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Paul Klee: The Nature of Creation

Klee's art has a precious quality. His paintings and drawings are on a small scale, rarely more than 16 by 10 inches wide and often smaller. The lines and colours in them are finely wrought, the effects witty, subtle and entrancing.

This show is the most exquisite collection to grace the walls of a London public gallery in the first part of 2002 - so don't miss it. In addition to pure enjoyment and delight, it has an added dimension. The curators have presented more than 90 paintings and drawings in the light of the artist's own thinking.

Painter Bridget Riley and critic Robert Kudielka brought it all together and top marks should go to the Hayward Gallery and its staff for helping them to stage it.

Seiltänzer, 1923 / Tightrope Walker
lithograph 44 x 27.9cm
Centre Pompidou, Paris / Musée national d'art moderne

Riley and Kudielka did not set out to make a blockbuster show, which would present an overview of Klee's more than 10,000 works. Rather, they seek to demonstrate his particular theory of the creative process. The result is refreshingly focused and satisfying.

Riley's comments as the show opened, were a rare chance to hear a pioneer abstractionist's own philosophy. They were a meditation on Klee's creative notions and his art. At the same time she related his ideas to her own experiences and those of artists in the 20th century. "I first encountered Klee," she said, "in the 1950s, when I was trying to find my way as an artist."

For Riley, as for many others, where to begin was and remains the key issue. "Beginning is the most important thing for anyone who longs to paint and who wants to find a way in. There is a longing to paint but the difficult thing is how to start.

"Klee's sketchbooks did not give me a clear message. There was no recipe. They were like hieroglyphics," she explained. "But what they did give me was a collective feeling of the importance of inquiry, to find out how things worked."

Before that time Riley had been a figurative painter, but she and others began to realise what an achievement liberation from representation could be. "But where were we to go from here?" she asked. "What should we go with and to where? Lines, colours, forms were the elements, but what should we do with them?

"What we learned from Klee was to discover how these elements behaved when they were allowed to do what they wanted and how they behaved under certain circumstances.

"We learned not to shirk issues. If depth and space appear, that is how things behave. This opened a bigger area for us, in which theory never interfered.

"We could discover what possibilities lay in inquiry. What the elements did when they were on their own, developing their own characteristics. Nothing was fixed. We had to be ready to re-think everything. At the same time, we cannot avoid associating one thing with another. We cannot but read works out of our own experiences and sensations. We can't be prevented from encountering 'the facts of experience'."

Riley sees in Klee's paintings, the process of things coming into being. "The moment of coming into being has so little identity that it is difficult to explain," she said. She studied notes which Klee had used in his teaching at the Bauhaus before it was shut down by the Nazis. These were first published in his Pedagogical Sketchbook and later in a compilation called The Thinking Eye.

For Klee the process of abstraction, Riley explains, is not an end but the beginning. Abstract shapes generate visual tensions and energies which Klee found could be turned, as Riley says, against "formal stability".

Klee's influence over the art of the 20th century can be ascribed to his understanding of form as movement. In her powerful essay introducing the exhibition, Riley quotes approvingly: "Form as movement, as action, active form is good. Form as rest, as end, is bad. Passive, finished form is bad. Formation is good. Form is bad; form is the end, death. Formation is movement, act. Formation is life."

Kreuze und Säulen, 1931 / Crosses and Columns
watercolour on paper mounted on card 38 x 53 cm
Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Staatsgalerie moderner Kunst

Robert Kudielka, who is professor of aesthetics and philosophy of art in Berlin, emphasises the complexity of Klee's vision. "Klee," he believes, "was working on different levels simultaneously, weaving many threads into a tapestry."

The arrangement of paintings at the Hayward unravels the strands of Klee's artistic personality - each section concentrates on different aspects: colour, line, his teachings.

Like Riley, Kudielka draws attention to Klee's concept of creation as an open-ended process. He draws on the artist's teachings to illustrate this: "The work of art," Klee told his students, " is first of all, genesis; it is never experienced purely as a result."

Klee's rebellious political ideas first found expression in satires aimed at mocking accepted cultural values. The search for a new artistic language in the years before World War I preoccupied artists throughout Europe - east and west. He was inspired by Oscar Wilde's Soul of Man Under Socialism. When the Bavarian soviet republic was formed in 1919, Klee, who was in Munich at that time, volunteered his services to the Action Committee of Revolutionary Artists.

Klee's first retrospective was held in Munich in 1920, and he went to teach at the trail-blazing Bauhaus School of Art and Design the following year. Klee's special contribution was his ability to theorise what may be termed the science of contemporary art. He remained in the vanguard of teaching there until the Nazis came to power.

Einsame Blüte, 1934 / Lonely Blossom
watercolour, pen and ink on paper
47.8 x 31.5 cm
Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

Klee did not understand creation as a purely subjective process. On the contrary, he "first directed his students' attention to the infinite subtlety of tonal shades in nature." Klee saw both nature and art as a relationship of opposites, not as a static balance but in a unstable, dynamic equilibrium, as Kudielka points out.

"Only," Klee said, "when one and two are set harshly against each other does three become necessary, in turn, to transform this harshness into harmony".

Klee's emphasis on the unfinished, on the process of creation rather than simply its outcome was and remains a challenge to dogma and a formal approach to things which looks only at "the accomplished fact".

Paul Klee: The Nature of Creation, Hayward Gallery until April 1. Open daily 10am-6pm. Until 8pm on Tuesday and Wednesdays. Admission 8/6. Also includes entrance to Ann-Sofi Siden. www.hayward.org.uk/klee

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bridget Riley