Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Geneve Journal: Klee Kringle

We received a light cover of snow last night, just in time for Christmas. It's a welcome touch, but still not quite as xmasy feeling as my day spent in Bern on Dec 8th.
Snow had reached Geneva the day before.  I had a great view of the slow tumbling from my apartment/workspace window, and enjoyed watching the particular brand of drawing done in the snow by the groundskeepers' brooms. It was a hefty dusting, but much of it was gone from the pavement by late in the afternoon, even as it the flakes sputtered down through the evening. Making my way home that night, I was subjected to a bizarre vision of insects scurrying about beneath the light of a lamppost.  More bizarre yet was the falling of a snowflake, landing right on top of such an insect.  This happened not once, but twice and almost/maybe three times before I realized that the insects were actually shadows cast by the falling flakes.

The surrounding environs had been much harder hit and this was evident from my view from the train I took the next morning (Saturday, Dec 8) to Bern.

My objective for the day was all Paul Klee, with planned visits to the Zentrum Paul Klee and the Kunstmuseum of Bern.  The anniversary of Klee's birthday (Dec 18, 1879) was observed last week. 
The center of Bern
Bern on this day was a true winter wonderland.  Just enough snow to lend the effect of the quintessential Christmas village but not enough to choke off any fondness for that season.

My first objective was The Zentrum Paul Klee.  Home of the archives, research center and collection of the artist's work.  Located outside the center of town, it's a relatively short bus ride to the ZPK which houses two exhibition spaces a theater and educational workshops.  There were two exhibits on view at the time of my visit; The Angels of Klee and Master Klee! Teacher at the Bauhaus.  The first exhibit is a group exhibit of work by various contemporary artists which ties loosely, and at times tenously to Klee's body of work focusing on angels.  These angel works, charming though they may be, and popular for sure, and fitting given the holiday season, lack the meat of his other work.   These drawings, watercolors and a few oils lie at the center, literally, of the exhibit, occupying the core galleries of the exhibition space and ringed by the by the contributions of the other artists.   En masse, the Klee angels are light fare, but the assembled selection of other artists works amounts to an imaginative selection. This assembled group offered some entertaining and amusing inclusions; a segment of a Charlie Chaplin film, Beuys' I love America and America Loves Me, Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire.  For me, the most compelling work and the one that drove me to linger the longest was Ejia-Liisa Ahtila's The Annunciation. Three screens, often showing differing vantage points of the same scene.  Rudimentarily, one could say that Atilla is presenting a vision replete with cubist sensibilities. Offering three views of any given moment. - but even as the viewing potential of the scene if tripled, I feel even more aware of those corners that I'm not seeing.  The gist of the piece is the casting and production of a rendition of the annunciation....sort of a meta documentary - metacumentary .....if can one say that.  quasi-scripted, quasi-captured narrative of a group of Finnish women as they rehearse and prepare for a performance - not for a public performance per se, but for the viewer of this artwork.
Views out either side of the glass corridor connecting two of the "hills" that house components of the ZPK.

The exhibit in the lower gallery, focused on Klee's role as teacher, and the works were organized in sections according to chapters .
Over all, the offerings of Klee works at the ZPK at this time, given the focus of the two exhibits, felt thin and timid.  If I came to Bern and was looking to really dig in to Klee's work and this was all that was on view, I'd feel a little shorted.  Fortunately, there was more Klee being offered elsewhere in Bern, and it was on my agenda.
Some scenes outside the ZPK.

After I exited the museum (designed by Renzo Piano) I saw a placard showing the walking paths around the center, as well as Klee's place of burial.  This seemed an added bonus so I decided to check it out.

Maybe 60 yards up a little street, I came upon spiraling mound of earth topped by a tree just before the gate of a cemetery.   At the opening of a path leading to and up the spiral is a street sign saying Luft-Station.  Was this mound Klee's grave?  The signage wasn't clear to me.  There was a placard for the Luft-Station which quoted the inscription on the artists grave.   In the end, after mounting, then descending the spiral, I saw a map sign on the gate that showed where the grave of Klee is located.  I couldn't find it.  As I learned later, from image I found online, Klee's grave is a low horizontal slab and was well covered by snow during my visit.

I'm still not entirely sure about the nature of the Luft-Station form.  The signpost says it is the title of one of his works.  In front of the entrance of the ZPK stands a giant orange linear sculpture called Unstable Signpost (labiler Wegweiser).  This sculpture is a three dimensional rendition of an image from on of Klee's drawings of the same title.  Has such a similarly drawn form given inspiration to the Luft-Station "sculpture"?  I don't know.  That is my assumption, but my not-so-rigorous search for info has not yielded any.  The only mentions of Luft-Station I've seen online refer to this formation and the prime views it offers of the surrounding Alps.  I couldn't make out the distant peaks on the overcast day of my visit, but I was more enthralled by the structure itself and the peaceful wintry passage I had all to myself.

I hopped back on the bus into town with the aim of visiting the Paul Klee/Johannes Itten exhibit at the Kunstmuseum.  I descended from the bus in the middle of town to walk through the streets and find my way to the museum.

The ingenuity of the medieval alpine architecture intrigued me on my first visit to Bern and continued to do so on this visit.  The the major streets are lined on both sides by covered porticos.  The ground floor shops are recessed, allowing for a covered passageway protected from the weather.  It's the prototypical mall.   The integration of this inside/outside utility of the buildings still impresses me by its urbanity and civility.

