Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Paul Klee: Pure Pleasure

Paul Klee, Der Goldfisch (The Goldfish), 1925
When I was in my late teens my favourite picture was Paul Klee's 'Death and Fire' (see below). I do look at it now and wonder whether I was entirely mentally well at the time, but my enjoyment of Klee's paintings has never diminished. I can think of few artists whose work gives me such simple pleasure. I can stand and stare at those patterns of little squares or trace the lines of a drawing for hours; his picture of a giant gold fish has hung in our bedroom for years and has yet to dull. Scribbled and scratched, the great fish has the menace of Jaws and the gilded poise of some underwater deity.

Paul Klee, Flora auf Sand (Flora on Sand), 1927
Klee struggled for years to find his vision. The child of musician parents he was a talented violinist himself but as a teenager decided to go his own way. By his early twenties he was lamenting his lack of colour sense and despairing of ever becoming a painter. Until he visited Tunis in 1914 (when he was in his mid-30s) Klee was known for his work in black and white; North Africa opened his eyes to the possibilities of colour, and for almost two decades he was prolific and highly inventive. He was a respected teacher too, working at the Bauhaus for ten years, but a combination of illness and persecution by the Nazis in the mid-1930s brought his career to a premature end. He died in 1940, the same year as his father; 'Death and Fire', I now know, was one of his last paintings.

Paul Klee, Alter Klang (Ancient Harmony), 1925
Art historians have lots to say about Klee, not least because he wrote detailed and extremely technical diaries all through his early years of struggle. It was almost as if he had to work out how to be an artist before he could become one, and it is notable that he stopped writing his diary in 1918, when his career was really taking off. Wasn't all that writing a kind of scaffolding, to be discarded once the real work began?

Paul Klee, Kuhlung in einem Garten der heissen Zone (Cooling in a Garden of the Torrid Zone), 1924
I love the modesty of Klee's work, the small scale of his paintings, the strange little line drawings and his media. Watercolour was a favourite, and quite a few of his pictures are on paper, mounted on card - surely an archivist's nightmare. A central figure in the thriving German art scene of the 1920s, Klee nevertheless remained his own man. You can't limit him with Isms. You can't define him as a follower of so and so. The Nazis lumped him in with all the other modern artists they hated, including 17 of his pictures in the 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition, which is perhaps all the more reason to respect him as an individual artist, whose work is difficult to write about in simple English but easy to enjoy.

Paul Klee, 'Florentinisches' Villen Viertel ('Florentine' Residential District), 1926
Klee was evidently a clever and complex man, but I'm not sure that it's helpful to struggle through his writings or the volumes of subsequent commentary in order to appreciate his work. I'd rather know more about the years he spent in his late twenties looking after his young son Felix while his wife taught music. Did domestic duties hold him back, or did the experience of parenting free him in the end? Spending so much time with a child, was he able to rediscover the naivety and sense of fun that fills his work?

Paul Klee, Sie beissen an (They're Biting), 1920
Filled with warmth, humour, the glow of life, a constant hum of music and occasional bursts of wickedness, Paul Klee's paintings are wonderfully human, mysterious and profound. You need no specialist knowledge to enjoy and appreciate them, only a willingness to look and lose yourself in the looking. I still have flashbacks of the 2002 Hayward Gallery show, which I enjoyed so much in part because his pictures had in real life a fragility that gets lost in reproduction. The modest environs of the Hayward suited Klee; I wonder how his work will suit the rather less modest halls of Tate Modern...

Paul Klee, Tod und Feuer (Death and Fire), 1940

FFI: Tate Modern


  1. "Death and Fire" is used as the cover for A.Alvarez' "The Savage God', his classic study of suicide.
    As a young student I too was drawn to Klee, still am. Interesting post, thank you.

  2. Do you happen to know which museum has Ancient Harmony on display?

  3. It's listed in a book I have as being at Kuntsmuseum Basel, but I would check before going to look.