Paul Klee's Colorful Trail in Italy ; Exhibition in Rome Examines How Artist's Trips Influenced His Work

By Morris, Roderick Conway | International Herald Tribune, January 2, 2013 | Go to article overview

Paul Klee's Colorful Trail in Italy ; Exhibition in Rome Examines How Artist's Trips Influenced His Work


Morris, Roderick Conway, International Herald Tribune


"Paul Klee and Italy," an exhibition of 45 of the artist's works at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome, examines the influence of his visits to Italy on his painting.

Four avant-garde painters -- Chagall, Klee, Kokoschka and Picasso -- were given prominence in 1948 in the first Venice Biennale following the Second World War and were described in the event's catalog as artists "who had defended, in dark moments, cultural freedom in western Europe."

The Venice Biennale continued to play a role in posthumously bringing Klee's work to international public attention in two subsequent editions. In 1950, 17 of his pieces from the 1910-14 period were exhibited in a show at the German Pavilion of the Blaue Reiter group of Munich, and in 1954, 53 of his works from 1915 to 1940 (the year of his death) were exhibited in a solo retrospective.

Klee visited Italy six times but, whereas his trips to Tunisia and Egypt are regularly cited as important events in his development as an artist, his excursions to the Italian peninsula and Sicily have received little attention. This theme is now examined in "Paul Klee and Italy," an exhibition of 45 of the artist's works at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome, researched and curated by Tulliola Sparagni and Mariastella Margozzi.

Klee was born near Bern, Switzerland, to a German music-teacher father and a Swiss singer mother in 1879. His first instincts were to follow his parents into a musical career but on leaving school in 1898 he decided to train as a draftsman and artist in Munich.

In 1901 and 1902 he embarked on a grand tour of Italy, much of it spent in Rome, but he also visited Naples and Florence.

The introductory section of the exhibition displays four of Klee's mature works from the 1920s and '30s that were shown at the postwar Venice Biennales. The rest is mostly ordered chronologically.

The first of these rooms contain some of the fruits of the artist's first visit to Italy, in 1901-02. There are five examples of a series of etchings, which he called "Inventions," executed in 1903-05. They are derived from his studies of ancient Roman and Greek statuary, but given a comic-grotesque spin by deliberate elongations and distortions, in a style that he would later describe as "gothic-classical." These etchings were shown in his first public show in Munich in 1906. But he spent most of the first decade of the century based in Bern, making trips to Paris and Munich, and striving to find more personal modes of expression.

In 1911, he met August Macke and, soon after, Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky. Having been received into the Blaue Reiter group, he contributed works to a graphics exhibition they staged early in 1912. He continued to concentrate on graphic works until 1914, when he went on a two-week trip to Tunisia with Macke and Louis Moilliet. This, in his own estimation, was when he fully discovered color. And, as he famously noted in his journal: "Color and I are one. I am a painter."

Yet it was a characteristic of Klee's career that elements in his work often emerged after long periods of thought and experimentation. Indeed, as his letters to the pianist Lily Stumpf, whom he was to marry in 1906, reveal, he was already recording his reactions to color on his visits to Roman sites and in his observations on the painting of Italian artists, such as Botticelli and Andrea del Sarto, on his first trip to Italy. And looking back in 1919, he traced to his Italian experiences "the beginning of a chromatic sense."

This same slow gestation can be seen in the role of architecture in his works, a major facet of his mature paintings. And this, too, was partly stimulated by his encounters with Renaissance palazzi in Italy. As he wrote to his parents from Rome in 1901: "We need to recognize architecture as an art. …

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