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Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2002

A traveler possessed by light

Special to The Japan Times

Part of the game of art nowadays is for artists, whatever their influence or orientation, to avoid classification. Once this happens, their work often devolves into well-worm cultural cliche. One 20th-century artist who escaped this process, though, was Paul Klee (1879- 1940), whose work is as hard to pin down today as it was when it was first created.

News photo
"Cathedral" (1932) by Paul Klee

"Paul Klee and his Travels," a exhibition now at MOMA Kamakura, then touring to Morioka, Tsu and Matsumoto, reinforces this innovative artist's popularity in Japan.

The works on display tease us with touches of genre -- Cubism, Primitivism and Surrealism -- as if daring us to lump their creator in with the early 20th-century artistic movements with which he collaborated, such as the Blue Rider Expressionist group or the Bauhaus movement.

But the truth is that Klee was perhaps the most personal of the 20th century's great painters. Toshio Yamanashi, chief curator of MOMA Kamakura, says that this intimacy is the key to the artist's particular appeal in Japan.

There are other factors as well. "Klee's work was introduced [to Japan] very early," adds Yamanashi. "Not only painters but also Japanese writers and poets were influenced by him." He cites the writer Junnosuke Yoshiyuki, whose 1963 novel, "Vegetable Kingdom on the Sand," was inspired by the eponymous Klee painting, as well as the poet Shuntaro Tanigawa, whose books are typically illustrated with Klee's works.

Klee's images may indeed work as a visual backdrop for someone else's poems; and children's-book illustrators have liberally mined the seam of naivete first explored by Klee in works such as "Southern Coast in the Evening" (1925) and "Fishes in Circles" (1926).

And yet Klee's paintings still manage to exist on their own terms. Is this because they continue to reverberate with the painter's own deep psychology of creation? The Japanese artist and eccentric Taro Okamoto once famously said that art was an explosion. Though this captures such 20th-century greats as Picasso and abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, Klee represents a more introverted aesthetic whereby images are processed deep inside the artist's mind.

Consequently, the "travel" theme of the exhibition gives useful insights into Klee's creation of art, for he was deeply affected by his trips to Tunisia and Egypt. His earlier works were principally pen-and-ink drawings or etchings, such as the grotesque satire, "Winged Hero" (1905). But when visiting Tunisia in 1914, Klee was immediately struck by the intensity of light and color there. "Color has taken possession of me," he wrote at the time. "No longer do I have to chase after it, I know that it has a hold of me forever."

This revelation didn't lead to an outpouring of local scenes, as with William Turner's famous visit to Italy almost a century before. Although making some sketches and studies, for example, his geometric "Study of an Aged Dromedary" (1914), Klee's impressions took longer to emerge in his work, and did so more obliquely. Perhaps inspired by the block-shaped buildings of North African cities, he started using compositions of colored squares and other simple shapes, as in his radiant "Small Vignette to Egypt" (1918), a country he finally visited in 1928.

Also influential were Klee's frequent trips to Italy, where he was particularly struck by Byzantine mosaics. The accumulated impact of these impressions can be marked in such works as the luminous "Cathedral" (1932) -- no mere travel snapshot, but a work that has completed its own voyage through Klee's psyche, expressing his declared view that "art does not reproduce the visible, it makes the visible."

Although other artists, like his contemporary and friend Wassily Kandinsky, moved from figurative art toward the abstract, Klee retained identifiable motifs. But the focus of his painting was rather on the compositional process and the very elements of a painting, such as line or color. In "Catastrophe of the Sphinx" (1937), the great icon of the ages is treated playfully, as Klee's sensuous love of line turns it into an oddly affecting caricature.

In such works, we can almost feel the hand of the artist painting as we watch. It is surely this quality that has helped Klee to escape -- thus far -- the constricting noose of art history.

"Paul Klee and his Travels" runs till March 31 at the Museum of Modern Art, in front of Tsurugaoka Shrine, Kamakura; tel. (0467) 225-000. Open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Monday. Admission 1000 yen, 850 yen for students.

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