Cartoon Dancers Cavort in Klee’s Art Playground at Tate

One day Paul Klee was painting, he told a fellow artist, and he didn’t know why but he had to dance.

Klee also famously described his art as taking a line for a walk. Since the trajectory was rhythmical and intricate, it makes just as much sense to think of him doing a waltz or a fox-trot -- though probably not anything as sensuous as a tango or a twerk -- inside a little picture frame.

His work varied in scale between small and miniscule.

Consequently, Tate Modern’s new show is a large array of diminutive pictures. It is beautifully arranged, concentrating on the artist’s years of maturity between his breakthrough just before World War I and his death in 1940.

This is a blockbuster that all lovers of modernist art will want to see. For those who aren’t confirmed fans, it raises a question. How big a hitter was this dancing draughtsman?

Klee (1879-1940) is a hard artist to place. Although he produced oil paintings, his most natural medium was watercolor.

In comparison with contemporaries such as Kandinsky or Miro, he was a miniaturist. He occasionally produced a painting that looked like an out-and-out geometric abstraction, such as “Pictorial Architecture Red, Yellow, Blue” (1923); these never have the visual punch of, say, a Mondrian.

Klee’s natural mood was minor key (musical analogies are tempting, since he was a skilled violinist). As you walk around the exhibition, words such as “charming” and “playful” pop into mind. Often he is downright funny, as in his underwater pictures such as “Fish Life” (1925).

Real World

Even when it seems non-representative, Klee’s work usually implies some analogy with the real world. He was playing around with a line and patches of color until they resembled something: a garden, marine life, the roofscape of a town.

An array of flat shapes such as “Fire in the Evening” (1929) or “Castle and Sun” (1928) usually suggests a landscape and a mood. Klee’s titles, which are important, help you see what it is. The resemblance needed to be light and oblique.

Whenever he ventured into three dimensions, the magic started to seep away. His human figures tend to be a bit too cartoony, as does “Dancer” (1932). Even in this carefully chosen show, there are quite a few failures. He could be too cute.

Klee’s blossoming was relatively brief. His great decade was the 1920s, a period when he was teaching at the Bauhaus. In 1933, he was labeled a “degenerate artist” by the Nazis, and emigrated to Switzerland, his birthplace.

Two years later he was diagnosed with a degenerative disease, scleroderma, which reduced his output and killed him in 1940. His later work darkened, often literally since pictures such as “Rich Harbor” are constructed with thick black lines.

With the exception of those last pictures, there is often a feeling of the play room about Klee’s art. It evokes colored bricks and wooden toys. His impact on children’s book illustration has been enormous.

Delightful and imaginative as his work was, Klee doesn’t quite rank with the great figures in 20th-century art. Though it is admirably done, this exhibition feels a bit too big for him.

“Paul Klee: Making Visible” is sponsored by Ernst & Young LLP and at Tate Modern through March 9, 2014.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Greg Evans on U.S. television, Amanda Gordon’s Scene Last Night and Philip Boroff on U.S. theater.

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