Paul Klee, Portrait of a Yellow Man, 1921
Watercolour, transferred printing ink and ink on paper mounted on cardboard
23 ⅛ x 16 ½ po
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1984

Until March 17, the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) presented an exhibition dedicated to the work of artist Paul Klee, made possible thanks to the Berggruen Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET). Undoubtedly one of the most prominent figures in modern European art, the German painter and pedagogue Paul Klee has been recognized for the humour and fantasy that embrace his entire body of work. The seventy-five drawings, watercolours, and oils presented in this exhibition were donated to the MET by Heinz Berggruen (1914–2007), a well-known German art dealer and collector. This exhibition marks the return of Klee’s works to Canada for the first time in forty years.

I met with Anabelle Kienle Poňka, Acting Senior Curator of European and American Art at the NGC, to discuss the exhibition, the artist, and this collaboration with the MET.

Michaël Lachance (ML): Was the process of partnering with the MET for the exhibition of this collection of Klee’s work complicated or difficult? How did the collaboration take shape? What was your involvement in the process?

Annabelle Kienle Poňka (AKP): It was an easy process. We had reached out to the MET after it had its Klee show in New York in 2015. We asked if we could tailor the presentation to our audience. The MET happily agreed, and we were able to interpret the seventy-five works freely and in the way we wished without any restrictions. Our audience had not seen Klee since the 1970s and we were conscious of the fact that this might be a first introduction for many. I wrote the panels and labels and I also wrote a bunch of children’s labels, inspired by Klee himself and by a desire to prompt children and their parents to look closely. There is so much to discover in Klee’s work! We also presented the collection as a mini-retrospective (chronological and taking our viewers through his life from his 1914 trip to Africa, through the war years and his time at the Bauhaus, to his late years).

ML: It took a long for Klee’s works to return to Canada. Do contemporary artists take up more space on the walls now or is it simply a coincidence? Would you say that the NGC public expressed strong appreciation for the Berggruen Collection?

AKP: Last week we counted fifty thousand visitors to the exhibition, which is a great autumn turnout for us. The NGC has a good representation of German Modernist prints and drawings, but very little in terms of painting and sculpture. We have only one painting by Klee, which is featured at the end of the show. It simply was not a collecting focus for the NGC. It is something we are aspiring to slowly change, according to our means and market availability.

ML: Beyond the fantasy and the occasionally unhinged tone—present, for example, in the 1921 watercolour Portrait of a Yellow Man—the exhibition features meticulous work that seems to be calculated and completely rational. Klee was a contemporary of the Dadaists of Zurich and of the famous Cabaret Voltaire. It’s possible that he takes his humour and ironic spirit from both of those groups. Despite those influences, though, his work doesn’t seem closely related to the ideas of the signatories of the Dada manifesto written by Hugo Ball and Richard Huelsenbeck. In fact, his association with the members of the expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Horseman), and especially with Vassily Kandinsky, shows that Klee was interested in the spiritual dimension of art, which was far from the concerns of the Dadaists. He may have been tormented by the war in Europe, but one can still feel an explicit duality in his work. Would it be correct to say that his work expresses a tension between reason and madness—possibly reflecting an inner duality between the Expressionist painter and the Weimar Bauhaus pedagogue?

AKP : It seems to me that Klee was extremely balanced. We know that he had a regular routine, that he worked hard both on his art and as a teacher, and that he had a great sense of humour. Although some of the works in the Berggruen Collection may seem to express despondency to some degree, or are infused with a slight melancholy, Klee’s outlook on life was exceptionally stable. Even in his late works, when Nazi persecution forced him into exile, he still found ways to be humorous, as in Angel Applicant (1939), for example. His writings and teachings at the Bauhaus informed his technique and his explorations in colour relations and other areas, but his message is subtle, yet poignant.

ML: Maybe we could have a preview of upcoming programming at the NGC? We know your excellent book, co-authored with Simon Kelly and Richard Thomson, Monet: A Bridge to Modernity; will we have the chance to read or see more soon?

AKP: I would love to do a Max Beckmann exhibition—and I’ve been toying with that idea for quite some time. I think the time is ripe now. He is among the greatest German painters of the twentieth century, and all aspects of his prolific career are engrossing. For the summer of 2020, I am working on an exhibition called The Princely Collections, Liechtenstein: Five Centuries of European Painting and Sculpture, which celebrates one of the most storied private collections in Europe. Established in the mid‐sixteenth century by Karl I von Liechtenstein (1569–1627), the collection was built up over successive generations to include world‐renowned holdings of European art. This exhibition will bring together Old Master and nineteenth‐century paintings and sculptures from the family’s historic collection, including, for the first time, some twenty‐five of the masterpieces sold in the postwar period and acquired by the National Gallery of Canada and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Paul Klee, Angel Applicant, 1939
Gouache, ink, and graphite on paper mounted on cardboard
25 ¾ x 17 ½ po
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1984