REFUGE OF THE MODERN
Between Bruecke and Blaue Reiter: Hanna Bekker vom Rath, a Pioneer of Modernism Paul Klee: Life and Work
Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, until February 23
Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, until March 30
BERN, though the capital of Switzerland, is less well known to foreigners than the cosmopolitan centres of Geneva and Zurich, but it is an elegant city with arcaded streets and houses mostly dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries. It also has a number of museums, of which the most conspicuous is the relatively recent Zentrum Paul Klee (2005), honouring the city’s most famous artist.
Klee was born in 1879 near Bern to a German father and a Swiss mother but spent many years in Germany. He began his career in Munich before moving to Weimar in 1920, where he was a teacher at the Bauhaus, moving with the school to Dessau five years later. In 1931 he left the Bauhaus to take a position at the Academy in Dusseldorf, but was dismissed by the Nazis in 1933.
He returned to Bern and spent the rest of his life in Switzerland, where he died in 1940. His son Felix, who had been serving in the German army, was thought to have perished on the Russian front, and Klee’s widow Lily transferred the estate to the new Paul Klee Foundation. Some years later Felix, who had been in a Russian prison camp, came back and challenged the transfer of his father’s estate. He was partly successful, with the result that the Klee oeuvre was divided for years between the foundation and the family.
On Felix’s death in 1990, his widow Livia agreed to give the collection to the city of Bern on condition that a museum be built to house it. The municipal government had no funds for this purpose but a wealthy surgeon, Maurice Mueller, offered to pay for the building on condition he could nominate the architect. He chose Renzo Piano, and the result is a remarkable building that undulates in three great waves on the side of a hill outside the city.
Inside, the museum is a capacious series of spaces built over several levels. The central hall is devoted to the exhibition of Klee’s work, and the present display, as its title suggests, follows the artist’s life and development from his childhood — including both documentary material and intriguing early drawings — through the process of discovering his own particular language in which poetic whimsy is combined with delicacy of line and refined subtlety of pictorial surface.
Klee’s work was included in the notorious Nazi exhibition of Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst) which opened in 1937, and this is a natural link to the temporary exhibition downstairs, devoted to Hanna Bekker vom Rath, a collector, art dealer and supporter of modern art, who continued to protect German modernists during the Nazi period and did much to promote their work internationally after the war.
Hanna vom Rath was born into a wealthy family in Frankfurt in 1893, and studied art at the Stuttgart Academy before marrying Paul Bekker, a Jewish writer and music critic, with whom she had three children before their divorce. In the meantime she bought a large house near Wiesbaden which she redecorated and gradually filled with her collections; it became known as the Blue House and remained her home for the rest of her life.
The exhibition opens with a reconstruction of the Blue House’s living room, and many of the works included are from her collection, supplemented by others by the same artists. They include individuals like Max Beckmann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and, of course, Klee, who are well known, but also less familiar figures of the time such as Ida Kerkovius.
Perhaps even more interestingly, we discover late works by such painters as Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, who was a close friend. Artists in any age may have a period of greatest strength and maturity, preceded by a more tentative phase of apprenticeship and followed either by the mellowing of age or outright decline, but the pattern in the 20th century is different. Frenetically changing art fashions consign all but a few individuals — Picasso being an obvious exception — to a defined time span of relevance, which may be mercilessly brief; outside this historical window, we are surprised to find them still working.
During the Nazi years, vom Rath held secret exhibitions at the Blue House and at her flat in Berlin, and in 1947 she was able to