by Roderick Conway Morris

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San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Paul Klee's 'Mazzaro'.

Paul Klee's Colorful Trail in Italy

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 1 January 2013


Four avant-garde painters - Chagall, Klee, Kokoschka and Picasso - were given prominence in 1948 in the first Venice Biennale following the Second World War and were described in the event's catalog as artists 'who had defended, in dark moments, cultural freedom in western Europe.'

The Venice Biennale continued to play a role in posthumously bringing Klee's work to international public attention in two subsequent editions. In 1950, 17 of his pieces from the 1910-14 period were exhibited in a show at the German Pavilion of the Blaue Reiter group of Munich, and in 1954, 53 of his works from 1915 to 1940 (the year of his death) were exhibited in a solo retrospective.

Klee visited Italy six times but, whereas his trips to Tunisia and Egypt are regularly cited as important events in his development as an artist, his excursions to the Italian peninsula and Sicily have received little attention. This theme is now examined in 'Paul Klee and Italy,' an exhibition of 45 of the artist's works at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome, researched and curated by Tulliola Sparagni and Mariastella Margozzi.

Klee was born near Bern, Switzerland, to a German music-teacher father and a Swiss singer mother in 1879. His first instincts were to follow his parents into a musical career but on leaving school in 1898 he decided to train as a draftsman and artist in Munich.

In 1901 and 1902 he embarked on a grand tour of Italy, much of it spent in Rome, but he also visited Naples and Florence.

The introductory section of the exhibition displays four of Klee's mature works from the 1920s and '30s that were shown at the postwar Venice Biennales. The rest is mostly ordered chronologically.

The first of these rooms contain some of the fruits of the artist's first visit to Italy, in 1901-02. There are five examples of a series of etchings, which he called 'Inventions,' executed in 1903-05. They are derived from his studies of ancient Roman and Greek statuary, but given a comic-grotesque spin by deliberate elongations and distortions, in a style that he would later describe as 'gothic-classical.' These etchings were shown in his first public show in Munich in 1906. But he spent most of the first decade of the century based in Bern, making trips to Paris and Munich, and striving to find more personal modes of expression.

In 1911, he met August Macke and, soon after, Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky. Having been received into the Blaue Reiter group, he contributed works to a graphics exhibition they staged early in 1912. He continued to concentrate on graphic works until 1914, when he went on a two-week trip to Tunisia with Macke and Louis Moilliet. This, in his own estimation, was when he fully discovered color. And, as he famously noted in his journal: 'Color and I are one. I am a painter.'

Yet it was a characteristic of Klee's career that elements in his work often emerged after long periods of thought and experimentation. Indeed, as his letters to the pianist Lily Stumpf, whom he was to marry in 1906, reveal, he was already recording his reactions to color on his visits to Roman sites and in his observations on the painting of Italian artists, such as Botticelli and Andrea del Sarto, on his first trip to Italy. And looking back in 1919, he traced to his Italian experiences 'the beginning of a chromatic sense.'

This same slow gestation can be seen in the role of architecture in his works, a major facet of his mature paintings. And this, too, was partly stimulated by his encounters with Renaissance palazzi in Italy. As he wrote to his parents from Rome in 1901: 'We need to recognize architecture as an art. And what an art!'

In 1921, at the invitation of Walter Gropius, Klee joined the Bauhaus staff at the new institution in Weimar (although it moved to Dessau in 1925). He stayed until 1931, when he took up a post at Düsseldorf's art academy, commuting from Dessau.

Klee's enigmatic manner earned him the nickname the Bauhaus Buddha, but he was deeply engaged with his teaching activities, one of his most important responsibilities being instruction in color theory. His teaching materials and books from this period remained influential long after the Bauhaus itself was shut down. This was also a productive time for Klee as an artist, and a number of representative works from this period are displayed in the central sections of the Rome exhibition.

Regular employment enabled Klee to travel during the vacations and he took the opportunity visit Italy five times between 1924 and 1932. Unlike his journey to Egypt in 1928, the Italian trips resulted in works derived from some of these visits. These works are displayed in the penultimate section of the exhibition.

In 1924, Klee and Lily made a six-week trip to Sicily. A beach holiday at Mazzarï near Taormina produced 'Mazzarï,' a rare, almost conventional, figurative image of the hotel in which the couple stayed. The visit also gave rise to some striking landscape paintings, including an evocation of wild, spiky Mediterranean vegetation with resonant echoes of an arid, modern Garden of Eden, 'Mit der Schlange' (With the Snake), and another of an olive grove illuminated by fiery sunlight, 'Baum Kultur' (Cultivated Trees). These pictures from 1924 are on show here, along with a humorous, cartoon-like lady tourist, 'Bildnis der Frau P. im Süden' (Portrait of Mrs P. in the South).

The couple had sailed to Sicily from Naples on a ferry and this voyage was very likely the inspiration behind 'Südliche Küste abends' (Southern Coast at Evening), an almost childlike, but subtly constructed, vision of moonlit fishing boats bobbing on a dark-blue sea against a backdrop of soaring red mountains, painted in 1925.

According to Klee's son Felix, the seeds were first sown for Klee's 'pointillist' pictures of the early 1930s - constructed with small squares of color - when the artist saw the mosaics in Ravenna in 1926, an experience reinforced by visiting the mosaics in Monreale and Palermo on a return trip to Sicily in 1931.

A classic example of one of these works - 'Kreuze und Säulen' (Crosses and Columns) of 1931 - appears out of chronological order in the second room of the exhibition, since the original inspiration of the subject matter of the picture, if not the technique, appears to go back to Klee's first visit to Rome.

After his move to Düsseldorf in 1931, Klee's avant-garde pictures attracted the hostile attention of the Nazis. Following a search of his house in Dessau by the Gestapo and the imposition of a Nazi administrator at the city's art academy in 1933, Klee was fired from his post there. He and his family took refuge in Switzerland at the end of that year.

It was an ironic reflection of Klee's popularity in prewar Germany that 102 of his works were removed by the Nazis from the nation's museums, and 17 of these figured in the regime's 'Entartete Kunst' (Degenerate Art) show in Munich in 1937.

Toward the mid-1930s, Klee manifested the first signs of scleroderma, an incurable disease from which he was to die in 1940. Although unable to travel south again, his Italian journeys, as the last room of the show demonstrates, inspired notable new works with Mediterranean and classical themes, such as 'ölbaum' (Olive tree), 'Citronen- Ernte' (Lemon-Harvest) and 'Sibylle' (Sibyls).

Paul Klee and Italy. National Gallery of Modern Art, Rome. Through Jan. 27.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024