Monday, September 6, 2010

Paul Klee at SF MOMA

Art does not reproduce what we see; rather, it makes us see." -Paul Klee

Paul Klee. girl on a tree. From the series "Invention." 1903

From August 7, 2010, through January 16, 2011, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will showcase the exhibition Prints by Paul Klee. Organized by John Zarobell, SFMOMA assistant curator, the exhibition features 21 works, re-creating a show of prints held in the museum in 1946. At that time, Klee's work was little known outside of Europe; the exhibition was perceived as highly original, and the works seem no less fresh or innovative more than six decades later. The prints demonstrate how Klee, like many German Expressionist artists of the early 20th century, experimented with etching, drypoint, and lithography techniques in order to advance his exploration of pictorial symbolism. 

Paul Klee. Threatening Head. From the series "Invention." 1905

The current small exhibit showcases a great deal of the artist's early work, particularly the prints of a series of "Invention." Created between 1903-1905, after Klee's visit to Italy and his experience with Italian Renaissance art. Nevertheless, you can see see the influence of of German Gothic, especially with his macabre little people and their nightmare visions. Klee is thought of as witty and picturesque and indeed he is. But these tiny graphic images are a sharply critical look at bourgeois society. It reveals a more somber side of him; maybe that's been there all along and we just didn't see it. 

Paul Klee. Two men meet, each supposing the other to be of higher rank. Inventions #6. 1903.

Perhaps we need to be reminded how important an artist he was. But the reality is that for a good part of the later 20th century, painters, maybe even whole movements (remember those)  "borrowed" from Klee or were influenced by him or, as with the artists who came out of the Bauhaus, were taught by him.

Artists from the Dadaists to the Surrealists to even the grand trickster himself, Duchamp admired his "extreme fecundity." His symbols and graphic line were copied  by the Surrealists, especially Max Ernst and Andre Masson, and evolved into what they called "automatism." His striped landscapes and magic-square paintings inspired Malevich and Constructivism. Miro borrowed his "walking line: "The line likes to go for a walk," he famously remarked and Miro's followers owe their inspiration to the teacher to their teacher.

His early shows in America had a tremendous impact on local artists. His late gestural paintings, with their thick brooding darkness and emphatic signs, such as Secret Letters, 1937, meant a great deal to American modernists like Jackson Pollock and Adolf Gottlieb.

Klee was also a poet, a philosopher, a naturalist. The titles he gave his paintings are small metaphorical poems. Their suggestive power enhances his themes, sometimes with sparkling wit and sometimes in such a way to suggest, even mask the meaning and intrigue the careful viewer. An excellent musician, his works also suggest visual music, a man with a sixth sense who is composing his pieces as carefully as any composer. 

All in all, a tremendous amount of Klee's work and teach influenced and enriched the development of modern art,  not only from the paintings themselves but also from his teaching theories, in which he obsessed about that most mysterious of subjects, creativity itself.

In 1918, Klee wrote. "I see a place for myself only with God...I am a cosmic point of reference, not species." And he continues: "I cannot be understood in purely earthy terms. For I can live as well with the dead as with the unborn. Somewhat nearer to the heart of Creation than is usual. But still far from being near enough." In this small show of his graphic work, the careful viewer can share some of that vision. 

Images courtesy SF MOMA
Reference: Will Grohmann. Paul Klee. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. New York.

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