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’

Ottawa Citizen - - NEWS - PETER HUM phum@post­media.com

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.

Paul Klee

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