Hitler and his friends thought Paul Klee the very model of the mad modern artist. In 1933, when the National Socialists came to power, the painter and draughtsman was dismissed from his post as a professor at the Dusseldorf Bauhaus and denounced in the newspapers as a “Siberian Eastern Jew and a dangerous cultural Bolshevist”. In 1937, his work was given a starring role in the massive touring exhibition of “Entartete Kunst” (“Degenerate Art”) organised by Hitler and Goering to reveal the decadence into which Jews, negroes, modernists and left-wing intellectuals had plunged German culture. No fewer than 17 of Klee’s delicate, idiosyncratic bizzareries were included in this supposed freak show, gathered together under the rubric “Art of the Psychopath”.


By that time the artist, who was born in Switzerland but always thought of himself as being “spiritually and aesthetically German”, had returned, reluctantly, to live in his native town of Bern. He was safe from the SS and the death camps there but, despite the odd supportive visit from fellow artists, including his exact contemporary Picasso and the pioneering abstractionist Wassily Kandinsky, he was not happy. He thought of the place as a cultural backwater, and hostile with it. After all, when the Bern Kunsthalle had staged an exhibition of his work in 1931 it had been panned by the conservative local press, the Neue Berner Zeitung thundering that “we will not tolerate the walls of two rooms in our Kunsthalle being hung with artful dodges like the disasters by this Mr Klee. Praise the Lord we are far too healthy to accept such stammering reflexes of an infantile brain as art.” The Swiss might not have been Nazis but their art critics still stamped about in jackboots.


Not everyone in Bern was like...

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