Klee exhibit shows a master of whimsy at play
Paul Klee’s art, which rarely comes to Canada, lands at the National Gallery and ‘it’s for all ages’
The great 20th century artist Paul Klee had a deep admiration for the spontaneity and directness of children’s art. What better way, then, to conclude the National Gallery of Canada’s upcoming Klee exhibit than with a room in which children can create Klee-inspired art?
Opening Nov. 16 and running until March 17 next year, Paul Klee: The Berggruen Collection from the Metropolitan Museum of Art fills room after room in the gallery with 75 drawings, watercolours and paintings by the Swiss-German artist whose unique expressionist works were often animated by playfulness and whimsy.
At the gallery, the final room is more like a playroom, in which budding Klees can arrange magnetic sheet-metal shapes on the walls or combine custom-made hard foam blocks as their creative impulses move them.
“We wanted to allow visitors to go into the universe of Paul Klee,” said the exhibition’s curator, Anabelle Kienle Poňka, who is the gallery’s acting senior curator of European and American art. “You create your own Klee moment.”
“We’re hoping that it’s for all ages,” added Junia Jorgji, the gallery’s chief of design. While this immersive aspect of the exhibition is meant to be tactile and even old-fashioned, the gallery hopes that visitors will share photos of their creations on social media, complete with the hashtag #PlayInKlee.
Before they click “Share” or “Tweet,” visitors will have seen the first Canadian exhibition dedicated to Klee in almost four decades. On loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the exhibition offers a retrospective on its subject’s work. It covers the most vital 25 years of his creative life, from 1914, when Klee, who was then in his mid-30s, travelled to Tunisia for two weeks and blossomed as a painter, to 1939, when he was living in exile in Switzerland, after Nazi Germany had branded him, among others, a “degenerate artist.” Klee died in 1940 at the age of 60.
Collected by Heinz Berggruen, a German art dealer and collector, and given in the mid-1980s to the Metropolitan, the exhibition features many small and even oddly framed works by Klee that will draw viewers very close to appreciate their wealth of details.
Even the exhibition’s first room reveals the breadth of Klee’s artistry. A watercolour of a Tunisian building masterfully arranges shapes and colours, foreshadowing the more abstracted studies of shapes and colours for their own sake.
Other works attest to both Klee’s consummate skills at abstraction and line drawing, and to his imaginative powers that still captivate and intrigue. Commenting on the finely wrought and fantastic, almost mythological figures in one work, Kienle Poňka said: “We’re not really sure what to make of them.”
After serving in the German army during the First World War, Klee in the 1920s entered his most productive period while he taught at the Bauhaus, the German art school. During that decade, Klee created thousands of works. At the gallery, there are meditations on how to interpret colour and form, meticulous paintings in which mosaics of squares can pop like a work of stained glass or appear more muted.
Painted in 1921, Klee’s Portrait of a Yellow Man appeals with the immediacy of a child’s drawing but it surrenders deeper subtleties upon closer inspection.
The works in the exhibition from Klee’s final years are more sombre, bearing titles that are more melancholy and no longer playful or flippant. By the late 1930s, Klee was living in exile and his health was declining due to rare auto-immune disease. A year before Klee died, he created 29 works that featured animalistic and at times misshapen angels, including one painting that has travelled to Ottawa.
Kienle Poňka painted a saddening portrait of Klee’s last days. “You’re ousted ... you’re told that your art is worth nothing,” she said. Klee’s works from the late 1930s “are an expression of his suffering as well,” Kienle Poňka said.
It’s better, though, to remember Klee more happily, as the music-loving husband of a talented pianist and the son of a singer and a music teacher, someone who practised the violin before he painted and who drew connections between music and art.
It is the Klee who knew joy and child-like whimsy who gave us the quotation: “A line is a dot that went for a walk.”
The final room in the Paul Klee exhibition at the National Art Gallery allows visitors to get hands-on with the artist’s child-inspired objects.