REFUGE OF THE MOD­ERN

Be­tween Bruecke and Blaue Reiter: Hanna Bekker vom Rath, a Pi­o­neer of Mod­ernism Paul Klee: Life and Work

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christo­pher Allen

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

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