Musical Maestro of the Palette

Paul Klee (1879-1940) was the son of musicians, he was himself a violinist of concert standard and he went on to marry a professional pianist. When he became an artist the music didn’t stop: he simply carried on playing melodies and tapping out rhythms, but on paper and canvas instead. Although stylistically he moved around a distorted figuratism and various modes of abstraction, his art throughout his career was always musical and usually at the lyrical and joyous end of the scale.

Klee’s notes were colours. In the early years of the 20th century he was primarily an etcher but in 1914 he visited Tunisia and it changed him for good. He wrote from there that “Colour possesses me. I no longer need to pursue it: it possesses me forever, I know. Colour and I are one — I am a painter.” Delacroix had had a similar revelation when he visited North Africa almost a century earlier. Klee had no love for the bright or acidic, his colours remained subtle, one tone lower than a lesser painter would have used but of a richness and harmony that was not seen again until the work of Mark Rothko.

With colour came notation. From 1921 to 1931 Klee taught at Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus, alongside Kandinsky and Moholy-Nagy, and his years there refined his design — oriented compositions which mixed the architectural and the organic. “Whether we like it or not, our eyes gobble squares, circles and all manner of fabricated forms,” he wrote, and these forms were the basis of his art. He would work with grids, blocks, lines, patches and hieroglyphs. He used individual marks like pixels that together might shape themselves into something tangible, if only one could see them from the correct distance. But despite the compositional armature being invariably clear and defined, he never let it become mechanical, although his pictorial elements were often repeated. From 1911 Klee even signed each work with his variant of the Köchel cataloguing system, using two numbers, the first giving the year and the second the work’s place in that year’s production. 

Klee’s visual musicality is on full display in the 17 rooms that comprise Tate Modern’s major exhibition of his work, Paul Klee: Making Visible. The hanging follows his numbering system and is strictly chronological allowing for a detailed examination of both his development and his belief that “Art does not reproduce the visible, rather, it makes visible.” The works are invariably small and delicate so to give the show a suitably contemplative tempo many of the rooms have only a handful of paintings, widely spaced.

He was Swiss-born, Munich-trained and Paris-inspired, and his early work shows the influences of the times. There are dollops of Cubism, Symbolism and Expressionism in there as well as a leaning towards naturalism that never quite coalesces into direct representation. A gouache such as Above Mountain Summit, 1917, shows this melange of styles and also the whimsy that is often present in his work. During the 1920s the stylised forms of fish, almost as a child would draw them, were a favourite motif.

Klee’s art en masse confirms his famous aphorism that drawing is simply “taking a line for a walk”. He took this walk in more than 9,000 pictures and in each he barely knew the route he was setting out on. Once the original mark — a patch of colour or a millimetre of line — was on the canvas or paper it could meander any which way within the boundaries of a balanced composition. As the mark-making progressed Klee recognised that “sooner or later, the association of ideas may of itself occur to [the artist]…Nothing need then prevent him from accepting it.” This was Surrealism’s automatic drawing brought under control. Thus his beautiful, random calligraphy could resolve itself into Sacred Islands, 1926, or Pastorale, 1927. 

This last is a perfect example of both his “association” and the intuition that guided his work. A complex series of arches and crosses drawn left to right like an ancient script such as Linear B is given the mood of landscape by the simple addition of a thin strip of blue at the top of the picture. This sky colour immediately gives the two-dimensional patterning a third dimension; the picture gains depth and perspective, the abstract patterns hint at resolving themselves into recognisable forms and the picture gains resonance. With Klee much of his most interesting work goes on at the pictures’ edges.

Towards the end of his life Klee suffered from scleroderma, a rare and terminal autoimmune disease that stopped him from continuing with intricate compositions. His later works are coarser and broader and the patterning in them more open. They invite the spectator to read them as rhythms that are slowing but deepening: the last notes of Klee’s great performance. 

Another musical picture, J.M. Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1872-77 (the painting John Ruskin likened to “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”), is the highlight of the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s delightful An American in London: Whistler and the Thames. The exhibition shows that the river ran through his art from the moment of his arrival in London in 1859 onwards. A resident of Chelsea, Whistler only had to look out of his window for his subjects.  

The show includes both the delicate etchings of the working river and its labourers   up at Wapping and Rotherhithe and the ethereal, misty scenes of his more refined stretch of water. These last, in their simplification and the way the scour the scene of the quotidian, mark the beginnings of the Aesthetic movement and in them he matched the fluidity of the river in the fluidity of his paint. The pictures here show why, even while in Venice, Whistler missed the Thames: “They are lovely, those fogs — and I am their painter!”

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