21st August, 2016
The Paul Klee museum, Zentrum Paul Klee, is situated in a field on the edge of the city of Bern. You hardly know it’s there because it is embedded in a meadow. The roofline is a series of three giant wave-like forms that emerge, rolling, from the ground so it seems a part of nature. It’s not until you reach the entrance that the building makes its presence felt.
The story of the realisation of this great museum and art centre is inspiring. It was designed by the Italian architect and engineer Renzo Piano, who was also one of the joint architects involved in the design of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (1971) and completed in 2005, just one year ahead of a deadline set by Livia Klee-Meyer the wife of Paul Klee’s only son Felix, and Alexander Klee, the artist’s grandson. When they offered their collection of 690 art works to the city of Bern, in 1998, it was on the condition that a purpose built gallery and study centre, for the arts, must be built to house the collection by 2006.
My first response to the art on display was one of disappointment. Maybe I started my viewing on the wrong floor, downstairs, and with a recently curated exhibition entitled Pictures in Motion. This show was comprised, mainly, of drawings on the theme of dance and movement with few of the paintings, for which he is more well-known, included in the display. There was one work, however not by Paul Klee, but inspired by his art that I found compelling. It was an animated film, Equilibrist – After Paul Klee, with a beautiful soundtrack, where white mathematical forms danced on a black ground, the shapes continually unfolding like the patterns in a turning kaleidoscope in a clever moving image and musical interpretation of the artist’s own kinetic forms and shapes. Both Klee’s parents were musicians and he had to choose between art, or music as a career. He was a violinist and often he played the violin as a warm-up for painting. Some of his line drawings are suggestive of musical clefs and notes. I had been watching the film, engrossed by the liquid movement and the soundtrack, for several minutes before I looked at the identification label and discovered this work was by the New Zealand artist and contemporary dancer Daniel Belton and Good Company Arts, the company he formed with Donnine Harrison in 1997. The equally important score was by the composer Anthony Ritchie.
I was surprised at my response to the Pictures in Motion exhibition because I remember being inspired by the work of Paul Klee when I was an art history student. When the lecturer introduced his work towards the end of the study of art history, following the sweeping progression of movements, from the Byzantine period to the modern art in the twentieth century, I remember being impressed by the expressiveness of his swooping lines and finding his approach startling and innovative. He was the first modern artist to admire the art of children striving in his own art to achieve a similar state of innocence to that of a child making her first marks on a page.
Perhaps I started my day on the wrong floor because the main exhibition of Klee’s work provided a fascinating glimpse into his development and process. He was always very interested, in a scientific way, in artistic process and practice and was an innovator and experimenter with art materials and texture. He painted on glass. He painted on sand. He produced work on the back of the painting. He painted over works, building up the layers. He exposed the linen thread of the canvas. On one white wall of the gallery there was a series of close-up photos of his paintings, taken with a macro lens, to show his technique and the use of different materials and the degree of layering that makes up the textures in his art.
But still I felt remote from the work and was aware too often of his brain at work and of the scientific deliberation. I found myself wondering whether the period in the academy teaching design at the Bauhaus, under the directorship of Walter Gropius, had encouraged him to work more with his head and less with his heart. Certainly Klee and his fellow artist peers Wassily Kandinsky, Mies van der Rohe and Oskar Schlemmer were engaged in the rationalisation of the process of creativity. Was this the beginning of art theory? For me Paul Klee’s elaborate explanation below, of the body in action, takes the air out of a simple movement like a jump;
The body can generally, by ‘creeping along’ or ‘striding along’, change its place, continuously taking the plumbline into account, always carrying it into motion. (...) In particularly accelerated kinds of motion the static rule is abandoned for repeated short moments, and during those moments no foot touches the ground: one jumps.
Paul Klee, Theory of Pictorial Configuration, Mechanics, BG II.21/77
I was having these negative, traitorous thoughts when I viewed a late work ‘Prenant conge’ (1938) for which the English translation is ‘Taking Leave,’ and saw the little face in the doorway, just a few strokes of paint, on a sliver of yellowing paper. The surrounding matte board was cut in close to the painting and this unusual narrow framing around the figure seemed to me to evoke the anxiety of the time. The year was 1938. Earlier, in 1933 the German National Socialist Part had suspended Paul Klee from his teaching position at the Bauhaus, in Dessau, and he had made the decision to return to Switzerland. By 1938 the build up to World War 11 was in sway and already the Nazi pogrom was building and Jewish people were on the move across Europe, to France and Spain, in the act of fleeing. This image speaks to me of the anxiety of that time and of the vulnerability of the child, in a nightgown, alone, fleeing or captured, it could be read either way. By the time I viewed this painting I was sutured in and relating to the art. Perhaps my experience was dependent on other factors, like the context of the viewing — when you’re travelling in a large group, there is little time to linger and think — and also by how much I was prepared to study and understand the art on display.
