Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern holds major Klee Picasso exhibition

To mark its fifth anniversary, the Paul Klee Centre in Bern inaugurates a landmark exhibition featuring more than 180 works by Pablo Picasso and Paul Klee. Presented side by side in a display that explores a complex artistic relationship that was to have a profound impact on the course of art history, the show documents the rivalry of the two artists, but reveals striking similarities in a number of telling ways.

The exhibition ‘Klee meets Picasso’ marks the celebration of the fifth anniversary of the Zentrum Paul Klee, the undulating museum built into a hill above Bern by prestigious architect Renzo Piano.

The joint exhibition of works by Pablo Picasso and Paul Klee offers a unique insight into the lives and art of two great masters of the 20th century.

Although Picasso worked in France and Klee in Germany and Switzerland, both artists were seemingly aware of what the other one was doing.

Born two years apart, the Swiss-German Klee (1879-1940) and the Spanish-Catalan Picasso (1881-1973) were to become “the main figureheads of modern art”, Christine Hopfengart, the curator of the exhibition and the author of the admirable catalogue (in German and French) says.

Left: Pablo Picasso, Seated Harlequin on Red Background, 1905, Watercolour and Indian ink on cardboard, 57,2 x 41,2 cm, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Museum Berggruen © 2010 ProLitteris, Zürich
Right: Paul Klee, Puppet on violet ribbons, 1906, 14, reverse glass painting 24,3 x 16 cm, Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern

“Immediately after the First world war, they were considered modern art gods, both credited with taking art in a new direction,” Hopfengart indicates.

The two artists were constantly being compared by their contemporaries, which contributed to creating both a tension and a “magnetic field”, she believes.

“Picasso leads 4 to 1 against Klee”, titled Die Zeit, the weekly German magazine, before specifying that “the beacon of Picasso may shine powerfully afar, but the glow of Klee is more diffuse and deeper.”

“They were so assimilated in public opinion that the London Daily Mail in 1945 announced a Klee exhibition as “Not by Picasso, but -” Hopfengart reveals.

Both were prolific artists, but Picasso continued to pour out works for more than 30 years after the death of Klee.

During their common lifetime, Klee was intensely wary of keeping his artistic independence. He confided to a colleague of the Bauhaus, the famous design arts and crafts school in Germany where he taught from 1923 to 1930, that he must resist Picasso’s influence.

He said he must be careful that “the style of Picasso not slip unconsciously into my work, since he is has such a large and powerful personality,” adding that “each one must follow one’s own path.”

And yet the exhibition in Bern comes across as a sometimes one-way conversation where Klee admires silently or challenges the stylistic innovations of his junior whose works he had discovered as early as 1910.

In ‘Homage to Picasso’, 1914 (pictured below), one of Klee’s first oil paintings and the only homage he ever made to another artist, Klee plays with cubism, the revolutionary style initiated in 1907 by Picasso and fellow artist Juan Gris in which objects are broken up and re-assembled in an abstracted form.

Left: Paul Klee, 1914, 192, oil on cardboard 38 x 30 cm, Private collection
Right: Paul Klee, Spaniard, 1939, 683, pencil on paper on cardboard 27 x 21,5 cm, Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Gift of Livia Klee

Following his intense cubist period, Picasso then returned to the exploration of classical forms, which came as a surprise, and some say disappointment, to his followers.

It was precisely around the same time that Klee’s career took off, perhaps, as suggests Hopfengart, because he had regained confidence as Picasso’s star had temporarily waned.

Over the next years, Klee was to become, with the help of the Surrealists who had found in him a forerunner of their own ideas, the only German painter to be celebrated in Parisian galleries, where he exposed intensively during the twenties.

Juri Steiner, the young charismatic director of the Zentrum Klee, tells Swisster that the idea of presenting a joint exhibition with Picasso geminated during a symposium three and a half years ago that developed Klee’s connections with Paris and Surrealism.

“How do we get the knowledge from the Picasso side?” Steiner and Hopfengart asked themselves, realizing that “It was extremely important to develop a relationship with the Picasso estate.” They have been working on the present exhibition ever since.

“We wanted to show that the two artists have much more in common than previously believed,” Steiner underlines. “Although Picasso is the ‘monster’ and Klee the sentimental introvert, we have selected works that illustrate their artistic dialogue.”

Left  Pablo Picasso, Weeping Woman, 1937, Oil on canvas 55 x 46 cm, Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel © 2010 ProLitteris, Zürich
Right: Paul Klee, Lady Demon, 1935, 115, oil and watercolour on primed burlap on cardboard; original frame 150 x 100 cm, Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern

The exhibition is like a chronological walk through the beginnings of modern art as it retraces the different artistic periods of both masters. It is superbly set out and allows for some surprising discoveries.

In particular, the brutal vitality and virility of the expansive Spaniard is tempered by the delicate soul-searching of the chaste German-Swiss. The result is an exhibition that reveals an unsuspected fragility in Picasso and brings to light Klee’s strength of character.

“Klee was impressed by Picasso’s capacity to show serious feelings” Steiner indicates. “He was a more cerebral artist, although the spoof-like drawings that he produced on Picasso’s obsessive theme of the Minotaur bring out his irony and sense of humour.”

Klee’s lightness of touch serves him well in another portrait that he did of Picasso a year before he died, in which he appears to be poking gentle fun at the Spaniard (pictured alongside the 1914 ‘Homage’ above).

There are only two documented meetings between the two artists. The first one was on October 26, 1933 in Paris and the second on 27 November 27, 1937 in Bern when Picasso visited Klee in his modest attic studio.

But the show in Bern is a living testimony to a relationship that transcended distance.

“You can say that this is the most important part of art history that we are showing here,” Steiner stresses.

The exhibition invites visitors to discover a rich pictorial journey in the careful orchestration and sober scenography of the Zentrum’s exhibition space.

Left: Pablo Picasso, Woman with Blue Hat and Mauve Dress, 17 March 1938, Oil on canvas 46 x 38 cm, Private collection Switzerland
Right: Paul Klee, Woman cursing , 1939, 913, watercolour, tempera and pencil on primed paper on cardboard, 32 x 24/23,6 cm, Private collection Switzerland, on deposit to Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern

Runs until 26 September 2010

Zentrum Paul Klee

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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