PARIS — The key to Paul Klee’s wonderfully shaped energy is not ironic detachment, as the title of the Centre Pompidou’s current retrospective suggests, but rather the playful and idyllic emotion he transmits through masterly line and dusty color. There is certainly antagonistic intellectual wit in his brand of romantic spirituality, but I see more tenderness than detachment.
Klee, also an astute theoretician, shunned most artistic dogmas in favor of the greatest possible independence. In that sense, his particular authenticity as an artist is closer in spirit to Franz Kafka than to Honoré Daumier. In L’Ironie à l’Oeuvre (“Irony at Work”), I found Klee’s graphic work essentially solitary, even while within Expressionist, Cubist, and Surrealist traditions of visual innovation. His work is as solitary and singular in the modern art canon as Kafka’s is in modern literature.
The full breadth of that singularity is on view here, with about 230 works on loan from the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern and a slew of complimentary loans. The exhibition is divided into seven thematic and chronological sections that highlight each stage in Klee’s artistic development, from his early caricatures, through Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism, on to the Bauhaus, Picasso, and Naziism.
The first wall of the exhibition showcases very impressive early etchings. “Der Held mit dem Flügel, Le Héros à l’aile” (1905), and others like it, are majestic, German-inspired visual delicacies, recalling the precise and delicate line of Albert Durer, on one end of the timeline, and Hans Bellmer on the other. Klee practiced a light-touch graphic irony that was inspired by the philosopher Friedrich von Schlegel. Schlegel held that: “All must be playful, and all must be serious, frank, and deeply hidden.” To follow that decree, I submit, would not lead an artist to an ironic or satirical approach, contrary to the suggestion of this exhibition’s title. Looking tells me that Klee was more interested in intricate forms of non-work; in the critical pleasure found in play.
Swiss-born Klee, while spending the winter of 1901 to 1902 in Italy, first developed a sense of dialectical inversion central to irony. He excelled at drawing but not proportions, and studied art in Munich, where be became involved with the irony-free Wassily Kandinsky and his band of proto-Blaue Reiter expressionists-spiritualists. In 1912, Klee formally joined the Blaue Reiter group and took part in its second exhibition. (He would later join Kandinsky in teaching at the Bauhaus school.) While still in Munich, in late 1911, Klee discovered the shock of Cubism, and the following year he came to Paris to dive into the Synthetic Cubism of Picasso and Braque — as seen in the gothic cascades of “(Lustig?) [Lachende Gothik] [(Drôle?) [Gothique joyeux]]” (1915), here from the Museum of Modern Art. This small jewel of a painting on paper tends to sway the longer you look at it. Klee plays with an in-between space of spatial doubt and certainty. He sits us on the edge of the fantastic, pondering whether it is marvelous doubt or uncanny certainty that seems to lure us in.
Two years after his exposure to flat Cubist space, Klee went with August Macke and Louis Moilliet to Tunisia for a fortnight. There, he applied what he had learned in Paris in a series of wonderful watercolors that catch the flickering color of North Africa — this is when Klee’s art began to abound in landscape imagery. Four such flattened landscapes are particularly noteworthy here. They may be some of his best anti-realist, anti-ironic work. We wonder at these warm, chunky patterns of yellow, purple, black, and green; pulsating flat oblongs and squares topped off with tiny triangular patched roofs. Klee appears here to be playing the role of a reborn Paul Cézanne.
While in Tunisia, Klee also began to practice a discriminating form of visual art cut-up technique, slicing finished compositions into two or more parts, and turning them into independent works or combining them differently on new supports. I find absolutely nothing ironic here to report — no satire, no parody, just experimental and delightful energy.
One often reads about Walter Benjamin’s transfigured angel of history, his flâneur (wanderer) par excellence, which he saw in the Klee watercolor he owned, “Angelus novus” (1920). One rarely gets the chance to see the “Angelus novus” in reality, and doing so gave me the opportunity to ponder political defiance — something that, for better or worse, is very much in the air of our time. As such, this transfigured angel of history appears now as a dark harbinger of possible things. According to Benjamin, it is looking at an expanse of past ruins while being blown backwards into the future by a storm of progress. Perhaps, but to me it could just as easily be the hands-up gesture of a Black Lives Matter protester, so very much indicative of the gravity of our merciless and ruinous moment.
Periods of intensified human turmoil, like ours, figure prominently in Klee’s oeuvre. Informed by his experience in aviation maintenance during World War I, his work regularly featured mechanized, cyborg-like figures. In 1919, Klee started using oil transfers, an indirect technique that depersonalized the lines of his drawings. The impersonal, dark ecstasy of the cyborg was a bit in vogue with Dadaists, from Marcel Duchamp and Raoul Hausmann to Francis Picabia and André Masson, who carried it on into Surrealism through automatism. Klee’s “Bild aus dem Boudoir Image tirée du boudoir” (1922), for example, suggests to me the hybrid forms typical of Roberto Matta, Wifredo Lam, and Picasso’s surreal period — which affected Klee greatly, as is evident from his “Guernica”-esque drawing “Urchs aus dem heroischen Zeitalter Urchs de l’époque héroïque” (1939).
Klee’s contact with Zurich Dadaists had tweaked his interest in the representation of automatons, machines, and other technological equipment. As a teacher at the Bauhaus from 1920 to 1931, he created a number of hybrid beings (half-human, half-object) that indirectly and intuitively advanced Walter Gropius’s 1923 Bauhaus proclamation on art: “Art and technology: a new unity.” Unfortunately, despite his interest in body-mechanical unions, he was all too human. In 1935, Klee developed scleroderma, a slowly wasting disease that gradually stiffened his body. Still, that year Klee created “Dame Démon,” a chef-d’oeuvre of surreal, biomorphic metamorphoses in subtle color, done by mixing oil paint and watercolors.
As a result of his stiffening hand, he simplified his playful graphic language and began to express human suffering through broken bodies that float, like my favorite painting in the show, the softly colored “Insula dulcamara” (1938), and “Chant d’amour Ö la nouvelle lune” (1939), a sensitively painted watercolor on hessian canvas. Little is to be found of ironic detachment here, but rather a continuous force of play in the face of dreadfulness.
The 1937 Munich exhibition Degenerate Art contained 17 works by Klee and Hitler’s Nazi aesthetic ideal marked the end of his career in Germany. Klee went into exile in Bern, where his work became ever more childlike, often using a complex, playful iconography of stick men, as in “La Belle jardinière” and “Übermut Exubérance,” both from 1939, the year before his death. In the face of grave dangers, Klee continued to pry open his playful mind with his frolicking stick men.