio. They decided on a chronological display to show the artist’s diversity of practice within the same period, while typical Klee shows tend to be organised thematically. Klee was born in 1879, around the same time as cubists Picasso and Braque. Klee’s first works date from 1912, when his friend Kandinsky started with abstraction in Munich.
I pondered over what, for me, characterises a Klee painting before seeing the Tate exhibition. Klee works are easily recognisable, not by their signature motifs but by their small formats, scratched surfaces or inscribed with thin lines, and geometric shapes delineated by colours. They often oscillate between figurative and abstract art. Some of his works – and I can’t explain it – appeared to me to echo traces of psychological or emotional disturbance. Klee had no single style. Sometimes one colour will stand out but not always. He focuses on perspective in some paintings, and in others his works are viewed from above.
Tate’s Klee retrospective is varied as a result. I was most interested in his work on colours, which related complementary colours to movements; and the way he superimposed colours, adding more and more colour to darken them in his Gradations. Similarly, he would add more and more shapes to depict movement and rhythm. This is visible in the Aquarium series. In a work titled Jumper, Klee mixes geometric shapes à la Bauhaus with figurative depiction. The curator also highlighted that Klee executed drawings to transfer to final works and layered them by mounting several sheets together.
Some of Klee’s works reminded me of those by Bauhaus professor László Moholy Nagy, who I discovered at the Tate 2006 exhibition of Josef Albers and Moholy-Nagy. Klee taught at the Bauhaus – the movement’s aim to reunite arts and crafts – for a decade until 1931, when local authorities restricted Bauhaus funding as it was perceived too radical and left wing. The Tate exhibition covers Klee’s diverse practice up until he returned to Bern, as an unemployed struggling painter in a more conservative Switzerland art scene.