Exhibition visit: Paul Klee and the Surrealist

I went to the local exhibition in Bern, Switzerland at the Paul Klee Museum (Available from: http://www.zpk.org/en/exhibitions/current/paul-klee-and-the-surrealists-1253.html) on “Paul Klee and the Surrealists” (18 Nov 2016 – 12 Mar 2017).

I went there as based on my latest contextual research (Schaffeld, 24 Nov 2016) I became more aware of the techniques and ideas of the Surrealist movement in context of Dada, Cubism, and the emotional thread and terror by the mechanism of WWI.

The Museum Paul Klee is dedicated to the work and research on Paul Klee who was born in Bern in 1873. Over 4000 works by Klee are collected there and only partly is exhibited on 1750 square meter room space. The museum is located close to the center and with a nice park around. The three buildings do have the same wave like shape (see image). Some works are available online from: http://www.emuseum.zpk.org/eMuseumPlus

The exhibition was about the relationship between Paul Klee and the Surrealist movement in the 1920s and 1930s. Surrealist artists on show were: Louis Aragon, Hans Arp, Antonin Artaud, Georges Bataille, Joe Bousquet, André Breton, René Char, René Creole, Robert Desnos, Paul Eluard, Max Ernst, Georges Limbour, André Masson, Joan Miró,  Pierre Naville, Jean Paulhan, Tristan Tzara, Roger Vitrac, Christian Zervos as well as other artists as Alberto Giacometti,  René Magritte, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Giorgio de Chirico.

An introduction video is available from: https://youtu.be/89koPlrRUqM

The exhibition was grouped in 9 themes:

  1. Automatic writing: As highlighted by André Breton in his surrealist manifest it is about the “psychic automatism” to exclude consciousness and reason.  Various approaches in exploring the visualisation of the unconsciousness were shown by Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, Andre Masson and others. Also Paul Klee’s partial automatic Psychograms described by Klee as an “existential, anxious process and loss of control while take notes with drawing” , and the playful method of Cadavres exquis (‘Exquisiste Corpses’) presented first in 1987 defined by André Breton as “a game with folded paper, the intention of which is to have a sentence or a drawing constructed by several people, with no player having knowledge of their predecessor’s contribution” (from exhibition guide). And also examples of the automatic technique of Decalcomania by Max Ernst and Oscar Dominguez.
  2. The secret of objects: In contrast to Duchamp’s readymade the surrealist enhanced familiar objects with a symbolic and at times fetish appeal. Sculptures from  Alberto Giacometti e.g. ‘Table‘, 1933/1969 (combing human parts with other objects on a table) and Man Ray e.g. ‘Cadeau‘, 1921/1970 (spikes in an iron to make unusable and threatening) were shown. Collection  of “objets trouvés” (found objects) and juxtaposition of familiar objects with strange items through assemblages and surrealistic mystification. Especially mystic textures and patterns of natural objects were inspiring artists as Klee and Ernst. There is a close link to Dada in this theme.
  3. The world as a dream: The access to dreamworlds, inspired by Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical works, as an intermediate space beyond the physical world was the driver behind works shown. Collages made from journals by Ernst, some frottages by Ernst, and mystic paintings by Klee. I enjoyed the photography by Man Ray ‘Rêve d’André Breton; “miss en scène de Jacqueline“‘, 1935. A flattened architectural composition of three walls with door, made out of paper. Reminded me of my research on architectural images by Pallasmaa – click here.. I was fascinated by the painting by Kurt Seligman ‘The Pleasures of the Tide, 1942. An abstract landscape image with moving coloured shapes   Many other works by René Magritte, Yves Tanguy, Paul Klee, Robert Desnos and others were shown
  4. Eros, sex and lust: Main aspect for surrealist artists was sexuality and desire as driving force in life. In their works this turned often into violent and destruction. Especially the later artists as Salvador Dali, Hans Belmer and Jindrich Styrsky became quite obsessed by sexuality as a driving theme.
  5. Portraits and masks: Surrealist artists were fascinated by masks and its concealing aspect. They were rather interested in the dark essence of a person with all – at times rather primitive – desires and drives. Klee was especially interested in painting faces and masks. Other works on show were by Joan Miro, Pablo Picasso, Giorgio de Chirico, Brassai and others and sculptures by Man Ray and Hans Arp.
  6. The fragmented body: & 7. Surreal mechanisms: Based on the horrors of WWI with its industrialisation and mechanisation of war, the artists were looking at surrealistic machines in relationship to human beings. The human body is symbolic fragmented. Puppets, dolls, and some mysterious machineries were depicted by Paul Klee in his paintings e.g. ‘Analyse verschiedener Perversitaeten (Analyses of various perversions)‘, 1922 or by Hans Belmer in his sculptures e.g. ‘Untitled, from La Poupée (The Doll)’, 1936. Behind the the fragmentation is the idea of loss of values and alienation, especially in context of WWI. I am wondering how contemporary this approach is today.
  7. A wonderful natural history: especially with Max Ernst ‘Histories naturelles‘, 1926 a portfolio work based on collected found objects from nature and transferred with frontage technique onto paper. Various found objects inspired the artists in creation of mystified visual works.
  8. Surreal spaces: I was fascinated by this theme as it brought me back to my search on architectural images and Francis Bacon rather minimalistic depiction of space in his portrait paintings.  Especially Giorgio de Chirico developed his own approach to spatial representation Spaces became rather a metaphysical than a physical space.  Inspired also by Cubism the perspectives were not following traditional renaissance rules but followed its own construction. Max Ernst made inspired by de Chirico eight lithographs for his portfolio ‘Fiat modes ars pereat (let there be fashion, let art perish)‘, 1919. E.g. ‘Untitled, plate VI from Fiat modes pereat ars (Let There be Fashion, Down with Art)‘ The image ‘Day and Night‘, 1941/42 by Max Ernst reminded me of a contemporary computer generated visualization in today’s commercials.

