PARIS.- The Centre Pompidou
is proposing a journey through the work of a singular figure in modernity and one of the 20th centurys most iconic artists: Paul Klee. This is the first major retrospective in France since the 1969 exhibition at the Musée National dArt Moderne.
Featuring two hundred and thirty works loaned by the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern and various major international and private collections, this retrospective casts a fresh look on Klees work. It sheds light on the way he used irony through an approach originating in the early German Romanticism, consisting in a constant shift between a satire and the affirmation of an absolute, finite and infinite, real and ideal. In this respect, Klees use of irony is inspired by the philosopher Friedrich Schlegel: «Everything in it must be a joke, and everything must be serious: everything must be offered up with an open heart, and profoundly concealed.» This new approach also explores Klees relationship with his peers and the artistic movements of his time.
The exhibition is divided into seven thematic sections highlighting each stage in Klees artistic development: «Satirical beginnings» (the early years); «Klee and Cubism»; «Mechanical theatre» (in line with Dada and Surrealism); «Klee and Constructivisms» (the Bauhaus years in Dessau); «Looking back» (the 1930s); «Klee and Picasso» (Klees reaction after the Picasso retrospective in Zurich in 1932); and «The crisis years» (marked by Nazi policies, war and illness).
I. Satirical beginnings
After his studies in Munich, Klee spent the winter of 1901-1902 in Italy. Faced with the grandeur of Antiquity and its Renaissance, the young artist became aware of his own place in history: that of an imitator obliged to continue a now outmoded classical idealism. His solution was satire: a modern mode of expression that could assert both high ideals and a critical view of the state of the world. « I serve beauty by depicting its enemies (caricature and satire) », he wrote in his diary. Based on this dialectical inversion central to Romantic irony, Klee began producing essentially graphic works, in which he expressed his often scathing thoughts on relations between the sexes, his relationship to society and his position as an artist. It was also a time when he experimented with techniques, trying out reverse glass painting and exploring plastic forms. This period culminated in the illustrations for Candide ou lOptimisme by Voltaire, a writer much venerated by Klee.
2. Klee and Cubism
Klee discovered Cubism in Munich in late 1911, and a year later during his stay in Paris. From then on, the formal inventions of Cubism nourished his pictorial explorations, often in a dialectical way. Whilst using a prismatic vocabulary, Klees childlike drawings are nevertheless an ironic representation of the Cubist decomposed figures that he found deprived of all vitality. In the series of watercolours painted during his formative stay in Tunis in 1914, he introduced effects of distance for example by leaving the vertical bands of white paper that corresponded to the marks left by the elastic bands he used when painting outdoors. This distancing technique was also evident in his highly singular approach, where he cut up finished compositions into two or more parts, turning them into independent works or combining them differently on new supports. Here Klee asserted a creative impulse whose roots lay paradoxically in the act of destruction.
3. Mechanical theatre
At the end of the First Wold War, Klees work began to feature the imagery of mechanised figures. Inspired by his experience in aviation maintenance, Klee transformed birds into planes, often in attack formation. He started using oil transfers: an indirect technique that depersonalised the lines of the drawing. The aesthetics of the machine were then much in vogue in Dadaist circles, from Francis Picabia to Raoul Hausmann. Klees contact with the Zurich Dadaists revived his interest in the representation of machines and equipment, and the effects produced by their mechanisms. As a teacher at the Bauhaus, he began to create hybrid beings, half-human, half-object. Through mechanical simplification, he used the motifs of automatons and puppets to condemn the loss of vitality and the narrowing of inner life brought about by industrial rationalisation, asking ironically « When will machines start bearing children? »
4. Klee and Constructivisms
The new watchword proclaimed in 1923 by Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus («Art and technology: a new unity») marked a turning point for the school. Klee was highly responsive to it. He then embarked upon a tightrope act, seeking a balance between his intuitive approach and the new contemporary dogmas. He took up certain aspects of modernist expression such as the grid, while sidestepping its rigidity. His paintings, structured by squares, in turn evoked musical rhythms, stained glass painting, tapestries, multi-coloured flowerbeds and aerial views of fields. The Bauhauss move to the modern city of Dessau in 1925 further induced the schools movement towards the use of photographic techniques, ardently supported by its new teacher, László Moholy-Nagy. Klee reacted in his own way: rational aesthetics acted as a foil, enabling him to assert his antagonistic position more firmly. In his view, «laws should only provide a basis for self-fulfilment.»
5. Backward glances
In his last years at the Bauhaus, Klee began to multiply references to different epochs of the past. Inspired by his travels and the many books and articles he read on the subject, he introduced pictorial elements reminiscent of ancient mosaics, Egyptian civilisation and figures and signs carved on the walls of Palaeolithic caves. The prehistoric dimension in itself was a recurrent component in his imagination: fossils, caves, mountains in the process of forming, primitive plants and animals, sacred stones, undecipherable inscriptions on rocks and such like all allude to the past in varying degrees. Klee used imitation as a method of appropriation. The reproduction of the effects of time on both the object (wear and tear, mould, erosion) and its content imbued his works with a sense of parody. While Klee drew on the repertory of signs produced by «primitive» or non-Western cultures, he was only imitating the principles of their original structure.
6. Klee and Picasso
Picasso represented a particular challenge for Klee. His work dialogued with the Spanish artists with particular intensity at two periods in his life: at the beginning of his career in around 1912, and above all during the 1930s, after he saw the 1932 retrospective at the Kunsthaus in Zurich. Here Klee discovered Picassos « Surrealism », particularly his large paintings of female figures and his biomorphic metamorphoses: two new directions that powerfully influenced Klee after the Bauhaus period, and stimulated the work of his final years.
This confrontation was nourished by the publication of numerous articles on Picasso in reviews such as Les Cahiers dArt, to which Klee subscribed. After his first visit to Picassos Paris studio in 1933, the two artists met up at Klees house in Bern in 1937. That virtually silent moment revealed the tensions between these two giants of modernity. Their dialogue was imaginary, made up of appropriation and opposition, of secret admiration and critical irony.
7. The crisis years
Hitlers coming to power in 1933 marked the end of Klees career in Germany and forced him into exile in Bern. He responded with a series of drawings that transposed the countrys predominant angst into violent cross-hatching. Von der Liste gestrichen [Struck from the list], a self-portrait in the form of a pseudo-Cubist African mask, treats Nazis politics with irony by parodying their own criteria for exclusion. Klee liked to counter terror through a childlike, playful iconography, where signs are transformed into stickmen dancing not in joy but in fear. These figures may well allude to the general physical training encouraged by the Nazis. Their dislocated appearance reflected another source of anxiety for the artist: the serious illness that was beginning to stiffen his bodily movements. In 1935, Klee developed scleroderma, a wasting disease that gradually mineralised his body. As a result, he simplified his graphic language, which now expressed contemporary suffering both humanitys and his own with elementary force.