Feature Archive

Paul Klee, Adolf Hitler and America

Klee and America
Currently on at the Phillips Collection, Washington D.C., through September 10, 2006
By Joseph Phelan

The German artist Paul Klee (1879-1940) may be the most approachable of the major 20th century modernists. Almost everyone likes the modest scale of his pieces, their childlike drawing, the playful titles, and the glowing colors.

Immediately enchanting and deceptively simple, the virtues of his art are abundantly displayed in nearly eighty rarely-seen works in Klee and America, a traveling exhibit currently at the Phillips Collection here in Washington D.C. Surprisingly, it's the first major U.S. exhibition of his work in twenty years.

The show, beautifully installed and carefully cadenced at the Phillips by curator Elizabeth Hutton Turner, is devoted to the last two decades of the artist's career -- when he went from being one of the leading stars of the European avant garde in the 1920s to being the despised target of Hitler's campaign against modern art, an exile in Switzerland until his death.

The exhibit opens with When God Considered the Creation of the Plants (1913), Klee's likeably idiosyncratic take on cubism, followed by two revelatory watercolors inspired by a trip to Tunisia. The Yellow House (1915) and Tunisian Gardens (1919) prompted his joyful exclamation "I know that I am a painter because I am color". You very likely will find yourself agreeing.

The show then jumps to the 1920s. Around this time, Klee famously observed that "art does not reproduce the visible but makes visible," an aphorism that became the cornerstone of the art of the 20th century. Such famous pieces as The Red Balloon (1922) and Fish Magic (1925) demonstrate his playful toggling between abstraction and figuration.

Klee's reception in the United States, as the show's title indicates, forms the framework of this exhibit. As early as 1931, the newly opened Museum of Modern Art, under the savvy leadership of Alfred Barr, devoted its first show of a living artist to Klee. This was a year before the museum devoted a show to Henri Matisse!

Duncan Phillips recognized Klee's talent around this time too, purchasing Tree Nursery. Yet he viewed the artist as a kind of delightful lyrical talent akin to Raoul Dufy in his lack of substance. Dufy however would never have produced a work like Twittering Machine (1922). What seems at first to be a sketch of an amusing mechanical toy or musical instrument turns into a menacing insight into the nature of the cosmos. It is as if a Walt Disney cartoon suddenly morphed into one by Tim Burton.

Here must be said that Klee put a high value on authenticity in art, and he found that authenticity in so called "primitive" culture and in the art of children and the insane. In an early newspaper article he said "All this [art] is to be taken very seriously, more seriously than all the public galleries, when it comes to reforming today's art."

This remark must have greatly disturbed some of his countrymen. Years later it was to be become the gravamen of the charges made against him by the National Socialists.

In 1933, Klee was dismissed from his teaching position by the newly appointed Nazi Minister of Culture. The artist voluntarily exiled himself to Switzerland. In 1937, the Party's notorious "Degenerate Art" exhibit showcased seventeen of his works as prime examples of the "corruption of art" that German modernism had wrought by its apparent rejection of the classical tradition of art and its aloofness from the concerns of ordinary people

The same German museums which had avidly collected his work, as well as those of Vincent Van Gogh and other modern "degenerates", were purged of their holdings. Hundreds of paintings and drawings came on the international art market at a time when museums and collectors in the United States were particularly receptive to Klee's work

During his last seven years in exile, Klee battled an incurable illness of the skin, scleroderma. Yet despite this double adversity, his creativity actually increased along the lines of Van Gogh's fantastically productive last three years. "I must draw every day" was his mantra. Almost half of Klee's astonishing output of 10,000 works was produced in these years.

The exhibit has a generous selection from this period when Klee seemed able to take the simplest of the elements of design -- the dot, the line -- and confer on them a kind of almost mythological status.

Angst (1934), The Path into the Blue (1934), Consecrated Child (1935), The Way to the Citadel (1937), The Sick Heart (1939) and The Man of Confusion (1939); all of these seem to resonant with the fragility of goodness at that fateful historical moment.

From the safety of Washington D.C., Duncan Phillips reassessed his superficial view of the artist and in the process began acquiring many more works. He converted a tiny sewing room in his Dupont Circle mansion (which the exhibit nicely recreates) into a shrine to Klee.

During the war years "almost everybody," as the art critic Clement Greenberg said, "whether conscious of it nor not, was learning from Klee." Several artists of the "greatest generation" -- Mark Rothko, Mark Tobey and Richard Diebenkorn -- stopped to look at the pieces on the wall. They were inspirited by Klee's works to transform American art into something both universal and profound.

The exhibit catalogue is edited by curators Josef Helfenstein of the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, where the exhibit originated, and Elizabeth Hutton Turner of the Phillips. It contains some excellent scholarly articles tracing the artist's reception in America over five decades, as well as valuable commentary on many individual works in the exhibit.


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