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The EY Exhibition: Paul Klee Making Visible

8 October 2013 | Nicky Charlish

As the dawn of a major new Paul Klee exhibition is nearly upon us, Nicky Charlish gives an insight into the life of this influential watercolourist, painter and etcher of fantastic works.

There is a temptation to think of the multi-media artist as a recent feature of the creative 
landscape, a natural off-shoot of the way modern public relations have developed and the 
opportunity they give for an artist to get as well-known as possible (Andy Warhol comes to 
mind here). This exhibition at Tate Modern of the work of Paul Klee -the UK's first major 
show of his work for over a decade - gives us a chance to see the error of this 
misconception.

Who was Klee? Born in Switzerland in 1879 this aspiring artist, after training in Munich and 
a visit to Italy, returned to his homeland early in the last century and began etching. 
Originally, his work was influenced by Blake (free-range portrayer of the visionary), 
Beardsley (the king of camp and decadence), Ensor (lover of the macabre) and Goya (a harsh 
realist who could show the Spanish Bourbons as if they were prosperous grocers and deliver 
in-your-face shock with his 'The Disasters of War', showing the atrocities of the Peninsular 
War campaign against Napoleon). From such a combination of influences could emerge 
either disaster or genius. The world got the latter. From 1906 to 1933 Klee worked in 
Germany, becoming involved with the Expressionist Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) group, which 
included Kandinsky and Marc (both artists liked blue, the former liked riders and the latter 
horses - hence the group's name), and which would, arguably, be the most important 
manifestation of modern art in pre-First World War Germany. In 1914, a visit to Tunisia 
would expose Klee to a new world of colour. After the war, Klee would go on to teach at the 
Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau, followed by a stint at Dusseldorf Academy. But Nazism was 
tramping through the streets - and political life - of Germany. Klee left Germany in 1933 - 
the fateful year when Hitler came to power. The Nazis, labelling Klee's output as 
'degenerate art', would confiscate 102 of his works from German galleries. He returned to 
Switzerland where, despite the trauma of fleeing Germany, combined with bad health, he 
became even more prolific. He died in 1940.

What did Klee set out to achieve? He defined his work of free fantasy as 'taking a line for a 
walk'. But he wanted to do much more than being a sort of illustrator. He envisaged his 
work to be a reflection of transcendence and, in attempting to achieve this, he embraced 
not only the natural world but music as well. He sought to use visual forms to illustrate 
music, believing that eighteenth-century counterpoint - his favourite musical form - could 
be depicted by gradations of colour and value. His painting 'Fugue in Red (1921), showing 
symbolic shapes in varying hues of light, almost pinkish red, is an example of what he was 
trying to do here. Klee also valued the art of children, and the openness of their expression 
which it reflected (although it could be argued that, with children's art, directness and 
immaturity go hand in hand, so making it a double-edged form of depiction). In his Bauhaus
years, Klee wrote a book, The Thinking Eye, in which he set out his theory of visual 
equivalents for spiritual states. Indeed, some of his work resembles a combination of 
paintings and symbols, a sort of fusion of visual art with writing. Klee may have had a single 
vision, but he combined different sources to achieve it.

Now, with an exhibition building on new research, and containing paintings, drawings and 
watercolours from collections around the world reunited, and displayed in a way originally 
intended by their creator, we have a fresh chance to examine Klee's work. As curator 
Matthew Gale says: 'This exhibition looks at Klee's work chronologically. In this way it is 
possible to gauge its marvellous multiplicity and variety at any given moment. It exposes 
the extraordinary range across which Klee was able to work simultaneously, not only with 
different media and techniques but in different styles and with different concerns.' In 
today's world, where we are bombarded with signs and symbols, Klee makes us think of 
how they can be mastered to show the hidden meanings to which they may point.

From more information and to book tickets, head to the Tate Modern website. The EY Exhibition: Paul Klee runs from 16th October 2013 - 9th March 2014.

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