The Paul Klee collection from New York on show at the Tate Gallery.
IN THE restaurant run by my father, the fattest man in Switzerland,' Paul Klee remembered in his auto-biography, 'were tables topped with polished marble in slabs, whose surface displayed a maze of petrified layers. In this labyrinth of lines one could pick out human grotesques and capture them with a pencil. I was fascinated with this pastime; my bent for the bizarre announced itself (nine years).'
In 'Paul Klee' at the Tate Gallery the artist's bent for the bizarre announces itself in Pierrot's Persecution Mania, 1924. A barrel-chested doodle of a clown is pursued across ghostly towers and stairways by a car-toon maenad in a tutu. Stranded between one castellation and another, he is, clearly, about to plummet to earth (just beneath his feet Klee has drawn a thick black arrow, pointing downwards, to indicate his fate) but he hovers for a moment, hopelessly defying gravity like Wile E. Coyote over the Grand Canyon.
Oddity prevails in Klee's universe. In another watercolour, a man - the title tells you he is a ventriloquist - walks the gangplank in a landscape of chequerboard abstraction, his see-through body filled with odd, writhing biomorphs. In Memory of an All-Girl Jazz Band memorialises the Jazz Age by depicting a Surrealis-tic trio of musically inclined furies; rendered in Klee's characteristic smudgy, spider-gone-walkabout line, they look as though they have been drawn in smoke.
Klee's bizarreness naturally endeared him to the Dadaists and, subsequently, the Surrealists, but over the years it has counted against him too. He has been remembered as an influential but incorrigibly slight figure, a cartoon modernist who indulged the least whim of his antic imagination. He compounded the sup-posed felony of eccentricity by working mostly on a small scale which, along with his preference for the supposedly secondary media of pencil and watercolour, has tended to encourage the idea that he was essentially a petit maitre.
At the same time, the artist has always had his devotees, a small circle of avid collectors and admirers one of whose number, Heinz Berggruen, has given a large part of his collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Berggruen's Klees, on loan to the Tate until mid-August, add up to a superb and refresh-ing exhibition which challenges one of the most pervasive and wrongheaded orthodoxies of the contempo-rary art world. It proves that you do not have to paint big to be big; further, it establishes Klee as something of a rarity in the history of modernism, a great artist who preserved his sense of humour intact.
Klee was not unambitious for his art. 'Formerly we used to represent things visible on earth,' he wrote, 'things we either liked to look at or would have liked to see. Today we reveal the reality that is behind visible things, thus expressing the belief that the visible world is merely an isolated case in relation to the universe and that there are many more other, latent realities.'
The transition from what Klee called 'visible' to 'latent' realities is dramatised in the early stages of this show. Its first image is a triumph of miniaturisation, a fetishistically detailed line-drawing of a row of houses in old Bern which Klee drew in 1893, at the age of 13, on a scrap of paper two inches high by five across: the well-heeled residential world of the Swiss bourgeoisie writ small. It is a drawing that suggests a certain consistency on Klee's part, declaring his commitment to the small-scale, but its neat, orderly picture of the way things are would be shattered by his encounter with the Cubism of Braque and Picasso, and his discovery of the vivid, heatstruck colours of Tunisia.
Hammamet with its Mosque, of 1914, announces a new, shimmeringly dissolved image of the world, a collision of planes and colours where buildings become rough-edged areas of watercolour wash and fields and gardens are remade as a dazzling patchwork of earth-red triangles, yellow stars and green blobs. Unti-tled of 1914 takes Klee's new vision to abstract extremes, setting its quilt of splodgy, abutting rectangles of translucent colour dancing in indeterminate space, as if the tight-knit, angular forms of the Cubists had been shaken loose. Suggesting a bird's-eye-view across fields seen through half-closed eyes it is, also, a paradi-sial image, the world transmuted by art into a new Eden.
