Seeing beyond reality


(The Path into the Blue)

Paul Klee: Making Visible opening this week at Tate Modern, London

It ends with death, this celebration of a great life.

Paul Klee was known for the intricacies and thoughtfulness of his painting. In them he encapsulated complex philosophies using facets from the ebb and flow of contemporary artistic modes.

Visitors walk through Klee’s life year by year in the new exhibition, Paul Klee: Making Visible at Tate Modern. Room by room, we move through his development through the years, not only in concepts but in craft. He invents new techniques and modes of painting – such as oil-transfer which allowed him to recreate the vivacity of his sketches in painting form – and we watch his progress.

Klee’s style treads a line between abstraction, surrealism, experiential and sometimes cubism. Though different paintings veer more or less to one side – the satirical, experiential Luftkampf (Aerial Combat) compared to the cubic blocky Redgreen and Violet-Yellow Rhythms, for example – an essential quality remains that conjours a thoughtful and natural bond with reality.

The chronological curation also puts Klee’s paintings in the global historical context in which they were painted. Born in Switzerland, Klee’s artistic career really took off in his thirties, when he joined Expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter, with Wassilly Kandinsky among others, some of whom perished in the first world war. Klee himself was the unwitting beneficiary of a movement to keep artists away from the front line and was placed in a desk job during the war. The conflict clearly had a strong emotional impact on the artist nonetheless, evidenced in this exhibition by paintings such as Luftkampf.

The carefully chosen paintings resonate through the years. The 1922 painting Analysis of Diverse Perversities, an agressive surrealist depiction including a caged bird and mechanical apparatus, has echoes in colour and form of the more abstract Translucencies ‘Orange-Blue’, painted seven years earlier. This game of spot the similarity even carries through to the photographs of Klee in the exhibition’s introductory room, where a shot of his studio includes a painting on show much later on.

It’s those paintings that hover between experiential and abstract that really epitomise Klee’s genius. Take The Path into the Blue (1934), a stunning abstraction that speaks of freedom and seduces the mind into a rarely-reached openness. Or Historical Site (1927) which treads the line between abstraction and surrealism. Works such as this present a level of abstraction to our eyes that allows us to see all the more clearly with our mind. As Klee himself is quoted in the introduction to the exhibition: “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.” It’s a quote that belies Klee’s rather Platonic view of the world as a representation of an ideal form, a philosophy that informed the naive form in his painting – if the world we see is a mere representation, this frees us in our portrayal of the essence.

Klee’s beautiful diversity is shown to consolidate into a final style near the end of his life, at a point where he was suffering from the degenerative disease, scleroderma. His paintings increased in scale and became dominated by black lines, losing the fine detail and nuance from his earlier life. Nonetheless, his favourite symbols persist – the arrows that frequently appear throughout the years are echoed in the spade-like symbol present in the 1938 Rich Harbour.

And so we reach the end of Klee’s life.


The final wall is black and holds a lone painting – the last that he sent out to exhibit before his death. Gazing on these Twilight Flowers, subdued in hue but vibrantly tilted upward, we look on a happy death; the death of a great mind that saw the frailty, folly and humour of humanity.

Paul Klee: Making Visible, 16th October – 9 March 2014, Tate Modern, London

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