Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Paul Klee, L'Ironie à L'oeuvre @ Centre Pompidou

Paul Klee, Mai Bild, 1925
This  huge exhibition of Paul Klee, L’Ironie à L’oeuvre is the most calming exhibition I have been to in a long time. If you are in need of an end of the week de-stress, this is the top floor of the Pompidou Centre is the place to go. Rarely is modern art with its fragmentations and abstractions so quiet and gentle as it is on Paul Klee’s canvases.

What I loved most was the fact that the paintings and drawings were often incredibly angry and ascerbic, and while filled with fragmentation and division, they are also yet executed with lightness and joy.  In form, the work is very delicate: each stroke and line is made of water colour, and they are painted often on cardboard or paper pasted onto cardboard to accentuate ephemerality. In these materials, there is a sense of transience to the works and, at times, it feels as though they are going to disintegrate soon, as though they will crumble in the hand if touched. Indeed, the Angelus Novus (1920) a work barely known in its time, but that was made so famous by Walter Benjamin's discussion of it as the Angel of History in his Theses on the Philosophy of history, is so fragile that it is put in a darkened room and will be returned to the lending gallery before the exhibition is over.    
Paul Klee, Comedian's Handbill, 1938
Every work and every series of works is filled with contradictions: the shapes and patterns are always geometrical, but not mathematical or precisely drawn. In other contradictions, the sense of the childlike - but not childish - that is everywhere in the air at the time Klee is painting, becomes merged with the mechanical, with the machines that are also beginning to appear everywhere in his historical moment. And Klee is also able to bring the lightness, joy and play together with the critique of war spawned by modernity in his midst. Indeed, there are many ironies here. 
Paul Klee, Highways and Byways, 1928
What’s also striking is the singularity of Klee’s work. Klee does something quite different from other painters of his time, though there are many references and resonances. It’s possible to identify his contemporaries in the geometricality, for example, the use of line in its contrast with shape and colour. There are also obvious references to work of Alexander Calder in the magic and game-like nature of what Klee depicts and the way his mind works. But then the colours used by Klee are always different from everyone else’s. And the aggression, or what I would call the male-ness of the images that is so prominent in his contemporaries, is absent from Klee’s painting. His images are small, delicate, and I want to say, they are feminine in their tenderness.
Angelus Novus Paul Klee
Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920 

And yet, that said, the most compelling of Klee’s works are those produced side by side with cubism and constructivism. Though the latter can be seen in the works produced when he was in Egypt, a time that he was more interested in exploring the colours and textures of the desert. That is, it’s is of course ironic that the influences of the most contrived artistic forms appear in Klee’s paintings when he was closest to nature. I also wondered whether the paintings’ continual verging towards two-dimensionality in Klee’s later years a push to abstraction that mirrors the artistic response to outbreak of World War II, or is it his own individual search? Because of these apparently irreconcileable contradictions, while the exhibition is very calming and peaceful, we come away with a lot of questions and I, for one, was unsettled as well as restored.

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