Klee wanted, among other things, to restore art to a state of innocence. In his own way, he reactivated the Romantics' old faith in the child's purity of vision - which so many of his drawings or watercolours seek to emulate - while pointing the way for the later developments of art brut and the calculated naiveties of Jean Dubuffet. 'I want to be as though new-born,' he proclaimed, 'knowing absolutely nothing about Europe, ignoring facts or fashions to be almost primitive.'
That was, by now, virtually a commonplace of European aesthetic thought, but for Klee it was more than a received idea. It was his peculiar achievement to translate the grandest aspirations of the Romantics - the recreation in art of an earthly paradise, the exploration of sublime landscape vastnesses or realms of cosmic ethereality - into the language of an art consecrated to the childlike. Libido of the Forest, with its swirl of scratchy, scribbled abstract hatchings that still read vestigially as foliage, is a near-perfect example of Klee's marriage of the naive and the grandiose - small-scale pantheism, a rough envisaging of the world as a fertile, writhing flux. Its mobile whorls and coils are oddly reminiscent of Turner's natural vortices. Elsewhere, Caspar David Friedrich's dark Germanic copses are brought to mind: Forest of Beauty, a small oil, enlivens a gridded chequerboard of colour planes with tiny, fir tree ideograms, Friedrich's enchanted forest refracted through post-Cubist space, rendered in jewel-like, enamelled miniature.
Minuteness always suited Klee, partly because he perceived the infinite inherent in 'the visible world' proceeding in two directions at the same time. On one hand he conjured images of blurred expansion, the world melting into radiance or repeating itself, ad infinitum, in colour swatch geometry; on the other, taking his cue in part from contemporary advances in microscopy, Klee created a world that crawls with detail. This is where Klee's line - which he once described as 'my most personal possession' - takes over from colour, breeding lively, graphic sub-cultures of surpassing weirdness.
In Drawing Knotted in the Manner of a Net, Klee's join-the-dot whackiness evokes the intricacies of a world invisible to the naked eye: the long-legged, pop-eyed things that live in a drop of water, or tiny germi-nating seeds. His Abstract Trio looks like a threesome of dancing microbes. Klee was nothing if not eclectic, but even his images of the modern metropolis can suggest a similarly microscopic vision. Cold City, which the Nazis confiscated from an exhibition in Mannheim in 1937 on the grounds that it was 'degenerate', sets abstracted buildings adrift in space like settling snowflakes: the city, seen through the Klee-doscope, turns crystalline.
Klee took his art seriously but not, this show reminds you, too seriously. He often seems to send up the preoccupations of an era most of whose major figures devoted themselves to angst or trauma. The bearded gentleman engaged in his Analysis of Various Perversities - who has rigged up a number of peculiar contraptions to measure, among other things, a bird's flow of urine into an angler's keep-net - is presumably Freud, in the guise of whacky cartoon scientist. Klee's art was always resolutely anti-monumental, preferring to phrase tragedy in the terms of the naive artist, letting pathos emerge from scrawled effusion rather than six-foot canvas. Dance of the Mourning Child - a balloon-headed scribble-girl waltzes melancholically with a peacock feather - is entirely characteristic, a sorrowful graffito to set against the century's grander statements of human misery.
Klee could, too, dramatise his own quest for higher realities as farce or cartoon caper. In Tale a la Hoffmann, the little stick-figure running up a ladder, lost in a labyrinth of odd, Heath Robinsonish plumbing and mechanics, is surely Klee himself. The Hoffmann tale the artist was illustrating (according to Sabine Rewald's industrious catalogue) tells the story of Anselmus, a young man who tries to gain entry to the heaven of poetry; it is touch-and-go whether he will make it. Klee's heaven is, typically, a realm given over to idiosyncrasy, inviting and bizarre - an airy expanse of smudged paper inhabited only by an umbrella on a very long stalk and an ungainly bird which, incidentally, bears more than a passing resemblance to Road-runner.