October 1, 2017 – January 21, 2018
The exhibition is devoted to a previously little explored aspect of Paul Klee’s work, namely abstraction. In the first half of the twentieth century, the move away from figurativeness and the development of abstract art became a key theme for many European artists. The Swiss artist Paul Klee also responded to this challenge: the almost 10,000 works he created in the course of his career include exciting examples of the development of abstract pictorial worlds and of the processes of abstraction in painting. The key aspects of Klee’s abstract works are, moreover, a central strand of his entire oeuvre: nature, architecture, music and written characters.
The retrospective exhibition will present around 100 works from all periods of Klee’s career – starting in 1913 – and will bring together valuable loans from numerous renowned institutions and private collections in Europe and overseas. Alongside major masterpieces, it will feature rarely exhibited works that show Paul Klee in a surprising new light.
With a total of 20 works, Paul Klee is the best represented artist in the Beyeler Collection after Pablo Picasso. Both as a collector and as an art dealer, Ernst Beyeler, the founder of our museum, championed Paul Klee’s art in many different ways. In all, around 500 works by Klee passed through the hands of the Basel collector and gallery owner. As a collector, Ernst Beyeler chiefly concentrated on Klee’s late work, which he particularly esteemed for “the quality of its colors and its expressiveness”. Over the years, he accumulated a remarkable collection that includes masterpieces like Rising Star, 1931, 230 (V 10) and Signs in Yellow, 1937, 210 (U 10).
Fugue in Red, 1921, 69
In the watercolor Fugue in Red, a formation of geometric shapes strives toward the right-hand edge of the picture. Each form is repeated several times, simultaneously shifting from a dark to a lighter shade in the spectrum of red and pink, growing larger and then shrinking. The title is informative: in music, the fugue is a compositional form governed by repetition and polyphony. In the course of a fugue, melodic lines are imitated several times at different pitches—when the second line begins at another pitch, the first line has already changed. Although both parts can also function autonomously, they form a harmonious combination. The word “fugue” derives from the Latin fuga, which combines the meanings of fugere (to flee) and fugare (to chase away). The two Latin words suggest an accelerating movement, a quickening of pace, with time slipping away and sense of place evaporating. Thus, Klee adds an abstract dimension to his picture, in which the volatile medium of music can be represented in visual terms.
The Chapel, 1917, 127
The unfolding of Klee’s art occurred during a period bounded by the two great wars of the twentieth century. World War I broke out just three months after Klee’s legendary journey to Tunisia, and World War II began less than a year before his death, in Muralto, in 1940. When he painted The Chapel, Klee was himself a soldier, though not in a combat role. Fortunately for him, he was assigned to a post as a payroll clerk at a German training school for pilots. As an artist, he was already in full flight. This work demonstrates Klee’s fully developed style, inscribing a new spatial depth in the traditional pictorial rectangle through a seemingly dreamlike composition, with precise yet profoundly soulful gradations of color. From a brownish ground, mountains rear up to embrace architectural structures that appear transparent and three-dimensional. Like playing card motifs, Klee’s magical constructions can be read from below or above––as the moons indicate.
Prizewinning Apple, 1934, 215 (U 15)
The eponymous apple is only recognizable as such by the stalk and the remnants of the calyx. What we notice, instead, is the round shape that almost completely occupies the square picture space. The contours of the apple, like all the elements of the picture, are drawn in a dark shade of brown. An added line of light purple makes the form appear to leap forward, and at the same time push out toward the edges of the picture. The surrounding space is suggested by a horizontal line that can be identified as the edge of a floor or a tabletop. In the background, a ladder extends beyond the edge of the picture—we cannot see where it ends. Through its vast dimensions, the apple pushes the ladder back into the picture space: the discrepancy in size between the two elements creates a striking effect of spatial depth. Klee, here, plays a sophisticated game with optical processes and laws of geometry.
Signs in Yellow, 1937, 210 (U 10)
Ernst Beyeler described Signs in Yellow as “a carpet of life.” The luminous composition, interspersed with black signs, does indeed seem infused with joie de vivre. Reminiscent of a woven carpet, the light ground is composed of irregular rectangles. The black marks and symbols, in some cases emerging from the edge of the picture and moving inward, serve to demarcate the individual areas of color. ludus Martis (“the game of Mars,” a circumlocution for war, coined by the Latin poet Horace) is quite different. Here, there is no visible order. Exceptionally thick and dominant signs and fragments hang in the air above a blue ground, as if they were fighting over the limited free space that remains open to them. They shape themselves into arrows, a face, and even into phallic symbols. The yellow outlines make them stand out, and the red border around the picture re-emphasizes the composition as a whole. The year 1937 ushered in the final phase of Klee’s development: working with intense fervor, he devised a style characterized by extreme simplification. His basic vocabulary, evoking a variety of effects, was supplied by black bars or lines freely distributed over luminous fields of color.
Paul Klee is born in Münchenbuchsee near Bern on December 18, 1879, the second child of Hans Klee (1849–1940) and Ida Klee, née Frick (1855–1921). His sister Mathilde (1876–1953) was born three years earlier. His father is a music teacher at the Staatliches Lehrerseminar, a training college for teachers in Hofwil near Bern; his mother is a trained singer.
Interview with Jenny Holzer
Jenny Holzer reading from her text in the catalogue
Catalogue «Paul Klee»
Paul Klee (1879-1940) is one of the most influential painters of European modernism. With an oeuvre comprising nearly ten thousand works, numerous solo and group exhibitions of his work have been mounted well beyond his lifetime. To this very day, the intense interest in his work has not waned. And yet there has never been an exhibition that has extensively examined Klee’s relationship to abstraction. The show at the Fondation Beyeler —along with the accompanying catalogue, which is “underscored” by insightful texts from well-known authors —is closing this gap. Four groups of themes — nature, architecture, painting, and graphic characters —make up the golden thread through Klee’s body of work whose formal repertoire repeatedly oscillates between the semi-representational and the absolute abstract, and which are examined here in separate chapters. Thus one not only gains in-depth insight into Klee’s involvement with abstraction — new references to his contemporaries, as well as to artists of later generations, are unveiled.
The exhibition «KLEE» is being supported by:
L. & Th. La Roche Stiftung
Simone C. und Peter Forcart-Staehelin
Walter Haefner Stiftung