Exhibit traces troubled era of artist

Posted: Thursday, March 25, 2004

NEW YORK Like a star burst in the gathering gloom, modern artist Paul Klee painted some of his most luminous works on the eve of World War II, as Europe drifted into catastrophe and his death approached from a crippling disease.

Whimsy and buoyancy in his Bauhaus pictures of the 1920s reflected Klee's innovative theories of color and composition. His upbeat pointillist mosaics followed in the early 1930s while he taught at the Duesseldorf Academy in Germany.

Hounded by the Nazis, Klee took refuge in 1933 in Bern, Switzerland. His works in German museums were confiscated, his livelihood disrupted and he was diagnosed in 1936 with incurable scleroderma, a chronic autoimmune disease.

Klee responded with an outpouring of creativity 1,253 works in 1939 alone that took his art in new directions before his death in 1940 at 61.

Those later creations shape ''Klee: His Late Work,'' a concise new survey on view through June 27 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, its only exhibit stop.

The 24 oils, watercolors and drawings are from the Met's Berggruen Collection, one of the largest Klee holdings in the United States. The works spanning his career were donated by Heinz Berggruen, a former art dealer in Paris who specialized in Klee.

''We're the only place in New York where Klees are always on display,'' said curator Sabine Rewald.

Klee ranks among the greatest innovators of modern art with Picasso, Matisse, Braque, his close friend Wassily Kandinsky and a few others. He never became rich, although he achieved considerable fame in avant-garde circles with exhibitions starting in New York in 1924, Paris in 1925 and other art centers later on.

The Nazis paid him a backhanded compliment by including 17 of his confiscated works in a show of ''degenerate artists'' in Munich in 1938.

''Right after the war, you could buy a Klee in Germany for a pack of cigarettes,'' Rewald, a Berlin native, said. ''Today? A million!''

Klee's early compositions were small format in a variety of mediums, executed with delicate lines, eye-catching hues and rich in fantasy and symbolism.

''Art does not reproduce the visible, it makes visible,'' Klee wrote, summing up his intentions.

While artists' skills often diminish as they age, Klee's grew stronger. ''In a purely visual sense, he was still full of creativity'' until the end of his life, Rewald said.

As the scleroderma caused his body fluids to dry up, Klee's style changed. ''The formats are large, the lines stronger, the colors bolder,'' Rewald explained.

The survey begins in 1925 and includes notable late works with weighty themes: ''Stricken City'' (1936), featuring lacework lines in gypsum and oil on canvas; ''The Rhine at Duisburg'' (1937), a pictogram with boats and rippling waves in gypsum, oil and charcoal on cardboard; ''Little Hope'' (1938), the outline of a girl's face in plaster and watercolor on burlap; ''Angel Applicant'' (1939), a monstrous mask sketched in black ink, gouache and pencil; and ''The Hour Before One Night'' (1940), an abstract watercolor of heavy black lines in a grid over patches of red, blue and burnt sienna gouache.

Born in Bern to a German father and Swiss mother, Klee held German citizenship all his life, though he had applied for Swiss naturalization at the time of his death at a sanatorium in Muralto-Locarno.

''People here don't want Klee to be German. They associate German artists with heavy, gloomy, aggressive works,'' Rewald said. ''People tell me he's Swiss, not German. He doesn't fit their preconceptions.''

An accomplished violinist, Klee developed theories about music's relationship to painting and sought to portray sounds on canvas and paper. His works have been compared to chamber music.

Klee used chessboard patterns to convey abstract landscapes, and linear constructions to evoke urban life. In some works in the display, letters and numerals are arrayed like hieroglyphics, and still life objects are rendered in cubist style.

Klee laid out his artistic theories in books, and sketched his own development in a famous diary. Encountering the brilliant light of the desert in Tunisia in 1914, he wrote, ''Color has taken possession of me. No longer do I have to chase after it.''

Klee moved to Munich in 1898 at age 19 to study art, and traveled to Italy, France, Egypt and elsewhere to absorb art history. He married a Bavarian pianist, Lily Stumpf, in 1906 and they had one son. His initial sales were through galleries in Germany and Switzerland and book illustrations.

Early on, Klee devised a catalog for each work, listing the date and quality for pricing. His output exceeded 9,000 works. The majority were drawings, which now command tens of thousands of dollars at auction.

''He made all his own mediums, including the glue to mount his works on cardboard. He didn't buy his colors as artists do today,'' Rewald said.

Klee spent World War I as an aircraft painter and pay clerk, after the German army drafted him in 1916. In 1922, Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school of art, architecture and crafts, lured him to Weimar. Klee resigned in 1931 as political turmoil engulfed the Bauhaus.

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