‘Rich Harbour’ (1938)
‘Rich Harbour’ (1938)

Paul Klee was a child prodigy violinist who in the 1890s abandoned a professional career “in view of the decline in the history of musical achievement” – his taste began with Bach and ended at Mozart. He set out his alternative path as “first of all the art of living; then as my ideal profession, philosophy and poetry, and as my real profession, plastic arts; in the last resort, for lack of income, illustrations”.

That mix of romanticism and pragmatism characterises every aspect of an oeuvre that is among the strangest in classical modernism. The beautifully spare installation of Tate Modern’s new show Paul Klee: Making Visible, spread across 17 rooms, does justice to an artist who is often a challenge to museums. Klee, so private as to be hermetic, worked at a miniaturist scale and is impossible to categorise, resisting dogma so instinctively that whenever he came near an art movement, he subverted it.

Across the surface of the luminous coloured squares of Klee’s “Redgreen and Violet-Yellow Rhythms”, pictograms of fir trees transform formal French cubism into the enchanted forest of German fairy tale. The painting glows with an inner nocturnal light, a hallmark that makes mysterious even the architectonic compositions of the artist’s Bauhaus years. Klee’s tall, abstracted cities, as in the sonorous purple-yellow “Architecture” or the black-mauve curves and cubes of “Picture of a Town”, are fantastical places, Jerusalem or Parnassus conceived out of complex overlapping rectangular planes soaring up to triangle-towers.

Created in the early 1920s, these are among the first paintings in which Klee, then in his forties, used oils, and they emerge from his memories of the minarets and domes of Tunis. Klee dated the start of his career, following years of uncertainty, to a visit to Tunisia in 1914. “Colour has taken hold of me,” he wrote. “I no longer need to strive after it. Colour and I are one. I am a painter.”

His immediate response came in the form of the early watercolours and gouaches of chromatic harmonies built up around cylinders and cubes, seen in “Translucencies Orange-Blue”. Some reference the natural world – “Opened Mountains”, “Landscape with Flags”; others employ pictograms of moons, stars and crosses, as in “Above Mountain Summit”. The strategies are combined in the marvellous “City Between Realms”, where an arrow points the viewer to geometric forms suggesting the turrets, streets, rooftops of an Arab town, scintillating in warm orange hues.

Teaching at the Bauhaus through the 1920s, Klee commuted between the realms of observation and eclectic pictorial inventiveness. A trip to Egypt inspired the hot palette of “Steps”, “Fire in the Evening” and “In the Current Six Thresholds”, which pile up horizontal bands of modulated colour, referencing the Nile Valley’s irrigation ditches and ridges. “Hovering” parodies the orderly constructivism of Klee’s colleague Moholy-Nagy: a painterly pink cloud encloses coloured quadrangles arranged as perforated transparent planes, at sharp angles, suggesting the weightlessness of kites about to fly.

‘Comedy’ (1921)
‘Comedy’ (1921)

In “Fish Magic”, Klee scratches and scrawls abbreviated motifs of fish, flowers, clown, a clock, in sprinkled colour on an inky black ground fringed with red; a square of muslin is glued to the centre of the canvas, and a long white diagonal doubles as fishing net and a rope about to whisk away the curtain on Klee’s aquatic/earthy/celestial stage. In “Comedy”, a queue of elongated half-human figures, many with bird-heads, might be marionettes on a string.

Theatrical allusions continue in the biomorphic forms of “Puppets (Colourful on Black)” and “Young Lady’s Adventure”, whose sombre Bauhaus colour gradations acquire a playful undertone via the title and a red arrow pointing suggestively at an elongated female silhouette based on Javanese shadow-play figures.

This is as erotic as Klee ever gets. Although romantic whimsy is everywhere, his version of modernism is so far removed from the Sturm und Drang of Picasso or the hard-won calm of Matisse that the exhibition can seem passionless. The dry titles given to many of the rooms – “Composition”, “Rotation”, “Gradation”, “Structural” – along with a selection of works emphasising the more abstract, do not help. (Klee’s most iconic figurative images “The Twittering Machine” and “Ad Parnassum” are not included.)

But this show is nothing if not surprising. Just as it begins to feel over-formal, you enter the only gallery titled by date alone, “1933”, to find “The Man of the Future”: a parodic Nazi superhero striding out in uniform, cap, flared breeches and boots, waving a manifesto – all depicted in the bold contours and overbright colours of the forbidden “degenerate” expressionism.

‘Static-Dynamic Gradation’ (1923)
‘Static-Dynamic Gradation’ (1923)

Soon comes another twist. Diagnosed with a progressive wasting disease in 1935, Klee embarked on a rollercoaster series of works, restrained, compact, simplified, but impossible not to read as a gripping account of a battle between despair and affirmation of the world. “New Harmony” (1936) revisits his rhythmic variations of coloured squares and rectangles – but the musical, lilting quality is gone, and no light shines between the patchwork of browns, greys, muted reds and emerald. Zigzag charcoal lines, ending abruptly, on a fragile burlap ground comprise “Harmonised Disturbances” (1937). “Earth Witches” and “Forest Witches” (1938) return to the enchanted woods of German romanticism, now haunted with black mask-faces.

But from the same year “Rich Harbour”, at four feet wide Klee’s largest work, is an expanse of bars on a coloured ground that includes recognisable motifs – ships, plants – and may suggest an inner journey. “Park near Lu”, in the same linear segmented style of black outlines against yet more sensuous zones of yellow, orange, raspberry, leaf-green and sky-blue, is an all-over composition evoking a park in many seasons: trees in blossom and winter-bare, pathways, waving figures.

At the Fondation Beyeler’s 2003 show of late Klee, these were summarised as “abundance in limbo”. They precede the 1939 series of claustrophobic monochrome forms turning in on themselves, as in “Catastrophe in a Dream” here. Bern’s famous “Death and Fire” (1940), where a ghost visage is constructed from lines that spell “Tod” (German for “death”), has unfortunately not been lent, but even without it Tate’s final rooms are definitive and violent; unexpected and inevitable at the same time.

From his early hieroglyphs denoting moons and mountains to the mature landscapes of the mind and memory with which he demonstrated how “art does not reproduce the visible; rather it makes visible”, Klee reshaped German romanticism and its urgent interiority into the language of abstraction. He took from cubism, constructivism and surrealism to do so but, evoking both dreams and diagrams, developed his own enigmatic, open-ended vocabulary. The freedom of spirit in this show carries a joy that one cannot help contrasting with the big statements and hard-sell of many London galleries during Frieze week.

‘Paul Klee: Making Visible’, Tate Modern, London, to March 9 2014 tate.org.uk. Sponsored by EY

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