Paul Klee: Works from the Berggruen Collection
Among the National Gallery of Canada’s fall line-up is the exhibition Paul Klee: The Berggruen Collection from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Swiss-German Paul Klee (1879–1940) is one of the great figures in 20th century art history. Renowned for his unique pictorial style that effortlessly blended figuration and abstraction, the artist was also an influential teacher and writer, as well as an accomplished violinist. His works are inspired by an all-encompassing passion for literature, music and poetry. Klee's œuvre is at times whimsical and is linked to his admiration and quest for an authentic and unmediated response to the world.
This exhibition presents 75 works from the prestigious Berggruen Klee Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Amassed by Heinz Berggruen (1914–2007), a leading German art dealer, the collection spans Klee’s entire career – from his student days, through his teaching period at the Bauhaus, until his death. Berggruen acquired this extraordinary range of works over the course of many decades.
In Canada, Klee has not been a major priority for public museums. In the National Gallery of Canada’s collection, the artist is represented with a gouache and wax on burlap painting entitled Angst from 1934, a work that anticipates the anguish Europe would soon face in the Nazi Party’s aggressive quest for power. Angst represents a person in a state of panic – wide eyed and recoiling from the danger symbolized by arrowed fingers on the right.
Klee was born near Bern, Switzerland, in 1879. The son of a German music teacher and a Swiss mother, he later became an accomplished violinist himself. Two early childhood drawings attest to Klee’s talents; the diminutive drawing of the Junkerngasse in Berne is resplendent in its detail. His training as an actual painter began in 1898 when he moved to Munich. By 1911 he became involved with the German Expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), founded by Vassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. Klee and Kandinsky became lifelong friends, and the support of the older painter provided much-needed encouragement. Until then, Klee had worked mostly on his own, experimenting with various styles and media, such as making caricatures and Symbolist drawings, and later producing small works on paper in black and white.
In the opening room, the exhibition presents a selection of works that were produced during or after Klee’s Tunisian journey in 1914. Several works from that momentous trip demonstrate how the North African light awakened Klee’s sense of colour. One of these early key works is Southern Gardens (1919), a watercolour to which the artist assigned the status Sonderklasse ("Special class"), which meant that he was particularly satisfied with the result and wished to keep it for himself. Early on, Klee kept meticulous records of his production, which allowed him to refer back to every work he had made. Other works on view further attest to Klee's continued response to his Tunisian experience, which enabled him to push himself towards abstraction. They reveal his delight in working in a small format, using watercolour, gouache and an ink-transfer technique, which he perfected over the years to come.
The First World War interrupted Klee’s growing friendship with the Blaue Reiter artists, many of whom were drafted into battle. It did not affect his productivity, however. Assigned a desk job at an airplane field in Gersthofen, Klee continued to explore shapes, forms and, above all, colour. By this time, he had become an artist of significant stature in Germany through exhibitions. Although his work at this time resonates with avant-garde movements – including Cubism, echoes of Surrealist imagery and the bold, geometric art of Robert Delaunay whom he had met in Paris – Klee’s path remained interconnected, but not dependent on, his contemporary colleagues.
The extraordinary variety of Klee's œuvre is particularly well represented in the Berggruen collection’s works from his Bauhaus years. For ten years from 1921 onward the artist taught at this progressive school of architecture and industrial design, which operated first in Weimar (1919–25) and then in Dessau (1925–31). Berggruen was particularly drawn to this period in Klee’s career, when the artist produced more than half of his entire oeuvre.
The works on view reflect this intense period in Klee’s career and vary widely. Some relate to the subject of the courses he was teaching and to his analysis of the relationship of colours, such as Static-Dynamic Intensification (1923). The oil painting is part of the artist’s Magic Square series, in which the canvas is made up from small rectangles and squares that intensify the closer they get to the centre, from muddy brown to vibrantly coloured shapes, and create a stained glass effect.
Other works reveal Klee’s impish humour and his bend towards the grotesque, as for example, Yellow Harbour (1921) and Perspective-Spook (1920). Yellow Harbour appears to stage a sea battle on a table cloth, complete with a spouting canon and grinding pulley-locks. Perspective-Spook is the first work by Klee that Berggruen acquired (in 1937), a veritable nightmare of a figure splayed out on an operating table. Another work is dedicated to the artist’s godchild and annotated with the comment that “it was Uncle Klee who made all these pictures”. Klee loved word play and he consciously assigned individual titles to give the viewer a key to understanding his representation.
Between 1931 and 1933, Klee taught at the Academy of Fine Arts in Düsseldorf. Four major works from this period reflect Klee’s new, reinvigorating lease on life, represented in a new, upbeat Pointillist mosaic style (see for example Boy in Fancy Dress, 1931). In his memoirs, Heinz Berggruen devoted a chapter to Klee titled "Les Klees du paradis," a word play on the French clé. Berggruen wrote that "[He] takes us gently by the hand, as if he wanted to say: 'Here, take a look around, this is my kingdom'." Indeed, many of Klee’s drawings draw the viewer into an imaginative world. While some scenes seem humorous and light-hearted, others reflect upon solitude and hardships. One of these poetic and sensitive renderings of existential struggle is Klee’s Postulant Angel of 1939, a misshapen but sympathetic figure, whose deformed wings do not inspire confidence in any future celestial duties.
With the rise of the National Socialists, Klee’s path changed dramatically. Branded a “degenerate” artist and dismissed from his teaching position in 1933, he returned to his native Switzerland. In 1936, the artist became immobilized by the incurable tissue disease scleroderma. Klee’s personal suffering combined with the increasing gravity of the political situation in Europe is expressed in more sombre paintings that drew on a muted palette and more simplified, broad forms. Examples of these late works are shown in the final room of the exhibition.
Paul Klee: The Berggruen Collection from The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the first exhibition in Canada in over forty years devoted to this highly expressive artist and an opportunity for the visitor to study the imaginative yet deeply meditative works of one of the most influential European Modern artists.
Paul Klee: The Berggruen Collection from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in association with the National Gallery of Canada, is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until March 17, 2019. Share the article and stay up-to-date on the latest Gallery news by subscribing to our newsletters and learning more about art in Canada and beyond.