Paul Klee captures many art styles in lines of his drawings

September 24, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

A first glance at one of Paul Klee's odd, quirky images would hardly lead one to the conclusion that its creator (who lived from 1879 to 1940) was one of the most profound artists of the 20th century.

But he was. As critic John Canaday has pointed out, the seeming naivete of his works springs from an extreme sophistication, and it is no less true that his humor is based in despair. His work contains elements of everything from Orientalism and symbolism to cubism, dada, surrealism and expressionism, and it combines an over-arching view of the human condition with piercing psychological insight.

All of these qualities are in evidence in the Baltimore Museum's "Paul Klee Drawings and Prints," which presents the museum's strong holding of 17 works plus three loans, two of which are promised gifts. They range from the early, satirical etching "Aged Phoenix" (1905) to the somber humor and Samuel Beckett-like "going on" of the late painting "Traveling Circus" (1937). According to curator of prints, drawings and photography Jay M. Fisher, this may be the first time all of the museum's Klees have been shown at once, so this exhibit offers the rarest of local opportunities to see the artist in depth.

One of its chief glories, the gouache "Arabian Princess" (1924), with a face made of tiny repeated geometric combinations on a deep blue background, at once reflects the intricate patternings of near eastern art, the mystery of the veiled face, and a sensuality implied both by the color and the curving mouth.

The drawing "Trees outside the City" (1926), with its image made entirely of parallel lines, might be called a tour de force of shifting scale and dimensions if that term did not hint of superficiality; there are overtones of the relationship between nature, mankind and creativity, all washed in a pulsing, twilight pink.

The lithograph "Tightrope Walker" (1923) is perhaps one of the most typical of Klee's works here in its deceptive-looking innocence. The comical little man walking the tightrope above an almost-decipherable, contraption-like structure, with a white cross shining in the background, looks like a bit of whimsy until one begins to ponder other levels. Is this one of those dreams in which one finds oneself in a fearsome place and nothing quite makes sense? Or is it symbolic of life as a tightrope walk through unknown territory, falsely sustained by the myth of religion?

"Extraordinary Nobody" (1927) is one of Klee's continuous-looking drawings of faces (it seems to be all one line, but isn't) which probe the depths and mock the follies of the human psyche -- here self-importance and hollow pretensions are laid bare. The deeply beautiful "Traveling Circus," created in the late 1930s when fascism threatened the world and Klee was not long away from death, speaks a humor born of resignation, and a consciousness of the necessity of going on in the face of the possible meaninglessness of life.

Like all opportunities to see Klee, this one should be eagerly accepted.

KLEE EXHIBIT

Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets.

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Nov. 8

Admission: $4.50; $3.50 for seniors and students; $1.50 for ages 4 through 18

Call: (410) 396-7100.

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