The Paul Klee collection of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen
is among the most comprehensive ensembles of work by this multifaceted artist anywhere in Germany. Never before have all 100 Klees been presented together publicly in Düsseldorf. This singular opportunity to present the collection as a whole to art-lovers is generating numerous fresh insights. Klee, who was born in 1879, taught at the Düsseldorf Art Academy in the early 1930s until he emigrated in the late 1930s under pressure from the National Socialist dictatorship. Klee died in Switzerland in 1940.
The core of the Düsseldorf inventory consists of 88 works which were acquired by the Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia in 1960 from the US-American art collector and steel manufacturer David Thompson in a sale brokered by the Swiss art dealer Ernst Beyeler. Today, the collection includes 100 works, and represents a major attraction both regionally and internationally.
At the Kunstsammlung, all of Klee's creative phases are well-represented. The spectrum extends from the reverse glass painting entitled Bildnis der Frau v. Sinner, Bern (Portrait of Frau v. Sinner, Bern; 1906), which still betrays the influence of Jugendstil, all the way to Klee's late works on paper, including the drawing scharfes Wort (Harsh Word), executed in 1940, the year of his death. The works are presented in the sequence of their execution, and are distributed throughout the three galleries of the main floor of the Ständehaus. The presentation commences with drawings dating from after 1900. Works executed around 1914 reflect Klee's experiences during his legendary trip to Tunisia. Precisely composed paintings shed light on the oils he began producing in 1919. Other works, among them Polyphone Strömungen (Polyphonic Streams; 1929), date from the period characterized by a geometric and Constructivist approach, during which Klee was an instructor at the "State School of Design," known as the Bauhaus. Drawings and oil paintings in a simplified, cryptic symbolic language represent the final stage of Klee's creative production.
The presentation at the K21 offers a wealth of information. A special section of the exhibition is devoted to detailed explanations of selected works. One special focus is the involvement of the art dealers through whose hands these works passed. The watercolor Erinnerung an einen Garten (Memory of a Garden; 1914), for example, is among the sheets sold by the Berlin art dealer Herwarth Walden (18781941). Beginning in 1910, Walden edited the journal Der Sturm (The Storm), and directed the art gallery bearing the same name. Between 1913 and 1921, he organized more than 10 exhibitions devoted to Klee's works, and produced art prints and postcards based on his works.
Against the backdrop of the National Socialist dictatorship in Germany, interest in Klee's work shifted to the USA. Around 1940, there were approximately 80 Klee collectors in America, 30 or so of them based in New York City. The watercolor Der L-Platz im Bau (The L-Plaza in Construction; 1923) was acquired by Anatole Litvak (19021974) in June of 1948. The Hollywood film director, who emigrated from the Ukraine, enjoyed success in the USA during the 1940s and 50s with films such as All This and Heaven Too and Goodbye Again.
Some of the works executed during Klee's time at the Düsseldorf Art Academy evidently display regional references: the painting Blick in die Ebene (View into the Plane; 1932) seems to reflect an immediate experience of the Lower Rhine region. The lines which transect the picture surface like pathways convey the impression of a gently sloping hilly landscape. This image also exemplifies the ways in which political circumstances and legal uncertainties can determine the fate of a work of art. In 1945, Blick in die Ebene belonged to the estate of an American art dealer. In 1950, it was confiscated by the US-American Department of Justice, which invoked a law approving the seizure of enemy property from the war years. In 1954, it was sold at an auction arranged by the "Office of Alien Property."
The detailed study of the works also provides insight into Klee's artistic strategies. Evidently, he regarded some of his works as three-dimensional structures, and repeatedly integrated a work's rear side into its overall design. "43," which dates from 1928, makes the impression of a sculptural object. The theme of the front side seems to be the interplay between constructive and intuitive design; visible on the back are masses of spackle which form a non-representational white relief.
An examination of the reception of these works by Paul Klee over a period of more than five decades provides us with information about who viewed which works, and when. The labels found on their backs provide details about the exhibitions at which they were displayed. They not only tell of journeys to foreign lands, but also about the diplomatic tasks fulfilled by the Klee collection since the 1960s. It is no accident that its first trip abroad, in 1966, was to museums in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, a discrete overture to those who had been victimized by Nazi terror. During the ensuing two decades, the Düsseldorf collection was also shown among others in Australia and India, in Brazil and Canada, in Japan and New Zealand.
The Düsseldorf Klee Collection offers an incomparable access to this artist's oeuvre. This is true not just of the initial ensemble of works, but of acquisitions made since the 1960s as well. The paintings, drawings, watercolors, and other works in color convey a sweeping overview of Klee's virtually inexhaustible creativity. With sensitivity and a well-honed analytical gaze, he reflected upon the events of his times to generate an artistic cosmos which unites tragicomedy, lightheartedness, gravity, irony, playfulness, and calculation.