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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 14 JULY 2010 — The Paul Klee exhibition of photographs and twenty-six paintings, almost all of them masterpieces, is one of the most attractive currently on view in Paris. Klee, who was said to have laconically defined a line as a dot running, was one of the most inventive and multi-faceted artists of the last century. He was an active socialist, a dreamer who was at the forefront of the discoveries of his time and who profoundly influenced twentieth century art with his colourful, abstract, and highly poetical works. Before Klee, artists depicted things they saw or imagined they saw, whereas the German artist’s paintings are a visual demonstration showing there are more truths unseen than seen. To Paul Klee, the very nature of graphic art led one to an abstraction which in itself gave place to the fairy-tale quality of the imagination. 

Paul Klee: Tiges / Halme, 1938
Painting on paper laid on card, H. 50; W. 35 cm
Fondation Beyeler
Photo courtesy of Musée de l’Orangerie

Officially of German nationality,  Paul Klee was born in Switzerland, in 1879 and photographs of him show a dark-eyed, solemn, nice-looking little boy standing next to his parents, both of them musicians. His mother was a singer, his father a music teacher, and unsurprisingly, Klee was an excellent musician himself. He almost became a violinist rather than a painter, and later in life, formed a quintet with friends, performing regularly with them in his studio. Married to the pianist and piano teacher, Lily Stumpf, music played an increasingly important role in his life, for not only did he begin each day playing music for an hour with his wife, but the rhythms, whether the beatings of drums or more gentle, lyrical melodies, are ever present in  many of his paintings.

This exceptional exhibition invites one to discover Klee’s paintings through the eye of the late Swiss collector, Ernst Beyeler who began as an art dealer in 1947 and subsequently created the Beyeler Foundation near Basel. He noticed Klee’s paintings from very early on and the German artist’s work became the centre of his collection. And although all the paintings presented at the Orangerie were special to him, Beyeler had a distinct preference for Klee’s later creations because they represented a sort of summing up of his life’s work. He also felt that one of the most precious characteristics of works of the last years of any artist’s life was the fact that they were frequently marked by a final burst of energy accompanied by a certain detachment.  

Although the show concentrates on Klee’s last years, it opens with La Chapelle, (1917), and Passage du passé, (1918), pictures which date back to the period of the First World War, and which show Klee’s increasing passion for colour. It was in Munich, where he went to study at the age of 19, that Klee met the painters who formed the group known as the "Blauer Reiter (Blue Riders)" who escaped conventions through the lyricism of vibrant hues and shades. He met Kandinsky, who became a close friend, and discovered the vivid, abstract canvases of Robert Delauney, of Henri Rousseau, and of Pablo Picasso. Klee began to fully understand the power of colour in the representation of space, movement and time.

Paul Klee: Passage du passé, 1918
Fondation Beyeler
Photo courtesy of Musée de l’Orangerie

"Colour possesses me", he declared in his Diaries in 1914. "I don’t have to pursue it. It will possess me always". He added that he and colour were one and that he finally saw himself as a painter as opposed to an illustrator.

The exhibition also displays several canvases showing Klee’s preoccupation with large arrows that were a hallmark of his abstract works for many years. They express balance between colours of differing intensity, giving a harmony to the opposing energies in paintings where he superimposed and combined different media within the same work. 

I talked to Marie-Madeleine Massé, the curator of the museum, who spoke to me of Klee’s later years after his return to Berne in Switzerland in 1933 after being driven out by Nazi persecution. She commented on two of his works in particular. "Klee’s output in the year before he died was quite remarkable", she said. "His expressive powers seemed to increase with the onset of his illness. Still Burning is an extraordinary and very moving painting. It was completed during his illness, barely a year before he died a painful death as a result of complications from scleroderma. Looking at the work, it is difficult to know whether the burning we see around the single figure, obviously meant to represent Klee himself, and clearly marked with a K on the left-hand side, is symbolic of the constant pain he suffered, knowing he was dying, or rather represents the outbreak of the chaos to come with the growth of the Nazi movement. In any case", she added, "the English title is incorrect, as what we see are embers rather than flames."

Paul Klee: Still Burning
Fondation Beyeler
Photo courtesy of Musée de l’Orangerie

"Another painting that I return to look at again and again", she continued, "is Sorcières de la forêt (Waldhexen), completed the previous year. Each time I see some new detail besides the two witches and the trees in the forest. He put his love for the plants he grew into this work, despite the overtones of African influences."

However, in this particular painting completed in differing tones of brown, orange, red, and black, it is not the outline of the drums which surprises, nor the groups of dancing people and decorative faces, but the slow rhythmic pounding of sound which emanates from the work, making it pulse with life. 

Paul Klee: Waldhexen / Sorcières de la forêt, 1938 
Fondation Beyeler
Photo courtesy of Musée de l’Orangerie

From the very first photograph of Klee himself with his cat, Fripouille, this extremely elegant, beautifully presented exhibition displaying works chosen from among more than 9,000 produced by the artist, enthralls the visitor, whether familiar with the paintings and drawings of Paul Klee or not. It is not a show reserved for specialists, as so many are these days, but an exhibition to slowly wander through and enjoy.

Paul Klee (1879 - 1940): The Ernst Beyeler Collection
Through 19 July 2010
Musée de l’Orangerie
Jardin des Tuileries
75001 Paris
Tél: (33) 1 44 77 80 07 

Patricia Boccadoro is a culture critic and senior editor at Culturekiosque. She last wrote on Frederick Wiseman's PBS documentary, La Danse - Le Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris.

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