Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Paul Klee, Tate Modern

There's a peculiar serendipity in visiting Tate Modern's retrospective of the German artist and teacher Paul Klee in the same week in which a hoard of modern art was found stuffed in a flat in Schwabing, near Munich. Klee - whose work is reportedly inamongst this 'Entartete Art' - was an artist touched by almost every aspect of the cultural churn of the first half of the 20th century: he found like minds and public appreciation as a member of the Blaue Reiter; when that Russian-German friendship was torn asunder by the onset of the Great War, he was protected from front line conscription as a German art teacher; in 1919 his association with a short-lived start-up communist movement in Bavaria sealed his prominence; he then joined the Bauhaus as a teacher until the rise of German National Socialism in the mid-1930s finally drove him out to America.

Through all of this Klee was a perpetual innovator. Tate Modern's retrospective shows Klee assimilating and inventing new techniques for creating art in equal measure. Cubism and its associated 3-d in a flat plane spawn a range of ideas for manipulating shapes and patterns on a canvas, which veer towards surrealism before swinging back to one of his most familiar techniques, oil-transfer (right). This tracing of a line through a piece of paper spread with a thin layer of black oil paint gives a tell-tale line with associated smudge. Klee would embellish the result with crosshatching in watercolour to lift the line into relief and give the final picture a lithographic feel.

The work really takes off with Klee's involvement with the nascent Bauhaus from 1921. His attention to his palette and his methods of combining and overlaying washes of watercolour are deeply satisfying on the eye and sit in well-balanced compositions that range from the figurative to the abstract. Much of the work is on paper; next to none of it is larger than a couple of square feet.

This explosive, fecund period lasted but a few years until the withdrawal of funding meant that the school began to be marginalised. With one eye on his vocation as a teacher and his natural instinct to investigate technical possibilities, Klee's work continued to diverge; this exhibition is not one that the absorbed visitor can really take in properly from this point on (meaning I had certainly met my saturation point!). It's a wonderful show, full of good art - that balance of the intriguing & affecting - and well curated and hung.

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