LONDON — Can we ever really — I mean really — know Paul Klee? Or is battling with the idea of Klee somewhat akin to wrestling with a particularly slippery (albeit child-friendly) snake? He seems to pop straight back out of any and every pigeonhole into which we might try to thrust him. He could do them all, and they all sought to claim him as one of their own at one time or another: Dada, Surrealism, Cubism, and almost any other 20th-century ism. (Academicism was less to his taste.)
Modest, reticent, and elusive in person, he was even something of a mystery to himself. A playful man with childlike impulses (he often made up the titles of his works in the course of conversations with his wife, the pianist Lily Stumpf, over a glass or two of decent red, of an evening), he has often been categorized as something of an Outsider artist. But how does the idea of the Outsider artist square with Klee, that most searching and rigorous of pedagogues? It doesn’t.
Consider this. He taught at the Bauhaus for more than a decade. His theoretical notes and worksheets run into hundreds of pages. He was a natural teacher — who also happened to be able to make art of his own seemingly by intuition, or without forethought. His systematic cataloguing of his own works, year on year, from 1911 onwards, was as much an act of self-discovery as a means of bringing order to a creative abundance which amounted to more than 10,000 individual works by 1940, the year of his death. A rich paradox indeed. Klee, in short, was the many in the one, the multi-armed Vishnu of 20th-century European art.
There were certain particular moments of revelation, of course — his discovery of the power of color when in Tunisia in 1914, for example. That visit not only gave him permission to use color boldly and daringly for the first time, but also offered him new ways of incorporating built forms into his works, and then to gently compel these forms to swim through color as a fish might swim in a tank.
In fact, the nature of his achievements as a colorist has often seemed to define Klee, but the truth begs to differ. Color has often been to the fore because his colorful works have been the most collected and shown. They are so familiar to us. They are among his most popular.
In fact, 85% of Klee’s works were drawings, and often line drawings, as Late Klee — a new show at David Zwirner, London (only the second Zwirner exhibition since the gallery entered into a new and exclusive relationship with the Klee family) — reveals.
The show concentrates for the most part on drawings (many) and paintings (relatively few) from his last decade. This part of his life was a particularly difficult one for Klee: he severed his links with the Bauhaus in 1931, and by 1933 he had left Germany, the country where he had spent much of his adult life, and returned to his native city of Bern in Switzerland. The Nazis had transformed the beloved land of Goethe and Mozart (Klee’s favorite composer) into an alien and threatening environment. Klee’s works were soon to be removed from the German museums and condemned as degenerate art. By 1935, he had contracted the autoimmune disorder that would eventually kill him five years later.
How did Klee respond to being condemned as degenerate? Not with outright vituperation. He may have thought the Nazis were malign idiots, but he never said so in words. Even his visual responses could be nuanced, subtle, side-on as it were.
A wild drawing in this show called “On Strings” gives us a flavor of the nature of his quiet fight-back. Executed in grease crayon and dated 1933, the year Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany, it is one of an entire sequence meant, as he described in a letter to a friend, as a commentary (albeit an oblique one) upon the malign ‘national-socialist revolution.”
It shows us a grotesque, impish, or clownish figure being manipulated by an invisible puppeteer. Its body is formed of feverish scribblings. The strings, which are attached to its limbs and control its every movement, disappear up and up into the ether. A terrible Mr Nobodaddy (whose form we never see) is in control.
That’s Klee to a tee: registering a protest through slightly evasive humor, but never quite spelling out the nature of his condemnation. That would be far too unsubtle.
At other moments in this show, he lets in the fullness of the world by delightfully small means: a tiny impasto called “Mirror in the Landscape” (1937) shows a mirror rising up almost as if it were a sunflower, prompted back into life by the light of new day, and admiring everything natural by which it is surrounded.
What we often forget about Klee is how small his works so often are. It is as if he is both proposing something to the onlooker, whilst simultaneously partially concealing it behind his own hand. How unemphatic — if not barely present at all — the works in the first ground-floor gallery seem! At first glance we seem to be looking at virtual nothingness: groups of quite simple line drawings, often made in pencil, on white or off-white paper, within a buff mount.
When I say simple, I am not talking about the subject matter. I am referring to the fact that Klee pushes his pencil line, often almost uninterruptedly, perhaps without even raising it, across the surface of the paper, and then leaves it at that. He does not do perspectival depth. He does not shade or thicken or cross-hatch. It is the shape, the graphic shape he is creating that counts: the attention he give the form as it emerges into being; the journeying of this line of his…
Klee’s art, throughout, is a strange and delightful species of adventurism. Every work seems to begin anew, without a destination — or perhaps with a destination to be discovered by and by.
There is no real letting up in this final decade, though there is often a kind of austerity, a paring back to the absolute essentials. A few calligraphic marks may suffice to suggest more than enough symbolic weight, however much the onlooker may wish to conjure more; a visual abundance created from less and less.
Late Klee at David Zwirner, London (24 Grafton Street, London, England) is temporarily closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic. It is available for online viewing here.