The gallery staff had installed some additional features to assist the viewer to become better acquainted with the artist. There was a photograph of the artist’s final home in Bern with a red circle to indicate the floor he lived on with his wife, the pianist Lily Strumpf-Klee. On the opposite wall slow moving footage of the interior of his apartment was being projected at a speed so slow you could see the sunlight and shadow flickering on the walls, and could ponder whether perhaps these were the same soft light conditions the artist worked in. There was a reconstruction of part of his studio, as well, with an easel and paints and a glass case of items from his pressed flower collection, faded roses on black satin and there were fragments of lace, pale blue and cream, and on shelves there were shells, a butterfly in a box, a mother-of-pearl perfume bottle.
There was a series of paintings in this exhibition that reminded me of something. Paul Klee made a trip to Tunis, in Northern Africa, in 1914 with his artist friends Auguste Macke and Louis Moilliet and this experience marked a breakthrough point in his art. When he left home he had been feeling insecure about his use of colour. Like Van Gogh his early work was dark and leaden, the portraits, still-life paintings and landscapes looked back to nineteenth century realism with a build up of thick, sombre colours making the images sit heavy in the frame. In Tunisia Paul Klee found, in the bright light shining directly down upon the white souks, the brilliant blue shutters, the orange terracotta roof tiles, the beige-pink dirt roads, his way forward. He began using brighter colours and flattening the picture plane, moving closer towards abstraction in his depiction of people, animals, nature, architecture.
The Tunisian paintings brought back a series of memories of my own trip to Tunisia in 1985 to see what Paul Klee had seen. This was one segment of a journey that lasted five months, trekking from Australia, up to China, down to Thailand, into Burma and India and across to Egypt. Tunisia was the third to last stop before, England, the final destination on the journey. We had purchased a ‘round the world ticket’ where you paid a certain figure and had a year to complete the trip. I remember when we were deciding on our route, I chose Tunisia because of Paul Klee. That’s all it was and it seemed sufficiently significant then to make a decision and say let’s go there. And so we ventured out, blithely, across the world and stayed in Tunisia for one week, during a period when there was very little in the way of a tourist industry, or infrastructure and I wasn’t aware of an embassy to call upon should we get into difficulty. For accommodation we relied on a book, The Rough Guide to Tunisia and for sightseeing, well the things we ended up seeing were more a result of chance than anything planned.
The memories are hazy and indistinct now, probably buried because I wasn’t very happy there, feeling out of my depth and uncomfortable. Then again the memory process is a random and unreliable mechanism. Often the memories that remain accessible are dependent on how many times the experience is retold. Each time we talk, or write about something we further cement the memory in the brain. What I remember of Tunisia is staying in a little hotel with a roof terrace and perching up there in the dusk, each night sharing a Mars bar with Julian. I remember a car journey, rolling around, without seatbelts, in the back of a big car called a louage, bumping over stony ground past fields of wild flowers to see the ruins of Carthage and when we reached the hillside, there was very little to see. For some reason I see clay and stones beneath my feet and hungry looking dogs out of the side of my vision. I remember it being swelteringly hot and there being a sense of menace.
I also remember visiting a once famous villa, Hammamet-dar-Sebastian, built by the Romanian George Sebastian who enjoyed spending his American wife’s considerable fortune, making his Moorish inspired home. The villa was set in sand dunes on the edge of the Mediterranean and in the early 1900s it had been a mecca for visiting artists. Paul Klee visited the house along with other now famous figures, including the French artist, writer and film-maker Jean Cocteau and the French author Andre Gide, the Swiss sculptor Giacometti, the Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, the English poet and critic Edith Sitwell and the photographer Cecil Beaton.
On the day we visited the villa it was closed. Was it even boarded up and derelict? I’m unsure but it certainly felt that way. Through a gap in the wall we caught glimpses of the marble pool and white Moorish arches. When I close my eyes now I can see the green water in the pool and the white arches repeating but perhaps I am imagining this. What I remember better is the mood of the place. It was one of desolation and disenchantment. This was an empty building, a faded relic no longer animated by vivid characters, conversation, music played on a grand piano. It was as though the meaning of the home and the people who gravitated there once upon a time had been swallowed up and sealed over by the passage of time.
We left the villa, clambering over a strange amphitheatre and went forward into the sand dunes, through low growing shrubs towards the sea. Finding a place in the folds, with a view of the sea, we nestled together. I remember the sea, on this overcast day it was flat like a band of dull steel. We were lying there, arms wrapped around one another, me feeling despondent and infected by the melancholic atmosphere, when suddenly the reverie was broken by the sound of hoof beats on the sand. High above we saw the outline of two Tunisian men. They were riding bareback on their horses, one had a red and white bandanna at his neck and this is where the term ‘swarthy’ is absolutely precise, they were dark-skinned and their shoulder length hair was black and oily and tousled by the ride. A horse reared up and whinnied. The men looked at me with hungry eyes. ‘Eenglish ba-bee, Eenglish ba-bee!’ one of them was shouting, pointing down. We scrambled to our feet, Julian stepping in front of me and standing very tall, his chest puffed out. The air was charged. The moment seemed to go on and on. Then they were whipping the animals, pulling on their bridles, wheeling them round and galloping away down the beach.
Deborah thanks Rangimarie Kelly and Pikau Digtal for website design and artist Karen Jarvis for her image ‘Writers at the Devonport Library,’ (2023)