Taking Klee's line for a walk

February 22, 2002

Keith Hartley admires a painter who made reality out of the abstract.

In the postwar period Paul Klee had an enormous influence on British art and, in particular, on teaching in British art schools. The courses that he taught at the Bauhaus in Germany between 1921 and 1931 and the various publications in English of his writings, lecture notes and diary helped to persuade artists such as Victor Pasmore, Richard Hamilton and Harry Thubron that a revolution in the way art was taught in Britain was needed. Out went the academic method, in came a more dynamic, process-based approach that went under the name of "basic design". Eventually, the principles of basic design came to be accepted by most art schools in the country.

Given this overwhelming impact on the development of art in Britain, it is surprising that there have been so few major exhibitions of Klee's work in British museums and galleries. One can count them on the fingers of one hand: a show at the National Gallery in 1945-46; a large touring show in 1963; a show of Klee's late work held in Edinburgh, Bristol and London in 1974-75; an exhibition at the Tate in 1989; and finally an exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, in 2000. Despite the high quality of works in these exhibitions, it should be noted that they were collection-based and, with the exception of the show of late work, gave a general, overall view of Klee. The current exhibition at the Hayward Gallery is therefore to be particularly welcomed. It is a focused view of the artist's work, with a strong conceptual underpinning.

The exhibition has been selected by the artist Bridget Riley and the Berlin-based academic Robert Kudielka. They have chosen to concentrate on the formal, abstract qualities of Klee's art, on the way he constructed his pictures from the building blocks of point, line, plane and colour, rather than on Klee's subject matter, on his humour or his pathos. Of course these last are not absent from the works that Riley and Kudielka have chosen, but our attention is directed elsewhere by the way the works have been grouped together - square paintings, narrative line, "dividual" and individual, measured rhythms, disrupted rhythms - by the quotes from Klee printed on the gallery walls and by the commentaries in the exhibition guide.

This approach to Klee is valid and fruitful. It follows in the path of Klee's analyses of his own works and the methods he employed in his Bauhaus lectures, particularly those from 1921 and 1922. The notes for these are gathered in The Thinking Eye , which was published in London in 1961 (German edition, 1956). It was this step-by-step approach to analysing the basic components of drawing and painting that had such impact on art training in Britain and on Riley herself.

In her introduction to the catalogue, she comments perceptively that unlike most of the pioneers of abstract art in the early 20th century, "Klee was the first artist to point out that for the painter the meaning of abstraction lay in the opposite direction to the intellectual effort of abstracting: it is not an end, but the beginning. Every painter starts with elements - lines, colours, forms - what are essentially abstract in relation to the pictorial experience that can be erected with them."

Whereas Picasso, Matisse, even Mondrian and Kandinsky concentrated on abstracting from perceived reality, Klee began with a point, extended it into a line and famously took it for a walk wherever it wished to go. The exact stage at which this abstract construct began to suggest an image was not premeditated. At the early stages of a work, Klee was really interested only in creating a balanced, if complex, composition of abstract marks. But, as he noted in his 1924 Jena lecture (published in English in 1958 as Paul Klee on Modern Art ), "sooner or later, the association of ideas may of itself occur to [the artist]... Nothing need then prevent him from accepting it, provided that it introduces itself under its proper title. Acceptance of this material association may suggest additions which, once the subject is formulated, clearly stand in essential relationship to it. If the artist is fortunate, these natural forms may fit into a slight gap in the formal composition, as though they had always belonged there."

In his catalogue essay, Kudielka rightly points out how close this working method was to Andre Breton's "psychic automatism" and that "claims could be made for Klee as one of the founding fathers of Surrealism". But, as the exhibition shows, once he progressed beyond the initial stages of a drawing or painting, the conscious desire to construct a composition became highly calculating.

The exhibition is divided into six sections. These are thematic and chronological. They look at various formal devices that Klee adopted during his career. With a degree of overlap and, it must be admitted, distortion (Klee often used certain devices before the dates of a section and continued to use them after as well), the sections work well. One is able to immerse oneself in one topic after another without at first realising that one is progressing through Klee's career.

