Issue Number: 120
Tom Phillips RA on Paul Klee’s genius, as a retrospective comes to Tate Modern
Paul Klee, 'Static-Dynamic Intensification', 1923. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Just as the clown in Twelfth Night could ‘sing both high and low’, Paul Klee’s prolific output, the subject of a major survey at Tate Modern, contains as much melancholy as playful wit.
Like the young Stravinsky, Klee had to choose between painting or music as a career. Luckily for us, both of them made the right choice, since Stravinsky’s music is richly pictorial and Klee’s lyrical watercolours abound in notational devices, scales, arpeggios, rhythmic energy and ornament.
His famous description of ‘taking a line for a walk’ does not tell the whole story. He was equally able to take colour for a stroll or to stride off with his unfolding compositions to the far horizons of the mystical. Inside a Swiss artist one might expect to find a watchmaker and Klee’s refined delicacy ticks away with chronometrical precision. Pitch perfect, haunting in harmony, the concentration of his miniatures make him the Webern of art.
Painting is always predictive. With our texting and tweets we have become miniaturists of the global Twittering Machine. The sprightly picture of that name, with its exclamatory evocations of birdsong, was the first work of Klee that I saw, in the art room of my school (unfortunately the painting does not travel to Tate). It still sings its reassurance to me that we don’t all have to work to fill the Turbine Hall but can produce, on a kitchen table, resonant images, which also give the line that we are taking out walking a spring in its step.