The exhibition Paul Klee. Alle origini dell’arte (Paul Klee. At the Origins of Art), curated by Michele Dantini and Raffaella Resch, will be hosted by the MUDEC in Milan from 31 October 2018. It features a wide selection of Klee's works on the theme of “primitivism” and offers an original reassessment of this concept, which in Klee embraces pre-classical periods of Western art (like that of Pharaonic Egypt); epochs previously considered "barbaric" or decadent, such as those of Late Antique, Early Christian, Coptic and early medieval art; and lastly African, Oceanic and Amerindian art. The show is promoted by Milan City Council-Culture and 24 ORE Cultura–Gruppo 24 ORE, which is also producing it, and will present around a hundred works by the artist, on loan from major museums and private collection in Europe. It will also benefit from the extensive collaboration of the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern. The exhibition will run until 3 March 2019. The concept of “primitivism” in Klee assumes different characteristics from those commonly associated with the historical avant-gardes. An interest in everything that was "wild" and "primitive" in art was awakened in Klee during his first stay in Italy, from autumn 1901 to spring 1902, when he discovered Early Christian art in Rome. After his trip to Italy Klee considered himself an "epigon", literally last born, a tardy heir of a glorious civilization in decline. He would never rid himself of this conviction and it led him, as he recounts in his Diaries, to transform his disappointment into "style". It was this experience of the Antique, which caused him a certain amount of suffering, that triggered Klee's penchant for mockery and pastiche. The artist sought in "primitive" artworks and archaic repertoires the art of distortion or “satire in Grand Style” that permitted him to break away from the monumental, old-fashioned manner on which his training in Munich was founded. Klee was extremely well-versed in the history of Western art in all its many and varied aspects. At almost every moment in his career he engaged with one or another traditional element in a new and unexpected way and drew on figurative memories without indulging in nostalgia. In his work this tribute was closely interwoven with parody, due to a need dictated both by history and temperament.
The artist's interest in caricature, which he soon took in different directions that were far more complex than the simple newspaper cartoon, was equal to his interest in the renewal of religious art, which developed during the years when Klee collaborated on Blaue Reiter initiatives with Kandinsky and especially Franz Marc. Klee was convinced that a religion, a "people" or a historical and linguistic community with common symbols and shared rituals lay at the origins of art. He was also convinced of the need to go beyond traditional iconographies. In 1912–1913 Klee started to circulate his own images of invented ideograms, runes and "alphabetic" elements. He also strove to lead the viewer to the process behind the image, to make him question the meaning of what he saw and to carefully decipher and interpret a work. He looked to Byzantine and Celtic art, and naturally to early German Renaissance illustration, to find precedents to an art (mostly religious) closely linked to the word and "revelation". Later, in the 1920s and 1930s, his interest in epigraphy was nourished by references to ancient Middle-Eastern cuneiform alphabets and Egyptian hieroglyphics.
During the final years of the Great War Klee experienced a kind of "conversion", which led him to favour "cosmic" themes and to forego the parodic attitudes he had adopted earlier. At this stage in his career, Klee imagined living at “the heart of Creation”, near to the mind of God, and his art became an archetype, a formula of all existing things. His models – still valid in the 1920s and 1930s – were late medieval German illustration, Celtic and Mozarabic miniatures and the art of the "migration period".
His painting – and even more so his drawing – became like a page of a "metaphysical" diary: the work was not to be contemplated more or less fleetingly but "read" on various levels, rather like a music score. Klee conceived art in a new way that was in fact "mystical", creating an indissoluble relationship between painting and music, images and words.
The exhibition is divided into sections illustrating this process of artistic formation. From the caricature to the period in which Klee describes himself also as a “cosmic illustrator”, and an "epigraphic" primitivism featured, not coincidentally, in the section entitled "invented alphabets and hieroglyphics". Another section is devoted to the puppet theatre that Klee built for his son Felix, which evidences his interest in children's expressiveness and hence in the primordial origins of art which Klee, in keeping with his times, believed should be sought in the artistic expressions of certain populations of ethnographic interest.
A selection of puppets is on display, in fact, together with various ethnographic pieces from the MUDEC. Far from simply being a means of comparison, the non-European artefacts will show how the artist approached and related to the fantastical, anthropological and stylistic universe of non-European arts. The last section devoted to “polychromy and abstraction” features a diverse corpus of works. These are characterized by rigorous geometric drawing which is mostly associated with architectural motifs, given transparency by different colour glazes. Klee is thus presented not only through his abstract and polychrome works that are so popular with the general public, but also through his less well-known caricatural pieces. They are complemented by targeted research on sources, iconographic and formal repertoires and textual documents that reveals the artist's complex cultural background, the vastness of his output and the wide range of techniques he adopted.