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December 1999

Artful Dodger

Paul klee ranks among the most celebrated of modern German artists. His often dream-like watercolors and oil paintings are readily recognizable and can be appreciated without much knowledge of their place in art history. An exhibition in the Haus der Kunst, which runs until January 9, 2000, offers the possibility to discover a lesser-known side of the artist’s works. “Mask” and “myth” are the two catchwords that invite the viewer to take a look behind the images. Paul Klee, like many of his contemporaries, studied Latin and Greek and had a lifelong interest in Classical Greek and Germanic mythology. He sojourned in Italy, Greece and Egypt, and, upon seeing the frescoes in Pompeii remarked: “Painted for me only, excavated only for me.” Yet, it is difficult to understand his interpretations of mythological themes by looking at the paintings alone. Unlike Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), for example, Klee did not rely on a traditional repertoire of images to interpret the cultural heritage of Europe. Only by reading the paintings’ titles — which Klee, as if anticipating this necessity, often inscribed directly on his works — does it become clear what the pictures depict: a Greek goddess, a gnome, a spirit. His early paintings betray a more naturalistic formal idiom than his later ones, facilitating their “reading”: a hero with only one wing futily tries to fly; an aged Phoenix leans heavily on a stick. Perhaps these images signify Klee’s desire to break free from the idealized, representational art of Classical antiquity, for his approach to mythological motifs became increasingly non-representational, as if struggling to find a more modern means of artistic expression. A Klee exhibition in the Haus der Kunst has special significance. The venue was originally built to house the “natural” and “healthy” art propagated by the Nazi regime. The exhibition “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art), which included 17 works by Paul Klee, was held simultaneously in another Munich venue in 1937. The history of the Haus der Kunst is documented along the corridor leading to the Klee exhibition, which includes a photograph of the giant head of the Pallas Athena being proudly paraded through the streets of Munich on the “Day of German Art.” The self-serving display of approval lavished upon the work from Classical antiquity by the Nazis lends special meaning to Klee’s question: “Will I ever produce a Pallas?” This is the statement of an artist secretly wishing to compete with the Classical tradition, but not with the National Socialist regime. As Hitler rose to power, Klee left his teaching post at the Düsseldorf Art Academy and returned to his native Bern, Switzerland, in December 1933. Whereas a sense of humor prevailed in his earlier renditions of mythological themes, the later pictures are somewhat less so, one exception is the painting entitled Siren mit Altstimme, whose main figure bears a moustache which is reminiscent of Hitler’s. Klee continued painting mythological motifs until his death which was brought on by a prolonged illness in 1940. It is, therefore, not surprising that two of the last paintings in the exhibition deal with Hades, the Greek underworld. At the far end of the ground floor exhibition hall, Klee’s school books and diaries as well as a table of biographical information completes the picture of the artist’s life and times. A lavishly illustrated book, published in German and in English is available, providing further insight into Klee’s oeuvre in three well-written essays, though it is unfortunate that a catalog of the exhibition was not published on this occasion. Without catalog entries, the only clues to the meanings of these fascinating images are the titles, which, all too often deny the visitor an in-depth look at Paul Klee’s work. <<<

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