Paul Klee – Making Visible

This weekend we also visited this wonderful exhibition at the Tate Modern. Having studied Klee’s colour work and visited the Bauhaus exhibition at the Barbican during my last OCA module, it was a great follow-on in my education of this inspiring movement. The first thing that struck me was the size of the majority of the works on show. We have been living with large scale prints of Klee’s work at home for more than a decade, and it was disorientating at first to realise how small they were in life. The exhibition was extensive, covering all periods of his life and work, from his beginnings in Nazi Germany, forced relocation to Switzerland, conscription to fight in the war and later illness and premature death from systemic sclerosis. It also, of course gave a broad coverage of work done and classes taught whilst part of the Bauhaus foundation.

This was perhaps the most technical exhibition I have ever visited, with most of my reflections and notes being about use of mixed media and many, many sketchbook ideas. My partner entered the exhibition very fond of Klee’s work, but as a non-artist was somewhat fatigued by the scale of the exhibition, with a huge number of pieces exploring colour and media in abstract compositions.

I was inspired by the use of ink, watercolour and oils together, and the different ways in which each medium was employed. His early work mainly consisted of abstract watercolour compositions exploring how tonal shifts and contrasting or complementary colours can sit together with dynamic effect. His later watercolour works included a number of paintings of built up layers of the same colour watercolour which I felt could be replicated in the form of a reduction linocut. There was evident humour in some of his works, and I particularly enjoyed a series of paintings of an aquarium, with fish depicted with big bulging eyes.

One area of special interest in terms of printmaking practice were his monoprints. He produced a huge number of backdrawn monoprints, to which watercolour was applied. These varied in subject, but his marks in conjunction with the crackled line achieved by backdrawing and loose application of colour created hugely atmospheric, and engaging images. Some of these painting were then cut apart and collaged before overpainting, allowing alteration of the composition and adding an extra layer of complexity to the final piece.

His work takes on a more sculptural feel in places, with use of collage and varying methods of priming and preparation that had interesting effects on the painting. He used a variety of base materials throughout the exhibition – paper, cardboard, plywood, burlap, calico. One of my favourite pieces was ‘Bewitched-Petrified’ 1934, watercolour on plywood. It looked like the plywood had been scratched into before painting to create strong lines of shading. Another interesting and inspiring painting was ‘Structural II’, 1924. Chalk-primed canvas was painted with gouache and watercolour in blocks of colour, and cream tempura, red tempura, and black ink lines were overdrawn, using varying levels of contrast between line and base colour throughout. The tempura is not quite opaque, and the resulting painting is a densely rich patchwork. Similar line designs are explored in his ‘Rhythms’ series in 1927, using techniques including scratching through a semi-translucent layer of pale oil paint. This method of scratching drawing through wet paint is employed again in “Walpurgis night’ 1935, in which the mark making was reminiscent of a Van Gogh painting.

There are many other areas of exploration in his work, including a room of pointillist pieces, which, to be honest I was no so keen on, and another series that looked very much like abstract precursors to Keith Haring’s work. He was truly an artist ahead of his time who pushed his materials to the limits throughout his life.

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One comment on “Paul Klee – Making Visible

  1. I visited this exhibition a few months ago and loved it. I hadn’t realised his work was so varied also how his paintings became much bigger as his health declined. Must now visit the textile one as it looks really interesting.

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