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Richness and harmony: “Redgreen and Violet-Yellow Rhythms”, 1920 by Paul Klee

Paul Klee (1879-1940) was the son of musicians, he was himself a violinist of concert standard and he went on to marry a professional pianist. When he became an artist the music didn't stop: he simply carried on playing melodies and tapping out rhythms, but on paper and canvas instead. Although stylistically he moved around a distorted figuratism and various modes of abstraction, his art throughout his career was always musical and usually at the lyrical and joyous end of the scale.

Klee's notes were colours. In the early years of the 20th century he was primarily an etcher but in 1914 he visited Tunisia and it changed him for good. He wrote from there that "Colour possesses me. I no longer need to pursue it: it possesses me forever, I know. Colour and I are one — I am a painter." Delacroix had had a similar revelation when he visited North Africa almost a century earlier. Klee had no love for the bright or acidic, his colours remained subtle, one tone lower than a lesser painter would have used but of a richness and harmony that was not seen again until the work of Mark Rothko.

With colour came notation. From 1921 to 1931 Klee taught at Walter Gropius's Bauhaus, alongside Kandinsky and Moholy-Nagy, and his years there refined his design — oriented compositions which mixed the architectural and the organic. "Whether we like it or not, our eyes gobble squares, circles and all manner of fabricated forms," he wrote, and these forms were the basis of his art. He would work with grids, blocks, lines, patches and hieroglyphs. He used individual marks like pixels that together might shape themselves into something tangible, if only one could see them from the correct distance. But despite the compositional armature being invariably clear and defined, he never let it become mechanical, although his pictorial elements were often repeated. From 1911 Klee even signed each work with his variant of the Köchel cataloguing system, using two numbers, the first giving the year and the second the work's place in that year's production. 

Klee's visual musicality is on full display in the 17 rooms that comprise Tate Modern's major exhibition of his work, Paul Klee: Making Visible. The hanging follows his numbering system and is strictly chronological allowing for a detailed examination of both his development and his belief that "Art does not reproduce the visible, rather, it makes visible." The works are invariably small and delicate so to give the show a suitably contemplative tempo many of the rooms have only a handful of paintings, widely spaced.

He was Swiss-born, Munich-trained and Paris-inspired, and his early work shows the influences of the times. There are dollops of Cubism, Symbolism and Expressionism in there as well as a leaning towards naturalism that never quite coalesces into direct representation. A gouache such as Above Mountain Summit, 1917, shows this melange of styles and also the whimsy that is often present in his work. During the 1920s the stylised forms of fish, almost as a child would draw them, were a favourite motif.

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