17 June 2014

Paul Klee at the Tate Modern and the National Gallery of Berlin

Born in Switzerland, Paul Klee (1879-1940) started out as a musician like his parents but soon chose to study painting in Munich during the years 1898-1901. After finishing at the Acad­emy, he visited Italy with another young artist to widen his know­ledge of art. Then he lived in Bern during 1902-6, taking great interest in music as well as painting. This busy young man settled in Munich in 1906 and had his first one-man exhibition in 1910 at the Kunsthaus in Zurich.

For me the most interesting part of Klee’s life started when he met Kandinsky, Jawlensky, Macke and Marc in 1911 and was included in the second avant-garde Blue Rider exhibition 1912. He was formally invited by Kand­insky to join the Blue Rider group in that same year.

The next big revelation occurred when Klee visited Paris,  meeting Delaunay and his Cubist pictures. Within a couple of years, Klee travel­led to Tunis and Kairouan with Moilliet and Macke where his interest in colour was becoming evident.

Klee, 1920
Head with a German Moustache

The EY Exhibition – Paul Klee Making Visible was on at the Tate Modern in London till March 2014.  The history for this post came directly from the Tate Modern’s press release.

I would have liked the Tate Modern’s exhibition to include paintings from the Blue Rider and the pre-war Tunis era. But the exhib­it­ion began with the post-WW1 era, when he first developed his individual abstract patchworks of colour. The many technical innovations that followed were displayed throughout the exhibition, including oil transfer paint­ings (They’re Biting 1920 see below), dynamic colour gradations (Sus­pended Fruit 1921) and multicoloured pointillism (Memory of a Bird 1932).

Being a Bauhaus fan, I was delighted when Klee moved to Weimar in 1921 to teach at the Bauhaus, then moved again with the Bauhaus when they opened up plush new facilities in Dessau in 1926. Klee worked with great rigour; he inscribed numbers on his works in accordance with a personal cataloguing system and wrote volumes on colour theory and detailed lecture notes. The abstract canvases he produced at Bauhaus, such as the rhythmical composition Fire in the Evening (1929 see below), took his reputation to new international heights. This king of European modernism shared the throne only with Matisse and Picasso.

Klee 1920
They’re Biting
Tate Modern 

Klee then taught at the Dusseldorf Academy 1931-3 but the joy of being a practising artist and academic ended when he was dismissed by the Nazis when they came to power in 1933. Klee was not only dis­missed from his teaching position by the Nazis; his works were removed from public art galleries and labelled Degenerate Art in Germany!! He took refuge back at home in Switzerland where he suff­ered from politic­al turmoil, financial insecurity and declining health. Nonetheless he continued to paint until his death in 1940, still in Switzerland.

This was the UK’s first large-scale Klee exhibition for over a decade. Challenging his reputation as a solitary dreamer, the exhibition revealed the innovation and rigour with which he created his work and presented it to the public. Bringing together over 130 colourful works from collections around the world, the Paul Klee exhibition spanned the three decades of his career: from WW1, his years of teaching at the Bauhaus, up to his final quite radical paintings made in Bern until the outbreak of war in 1939. The show reunited important works which the artist created, catalogued or exhibited together at these key moments in his life. By showing these delicate works alongside each other, it was a unique chance to explore his innovations and ideas.

Klee 1929
 Fire in the Evening

Klee left more than 10,000 astoundingly diverse works at his death. Let me cite The Observer. Klee was the Buddha of the Bauhaus, imagining the afterlife as a pale paradise floating in a universe of tremulous lines and finding the divine in every dragonfly and acorn. He was Klee the modernist, overriding the paradox of depiction – how to represent three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface – by showing the world as if viewed from above and yet also within, as idiosyncratic incidents and structures adrift in a haze of pure colour. There was Klee the innovator and Klee the genius cartoonist, deflator of pomp, mocker of tin-pot tyrants and inventor of that scratchy pictographic style.

The exhibition was fortunately accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalogue by Tate Publishing (October 2013) which I warmly recommend.


A special exhibition called Les Klee du paradis - Paul Klee in the Collections of the Nationalgalerie will continue until the end of August 2014 at the National Gallery of Berlin. The idea of presenting this exhibition originated from art dealer-collector Heinz Berggruen  who died in 2007. Paul Klee was one the collector's favourite artists. Represented by 70 works in the collection, he stands as one of the main protagonists of the Museum Berggruen. And Dieter Scharf (died in 2001) was also an avid collector of the artist's works. As a result, the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg that he built up now includes 30+ works by Paul Klee. The two collectors specialised in different parts of Klee's career - Heinz Berggruen mainly acquired works dating from Klee's time as a teacher at the Bauhaus, while Dieter Scharf was particularly drawn to Klee's early, Symbolist-inspired works. See these two significant collections at the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg, part of the National Gallery of Berlin.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen,

Paul Klee is definitely an artist of interest to us. Such a varied body of work and all with such interest.

We did not realise that he was at the Bauhaus in Weimar. We now realise hat we have walked in his very footsteps. The Bauhaus University there is so incredibly interesting and full of period details.

Student of History said...

In class we had a good look at Kandinsky and Klee sharing a super building at Bauhaus, right up to the early 1930s. But I don't remember why they left.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

When Klee arrived at The Bauhaus in 1921, they were still in Weimar *nod*. He was already very well known in the art world and much welcomed by Gropius, but I don't think Klee was happy with the subjects he taught or the housing available. Needless to say, he loved being at Bauhaus, once they all moved to Dessau in 1925.

Hels said...


Klee was a very loyal member of staff at Bauhaus but the increasing nastiness from the Nazi party meant that by 1931, Klee looked for another job. So he taught at the Düsseldorf Academy from 1931-33, and finally decided to leave Germany altogether for home, Switzerland.

Mandy Southgate said...

Oh dear, you're breaking my heart! I really wanted to see this exhibition but it was so expensive. I guess I need to start splashing out on exhibits, no matter how expensive.

Hels said...


same problem here! So spouse and I made a pact a long time ago. We don't give presents except for birthdays and wedding anniversary, and we don't want those 2 presents wasted on frilly knickers etc.

Family membership to our National Gallery is expensive, but worth every penny. Especially for tickets and catalogues for blockbuster exhibitions like this one.

Art Lover said...

Some of Klee's works are strong, bold and colourful, while others are weedy and dismal. One artist but two different world views.

Hels said...

Art Lover

Metropolitan Museum of Art says that Klee was best known for his simple stick figures, suspended fish, moon faces, eyes and arrows, which he orchestrated into fantastic yet deeply meditative works. With abstracted forms and merry symbols, he expressed the most diverse subjects drawn from poetry, music and literature. His subjects reveal his impish humour and his bent toward the fantastic and the meditative. So THIS was his natural style, not the bold colours of Head with a German Moustache.