The first comprehensive exhibition of Paul Klee’s work in Canada in over 40 years, the Berggruen Collection exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada comprises 75 paintings created over the span of his alltoo- brief career. The amplitude of works, chosen to reflect this span, broadly reveals the playful variation achieved from a personal lexicon of reductive form, shape, sign and cipher but, above all, reduced scale. Examples of his ceaseless experimentation with paint and surface move from ink drawings and watercolours to oil paintings and monotypes. Few artists in the modern era have had the ability to reveal such an expansive inner world in such an intimate manner.
The first room is dedicated to Klee’s important beginnings with the group Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a brief comradeship among artists that included August Macke, Vasily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. A two-week trip to Tunesia with Macke and Swiss artist Louis Moilliet in 1914 had an enormous impact on Klee’s use of colour and theories about structure. Paintings created from memory in his studio in Munich synthesized what he described in his diaries as “urban architecture and pictorial architecture” through an emphasis upon abstract geometries and an attuned chromatic sensibility.
A few steps into the exhibition hangs Monument of Vaulted Chambers, 1915, a letter-sized watercolour mounted on cardboard. Oblong, rectilinear shapes are stacked one on top of the other in a slightly swaying motion left and right. The implied lines of parallel edges create the impression of hollows within hollows. Relying upon colour alone to pull the eye back and forth, the work is ours to variously assign the shapes as either in front of or behind the other. Softened geometries—trapezoidal lozenges, bending rectangles, the occasional dulled triangle—suggest reliable solidities and wandering shadows alike, all with subtle adjustments of colour temperatures and tonal rises and drops. Some larger sections fragment into smaller sub-shapes. Strangely, these smaller areas taper into the picture’s centre and are painted with the same hot hues—persimmon red, tobacco green, pale lime, carmine—and yet are made to shift backward into spatial recesses. Just when the painting has resolved itself in the mind, the analysis falters, breaks and falls away, leaving you unsure of what you’ve just seen. The visual conundrum of the hopscotch repetitions of colour hooks you in again as you begin the process of unravelling its riddle once more. Looking long enough is rewarded with a kind of exhausted appreciation.
A reverence for the phenomena underlying perceived reality pervades Klee’s words as much as it does his work. Snippets from his writings punctuate the exhibit and provide an important framework for his vast stylistic and thematic range. In the last room, the works get more frenetically executed, less chromatic, more sombre—no doubt affected by the tumultuous years endured in Germany in the 1930s. After funding for the Bauhaus was cut by the Nazi Party in 1933, Klee left to take a professorship at the prestigious Dusseldorf Academy, only to be suspended a year later after the state deemed his work to be degenerate. More than 100 of his works were pulled from public museums across Germany and his paintings were exhibited alongside the works of asylum patients as part of the monumental “Degenerate Art” exhibits that would sweep the major cultural centres. Despite this blow to his reputation and career, he worked at an increased pace, producing an astounding 1,253 works, and this despite an encroaching illness that took his life before he could experience the relief of seeing the war end. Despite the boisterous, playful iconography that persisted in his later years, political upheaval was never far from his mind. You sense a retaliatory mood in works such as Angst, 1934, and Postulant Angel, 1939, where panic-stricken figures are reduced further still through quicker brushwork, a muted palette and subdued detail. The Berggruen Collection was thoughtfully faithful to the breadth of his practice with the inclusion of these less than lovely pieces, careful to include examples that recorded the emotional and psychological highs and lows experienced in his prolific and mesmeric oeuvre.
Stepping back through the galleries, the paintings are ever more apparent as subtle invitations to enter altered worlds. These worlds are maps of an interiority, a private place of the creator’s mind away from a darkening world where the chaos of phenomena is parsed, distilled, played with and then left for us to inhabit. His declaration that he desired to “make visible” rather than reproduce the visible could not have been put more succinctly, or be more true. He put his trust in the intuited theories of pictorial force to such a degree that he carefully wrote over 900 pages in the first years of his teaching post at the Bauhaus in Weimar. Published as The Paul Klee Notebooks Volume 1: The Thinking Eye and The Paul Klee Notebooks Volume 2: The Nature of Nature, these notes, drawings and writings were initially lesson plans for his weekly lectures. Highly technical, painstakingly detailed, they established him as one of the most influential, if not formidable, members of the Bauhaus school. The writing appears mostly in the form of short, pithy bursts that read at times almost like koans. For example, in summarizing his own artistic intent, he offers how “Ingres is said to have created an artistic order at rest; I should like to create an order from feeling and going still further, motion.” This emphasis upon the importance of movement, countermovement, force and counterforce is returned to repeatedly as the energy source behind the mysteries of art and nature. Not surprisingly, these volumes are thorough enough to comprise one of the most comprehensive collections of ideas about dynamic principles of pictorial art since the Renaissance. All the while, Klee modestly eschewed any view that these may be an overt explanation of his work. Rather, he saw these lecture notes as a way to democratize and distribute his theory of art to serve the more practical applied aims of the Bauhaus. Central to his philosophy was a contemplation of the immeasurability of the cosmos, the unfathomable life forces of nature and the infinitude of the imagination whereof, as he wrote in Volume 1 of his notebooks, “the investigation of functions never ceases … for in the face of the mystery, analysis stops perplexed.”
Klee returned frequently to the most essential component of pictorial form: line. Whereas his watercolours showed his fluency for chromatic methods of creating space, the drawn line was the primary basis for revealing his idiosyncratic thought processes. In Drawing Knotted in the Manner of a Net, 1920, the vertical page is divided with rough, undulating horizontal lines—the warp upon which a weft of criss-crossed motifs sinuously travel downwards in haphazard shifts and twists. Filaments are variously “tied off” with securing dots and circles, which in turn are shaded to become tubular pipe-like conduits woven across boundaries. These improvised, unpredictable movements create a snare for the eye. Is the domed rectangle a turret, the double-bracketed dot an eye? There is a sense that Klee is finding immediate delight in the associations created by conjoining the arc, dot, slash and crux into playful discoveries at the speed of writing. In fact, the page has more than a passing resemblance to an errant child’s school book or a music novice’s scrawled score. It is in witty and humorous drawings like these where Klee reveals his using modesty of means to elicit maximal wonder.
“Paul Klee: The Berggruen Collection from The Metropolitan Museum of Art” was exhibited at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, from November 16, 2018, to March 17, 2019.
Martin Golland is an artist and professor based in the Ottawa area.