Paul Klee, while an iconic figure of Modern Art, is both applauded as well as harshly criticised. A childish technique dominates his style, and unfortunately, to add insult to injury, his works have often been knocked off for hotel art and silk shirt patterns. But he is studied, revered, almost idolised, and it is Klee’s double-sided professional existence that cultivates an allure making him a fascinating figure.
Two main elements dominate Klee’s work: line and colour. While the rest of the world now admires and studies Klee’s abilities with colour, the artist himself was always very aware and focused on his preoccupation with it, choosing to negate traditional technical skills in order to extract as much use and significance as possible from a palette. “Colour possesses me. I don’t have to pursue it. It will possess me always, I know it […] Colour and I are one”, the artist once said of himself. Klee also took inspiration from children's undisciplined creation of form, and thus there exists a more surrealist imagination running ripe through his art. Other styles such as Cubism and Expressionism played large parts in his work, and Klee would go further to completely strip away definition for his abstract pieces, yet lines and colour would remain pivotal to all of his works.
Callow at first glance, the simple structure is more about quiet, unseen complexities rather than the outright or obvious ones: the various layers of life and existence and their forms of presentation. The basic, unpretentious lines allow the other elements to take centre stage while offering a context for the work. The possibilities within a simplistic and reduced, essential form of an object provided more importance for Klee and his Der Blaue Reiter contemporaries than a perfection of realism. Of course it is this seeming lack of structure that put a negative spotlight on Klee during the reign of Hitler and the Nationalist Socialist party and earned his works a firm place in the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition in Munich in 1937 next to Chagall, Kirchner and Beckmann. As a quintessential form of Nazi propaganda to help mould the mentality of the society, the exhibition was contrasted by another titled Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great German Art Exhibition). The juxtaposition served to clarify to the public the good and the bad, and further instil a binary view of the world.
The Degenerate Art exhibition has a unique element to it, in that its name was interestingly felicitous as was noted by one exhibition-goer when describing the art, “... if they were things, they seemed to be quite different from what the things really looked like - I mean the word degenerate seemed to me to apply". Considering that the word ‘degenerate’ encompasses the following according to the Oxford dictionary, ‘Having lost the physical, mental, or moral qualities considered normal and desirable’, it is, indeed, correct that these modern, surrealist, and abstract artists created ‘degenerate art’; the incorrect element sat more within the idea that only literal representations of objects held merit. In fact, Klee was quite consumed with the idea of presenting not what something was, but what it could be, and for that reason ‘degenerate’ should be considered a compliment.
Apt and ignorant though the exhibition was, it wonderfully represents the enigma of Klee - two sides to the art, simultaneously true and false, both childish and developed. At first glance it is untutored, jejune and unpleasant, but it captures the attention and forces the viewer to more deeply consider the topics at hand - to think, analyse and reassess. Why are the colours here and not there, why can the world be seen in such a manner? How do I see it? How do others see it? The functionality of the world comes into question: A physical can take leave allowing an idea to further intensify.
What is most delightful about the Degenerate Art exhibition is that it created the great irony of propelling those artists to an elevated level in the art world as well as legitimising Modern Art for posterity and making it more desirable. Klee, for his part, performed the perfect backhand to the system that vilified and attempted to supress him; he fled to Switzerland and embarked upon his most productive period ever.
Perhaps an artist to be evaluated more intellectually and philosophically than aesthetically, Klee is difficult to comprehend and to enjoy at first glance. One of the world’s greatest qualms with Modern Art is that much of it is reproducible by anyone who picks up a pen or paintbrush, but in viewing the art in such a way, the true essence of these pieces are lost. One does not need to hang Klee’s pieces in their foyer (or even want to for that matter) to give it consideration and respect. It is the moment of contemplation when viewing his work that matters. Love him or hate him, Klee is and will always be a dominant figure in the art world – despite the obstacles, his light and his lines will continue to confuse, repulse, and surely attract.