I have two criticisms, both really quibbles. First, the exhibition jumps straight in with a section on Klee's "square paintings". These begin with the watercolours that he did on his trip to Tunisia in April 1914. Klee divided up the picture plane into a scaffolding of coloured squares, inspired by the general colouring of a scene but nevertheless imposed as an artificial construct. Only after this checkerboard pattern had been established were graphic details added that characterised more specifically what he had seen. The all-important influence behind these works was cubism and, more specifically, the highly coloured version developed by Robert Delaunay. These works represent a breakthrough in Klee's career. Up to that time the inspiration behind a work tended to be non-visual, often a literary or satirical idea. He had experienced enormous difficulty in trying to find visual equivalents for these ideas. In the catalogue, Kudielka spends some time discussing Klee's early work, particularly his series of satirical etchings called "Inventions" (1903-05). This has the crucial function of showing what a radical break the Tunisian watercolours were from what Klee had been doing for the previous 15 years. By not including something from this earlier period in a prologue to the exhibition, it is difficult to appreciate the significance of the first square paintings. In effect, they turned Klee from a literary, idea-based artist into a painter for whom formal invention inspired ideas.

Second, one of the sections in the exhibition is called "The Bauhaus Years 1921-31" and falls outside the form-based framework of the rest of the show. Key pages from Klee's Pedagogical Writings , done while at the Bauhaus, are displayed in facsimile. They show in diagram form the conceptual and perceptual relationships that ought to exist between the artist, the world and his work. As such, they represent the very heart of the matter. The rest of this section is given over to works showing a range of Klee's formal analyses: about perspective, colour, tonality, balance and contrast. Whereas the other sections focus on one issue, this section treats several and tends to be confusing.

Some might argue that by putting together a group of similar works dealing, for example, with dividual and individual elements - open-ended and repeated structures as opposed to clearly defined, recognisable forms - the organisers have courted monotony. But the numbers of works involved are so small and the insight that is gained by the viewer outweighs any possible sense of repetition. Indeed, it is one of the revelations of the show to see the way that Klee worked in series, doing variations on a theme. This is particularly true of the section "Measured Rhythms", which looks at those polyphonic works of the 1920s that treat forms and colours like musical scales, repeated in rhythmic variation, line by line from top to bottom. These paintings are radical for their time, more like Persian rugs than traditionally composed western paintings. It is not surprising that their formal innovations, their all-over compositions, were taken up by artists such as Mark Tobey and Jean Dubuffet after the war.

The final section is devoted to the last three years of Klee's life and works that are marked by a new spareness, a coarsening of line, an openness of rhythm. This was a period when Klee was suffering from a terminal skin condition ("scleroderma") that prevented him from doing fine, intricate works. However, these limitations proved artistically liberating and led to some of the most profound and moving works of his career. Their large forms and expanded rhythms are like shattered images, whose pieces cannot be fitted together as they were before. They suggest a more complex, distant unity.

The Hayward exhibition may not be full of Klee's best-known paintings, but the organisers have selected with care and discrimination. Several of the works are real gems: Red and White Domes (1914), Ancient Harmony (1925), Crystal Gradation (1921), Rose Garden (1920) and The Broken Key (1938) stand out. The handsomely produced catalogue reproduces in colour all the works in the show and Kudielka's lucid essay discusses most of them in the context of each topic. The essay provides the biographical and theoretical background for a fuller understanding of the sections and is able to fill in some of the gaps in the exhibition. One might have wished for more contextual information about the artists and groups that Klee was involved with - particularly the Blue Rider and the Bauhaus - but the advantage of Kudielka's approach is that he is able to give prominence to the development of Klee's formal language.

What Klee did in the breadth and quantity (some 10,000 works!) of his oeuvre and in his writings was no less than a systematic analysis of the painter's and draughtsman's vocabulary. In his quiet, unassuming way he set the agenda for a whole range of artistic directions, from severe constructivism to free informal abstraction, from faux-naif , childlike humour to the highest flights of spiritual fantasy. His lessons can still be learnt today.

Keith Hartley is chief curator, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.

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