He is funny, metaphysical and deeply searching: Paul Klee - Making Visible at Tate Modern (until 9 March) is as mysterious as a rainbow. His paintings, only 128 out of an output of 10,000, are scattered among 17 rooms full of explanation, but I found his words the most apt: ‘A line comes into being – it goes for a walk, aimlessly, for the sake of the walk.’ This may sound whimsical and childlike but his abstract blocks of colour dotted with trees, or his studies of fish which float and disintegrate into squares or pyramids, define him. This is clever stuff, with the Swiss-born metaphysical surrealist suggesting cellular beginnings and endlessness. The works have fantastic names like Redgreen and Violet-Yellow Rhythms or Static-Dynamic Gradation. Any human forms that appear float like ghosts, almost extinguished by squares and oblongs.
Klee’s fascination with colour intensified with his trip in April 1914 to Tunisia, where he drew inspiration from its religious places. Often he portrays a black sun and an arrow, a moon, yellow or blue which could represent an eye, human or fish. There are hints of war graves, clocks and crosses. After Germany’s defeat in 1918 and the abdication of the Kaiser, Klee was swept up in a revolutionary fervour, which was marked by stronger, more dynamic colours.
His work is less contained than Kandinsky’s or Mondrian’s but equally involved with the vocabulary of colour. For those who can’t read him, he will resemble a difficult equation written on the school blackboard. But there are fiery, elemental stirrings behind the deceptively simple blocks of colour. He is like a scientist struggling with the meaning of life. To understand him, you must share his universal questioning, working through his metaphysical spaces in which the colour patterns are like a code to be broken. Hugo Ball remarked on his playfulness ‘in an age of the colossus’.
In 1921 Klee joined Walter Gropius in the Bauhaus, where, with little teaching experience, he became one of the most popular masters. He developed an oil transfer technique, using a tracing needle over a sheet of painted paper. The device suited his cartoon-like drawings. But, as the economic crisis deepened, Bauhaus funding was halved. So, with Gropius, Kandinsky and others, he helped relocate the Bauhaus to Dessau.
Later, as war loomed again, his paintings of Walpurgisnacht referenced his interest in Goethe but, in his final year, 1939, suffering from scleroderma, he completed 1,253 paintings. Many of these last works are surprisingly joyful and optimistic. He lived to see 17 of his works snatched from state collections and used in the Nazis’ ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition in Munich, followed by a further 140.
There’s still time to catch the National Portrait Gallery’s current exhibition Elizabeth I & Her People (until 5 January). The focus is on the new, wealthy mercantile class rich enough to have their portraits painted: they are shown holding skulls, ensuring their earthly humility and thus a place in heaven - a kind of memento mori.
The growing merchant classes did not exclude women from their midst. One woman, a famous calligrapher, is strikingly portrayed in a high crowned hat and stiff grey ruff. Here is a country resolving its years of religious turbulence as literature and culture began to flourish with a growing middle class.