Tate Modern, London
The sheer graphic zip and register of Paul Klee's art makes for exhilaration all the way in this beautifully presented show
Paul Klee at Tate Modern brims with elation. His visions scintillate on the walls, alive with generosity and spirit. They want to take you everywhere – up with the lark, through the moonlit Alps, back to ancient Egypt, into space where the stars glint in the frozen silence, below tides where the fish quiver in the see-through world of his watercolour paint.
Each dizzying adventure begins with an elementary form. A dot is a start. It can be an eye, a mouth or the life-giving sun. Two more and a whole landscape is implied. The dot turns into a line, which becomes a tightrope, a boulevard, the perch for an avian assembly or the tranquil surface of the lake.
Twenty more lines, streaming in parallel across a page, and you have a ploughed field or a river that eddies with the slightest fluctuation. A triangle arrives, and the scene now takes in a pyramid, a temple, a gigantic nose or a passing yacht. The triangle converts into an arrow, the arrow meets two more of its kind in other colours, arriving from different directions. Greeting, this picture is charmingly titled, as if to point out (as arrows do) that a piquant encounter is taking place.
Not the least pleasure of this show is the chance to witness Klee's visual language evolving down the years, and to relish it oneself at an unhurried pace. You need a great deal of time and attentiveness for his art because there is always so much to read, from the throngs of coded symbols – asterisks, circumflexes, cedillas – up the fishing lines, down the ladders and across the grids, staves, stripes and scaffolds that become the underlying grammar to his lexicon of forms.
The viewing conditions are ideal at Tate Modern. A whole world of space surrounds each tiny work so that visitors have thinking room between pictures. You get the hang of him beautifully this way, for Klee does not reveal himself all at once but in small degrees. His art is intimate, modest, humorous, anecdotal, even when apparently abstract, and intensely alert. It repays your attentiveness with its own every time.
Klee (1879-1940) left more than 10,000 works at his death, and his art is astoundingly diverse. He is the Buddha of the Bauhaus, imagining the afterlife as a pale paradise floating in a universe of tremulous lines and finding the divine in every dragonfly and acorn.
He is Klee the modernist, overriding the paradox of depiction – how to represent three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface – by showing the world as if viewed from above and yet also within, as idiosyncratic incidents and structures adrift in a haze of pure colour. There is Klee the innovator, pioneering the oil-transfer technique with its spindly black lines, and Klee the genius cartoonist, deflator of pomp, mocker of tin-pot tyrants and inventor of that scratchy pictographic style that runs all the way through to James Thurber and Ronald Searle.
And it seems from this show that there is also Klee the pointillist, making mirages out of the minutest of dots, and Klee the professional musician – child of a singer – working out the tempo of his coloured shapes as meticulously as a composer with a score.
But though the show puts distinct emphasis on each chronological phase, it is the inexhaustible originality of his mind that strikes from first to last. A work like Opened Mountain may have its origin in complex chromatic rhythms, but soaring above the method is the stupendous vision of intersecting light beams, or veins of precious minerals, in vermilion, gold and indigo – a wonderful party going on inside a sullen black crag.
The painting is humorous and beautiful: that singular Klee combination. Sometimes the comedy arrives simply by knocking the beauty slightly out of kilter. There is a hilarious painting of a triangle striving so hard to be like all the elegant rectangles around it that is has turned almost grey with the effort; and another of a fishing trip that hinges on a single imbalance.
Father and son have cast their line from the bank, and contained in that marvellous arc are the sun, a boat, the water, the distant landscape and Klee's own signature, like a tiny insect alighting on the page, with the lugubrious fish hanging dumb-mouthed below. What a serene scene, what a perfect catch – except that an exclamation mark dangles before the fish by way of kindly warning.
The rhythms of the cosmos are no more or less significant to the fish than the hours of the human clock.
This seems true of the paintings themselves, which seem forever young and new, even when they depict first world war biplanes. This has something to do with the sheer graphic zip and register of his art, which never dates, but also with his sense of curiosity which does not atrophy. One of the quotations judiciously deployed at Tate Modern has Klee rediscovering some childhood drawings and recognising the vitality to which he must always aspire.
This show is exceptionally faithful to Klee, following his meticulous chronology, displaying the pictures on black walls, giving equal prominence to oil as watercolour, even though the lightness is often lost. Its aim is pure and simple: to present as clearly as possible and to as many people as possible – it runs for the next five months – the greatness of the smallest of Klees.