Paul Klee's childlike drawings and abstract paintings of colorful dots and shapes made him, without doubt, one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Underneath the vibrant, tongue-in-cheek surfaces of his work, Klee created a parallel universe, one in which he tried to capture and interpret almost every aspect of human existence, including its dark side. He once famously claimed: "I cannot be grasped in the here and now. For I reside just as much with the dead as with the unborn." While the quote might suggest he preferred to dwell in and paint from higher spheres, an ambitious new exhibition aims to show that his work was always rooted in what was going on in the real world.
"The Klee Universe," running at Berlin's New National Gallery from Oct. 31 until Feb. 8, is an unprecedented attempt to present Klee's work in all its variety, with its dazzling array of themes and styles, rather than, like many previous exhibitions, focusing on specific facets of his oeuvre. The show organizes the approximately 250 works on display into groups, each corresponding to an aspect of the human life cycle, from birth to death, religion to travel. By highlighting various elements of Klee's diverse body of work such as his preoccupation with music or animals the show also stresses its universality, something that is also visible in the dualistic nature of his art. On the one hand, for example, he was fascinated by simple, seemingly chaotic forms of representation which defied academic conventions. On the other hand, there was the rational Klee, who, particularly during his time as a teacher at the Bauhaus school, analyzed and articulated his own practices and techniques as well as the ideas behind them and who very much valued orderliness (he painstakingly catalogued all of his 9,000 works himself).
Klee saw it as the task of the artist to reconcile opposites. And so it was that the painter who liked to make funny little hand puppets for his son used deceptively playful images to deal with the darker issues of the times he lived in. One of the highlights of the exhibition is Klee's Angelus Novus, on loan from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem until the end of December. Rarely seen outside of Israel, the watercolor, depicting a strange creature that is part bird, part man and part angel, has sparked various interpretations over the years. Its former owner, the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, believed that it represented the Angel of History. According to another theory, the painting was inspired by Adolf Hitler, who lived in Munich at the same time as Klee. When Klee painted Angelus Novus in 1920, Hitler had just entered politics and was practicing his oratory skills by giving hate-ridden speeches in local beer halls.
During World War I, Klee was spared from serving at the front, instead he painted camouflage on airplanes. But that didn't keep him from suffering the tragedies of war: his good friends and colleagues Franz Marc and August Macke died in combat. These experiences are reflected in Klee's work, although it's not always obvious at first glance. The abstract drawing After a Drawing From the Year 1919, for example, reduces an air attack on a boat to bare lines and geometrical shapes. In Klee's depictions of aerial battles, war planes look like birds, and often it's only the titles Crashing Bird or Aerial Hunting Scene that reveal the real meanings of the paintings.
In 1933, Klee was forced to emigrate from Germany to Switzerland, the country of his birth, because the Nazis considered his art "degenerate" and there were rumors that he was Jewish. Klee's visualization of the inhumanity of Nazi rule shows that, in contrast to common misconceptions, not everything he created carried the illusion of cheerfulness. In Marked Man, lines in the shape of a swastika stretch like scars across what resembles a child's rendering of a human face. "The more horrifying this world becomes (as it is these days) the more art becomes abstract," Klee wrote in 1914. But while he thought it necessary for an artist to distance himself from "a shattered world," he never completely withdrew into abstraction. Behind the childlike drawings, dots and shapes, he was always grappling with the issues of his time.