In the lower part of the building was the exhibition ‘Pictures in Motion‘ (10 Jan 2016 – 08 Jan 2017) – available from: http://www.zpk.org/en/exhibitions/current/paul-klee-pictures-in-motion-1251.html – based on the collection of works by Paul Klee with focus on forms of human motion influenced and hindered by gravity as walking, striding, or dancing as a form to overcome gravity. I had only 15 min time before closing and browsed the exhibition on search for something that would get my attraction immediately. Ans to see whether it is worthwhile to come back later.

One fascinating example was the video based on Klee’s work ‘Seiltänzer (Tightrope Walker), as a video installation ‘Equilibrist‘, 2016 by Daniel Belton (b. 1970) and Good Company Arts, New Zealand. The video is based on a unique combination of ‘live tracked sensor dance utilising video mapping, projection and sound’.

The video itself is not available online but I found another video by Belton based on works by Klee ‘Traces (after Paul Klee)’, 2014  at: https://vimeo.com/96683990. Those performance installations create in Paul Klee words a ‘Zwischenwelt (between world)‘. At times I felt reminded of Francis Bacon limited architectural space outlines in his portrait paintings.


Especially collage was a preferred medium for the surrealist artists as it allows to juxtapose objects with no rational relationship. Automatic writing and drawing was seen as a favourite approach to address the unconsciousness, like in the dreamworlds, and the loss of control as the driver for visualisation. Human bodies were fragmented and artists were looking at the essence and at the socially construction of the human being. Spaces were seen rather metaphysical and and the perspective was constructed and exaggerated. Overall the exhibition was quite comprehensive and the grouping by themes made it easier to walk through. Mostly I am intrigued by four themes for my own work: fragmented body, spaces, automatism, and nature’s secrets.  I understand more about the underlying ideas, though I am not inspired that much by some shown works, and have to see how I can build on them in a contemporary context in my own work.


[All online images and websites accessed on 09 Dec 2016]

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