 I walked through a Christmas market of stalls filled with crafted goods, although there was not much that spoke to me.  Much of it was like what you'd expect to find in any Christmas market anywhere, but the stall selling Native American dream catchers really punctuated this point while also bursting some little bubble of assumption of indigenous authenticity.   Another market was devoted to largely to flowers and Christmas wreaths and swags of fir and pine.  This was more interesting to me and even tempted me to pick up some sweet smelling branches of fir.
A sculpture of barricades?

The exhibit Itten-Klee: Cosmos of Color at the Kunstmuseum delivers the goods on Klee with an ample sampling of works throughout his career, including some real great exemplars of his power as an artist.  There are also many paintings by Johannes Itten on view and a few are relatively successful - but only a few, to my mind.  A possible alternate exhibition title  I could have suggested is Klee Klobbers Itten.  I can imagine the exhibition curator saying "this is not a competition at all, but an extensive comparison of how the two local artists developed their influential theories of color in parallel, but individual ways."    Upon reflection I agree, the exhibit layed out among 11 galleries is not a competition.  It couldn't possibly be a competition, not because it was not intended as a competition (which is something you can't truly contro) but because Klee simply smokes Itten into oblivion; blows him out of the water in terms of inventiveness, sensitivity to composition and handling of materials and in presenting work imbued with a humanity and charm.  No, you can't help but make a qualitative comparison between two artists when they're presented side by side.  There is no contest here;  Klee outclasses Itten on virtually every level.  This was the refrain that was repeatedly in my consciousness whenever confronted with a switch from one artist to the other in the exhibit layout.    Itten surely new how to mix color mighty well.  Benjamin Moore or Sherwin Williams would probably gladly have him on their teams, and there are some truly intense and brilliant color pairings in a group of larger paintings in the show's final gallery.  But I think the unintended message of this exhibit is that although both of these Swiss- born men were influential teachers, one man became a true artist, the other remained a teacher who made colorful paintings.
My own riff on an Itten composition, watercolor, pastel and pencil.
I didn't NEED to go to Bern to see work by Klee.  His paintings are not unknown entities in NY.  I am lucky to have timed my travel to coincide with this particular show because of the range and breadth of the work included, which was what I was hoping/assuming I'd find in coming to his home town.  Klee presages many abstract painters to come in the work shown in this exhibit.  And much of it is still fresh, very fresh.  Fresh enough to think one was strolling through some contemporary gallery in Brooklyn.  One particular painting, actually oil pastel on done on a cloth napkin is R A W and real tight. Monochromatic geometric shapes on a white aging piece of fabric.  And a couple of other works done on burlap - small - had the presence of a much larger piece.
Well worth the trip and, as a whole, as an experience of viewing Klee - the painter, much more satisfying than the work I saw at the ZPK.

There were a couple of other special exhibits at the Kunstmuseum.  Otto Nebel, Painter and Poet, directly downstairs from the Klee- Itten show, almost felt like an extension of that exhibit.  Nebel was a slightly younger contemporary of the other two artists.  This extensive exhibit of his work shows how he, like any artist of his time, danced through the influences of the established practitioners of the abstract language from the early 20th C.  There are Kandinsky-like paintings, Klee-like paintings, etc with little tweaks....like an almost-Kandinsky, but with a unique textured surface.  He was involved in some interesting exercises testing out the communicative capacity of visual form, seemingly creating a series of abstract codes.  I think he really hit his spot with a series of compelling vertical, quasi-cubist paintings of church and cathedral interiors.   Intricate, jewel-like, with the feel of stone columns, cornices and arches depicted as if in stained glass, but with a textured body.  I found these to be unique and beautiful.  This very poor example does at least give a sense of the compositional elements shared by most of this body of paintings.

As it turns out, there were several examples of possibly brave but usually unfair pairings of artists' works throughout the Kunstmuseum's galleries.  Moving through the permanent collection rooms, the timeline of works of the 20th C was skewed here and there to offer examples of serendipity and similarity between different eras.  I don't have notes from these, but some of them were interesting, both from an experiential and educational standpoint.  There was one artist (I don't recall the name, but the work was very recent.  I assumed a relatively young one artist) who had the fortune and misfortune to be hanging next to a small dark Rothko.  By comparison, this artist's work, which shared some tonality, and even manner of application, look thin, insignificant and cheap - and none of that in a good way.
Similarly, another temporary exhibit, Meret's Sparks, Surrealisms in Contemporary Swiss Art, comprised of  select examples of Swiss artist Meret Oppenheim's work set among the works of contemporary Swiss artists, each with his or her own gallery.  More often than not, the one or two examples of Oppenheim's collages, drawings or assemblages in a gallery flattened the generally more numerous and more expansive offerings by the contemporary artist in question.  There were one or two really interesting artists showing; Maya Bringolf, and some of Elisabeth Llach's work worked, but overall, the comparison with Oppenheim's succinct offering made the bulk of everything else seem very thin.

I was excited to see that in a side gallery the museum had an advent calendar in process.  A grouping of collection artworks were gathered, and covered with Tyvek sheathing.   Some of these works had been revealed, with the majority still covered.  I think it's a great idea...particularly for a museum that's willing and able to put some great works into the project....unfortunately, the works that had been revealed were all rather dusty and uninteresting...not giving me much faith that the remaining covers had much to offer what they concealed.  Do this thing at MoMA, and I think you'd get something wonderful and exciting happening between the works.

I spent quite a while looking at Ferdinand Hodler's painting The Night.   It's a pretty incredible painting.

I returned to Geneva late that afternoon.
And on this Christmas day, I'm returning to that afternoon in Bern and the touch of Christmas it offered.

One angel not included in the Klee angel exhibit.  This one found in a vitrine in town.

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