The Arrows Mean Death
An exhibition of work by Paul Klee aims to reveal a darker side of the Swiss-German painter. Currently on view at the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, Switzerland, “Klee in Wartime” features an array of often fantastical works informed by the artist’s experience during World War I.
“I always thought that the time during the first world war was so important for Klee’s development,” the Swiss museum’s chief curator Fabienne Eggelhôfer told artnet News. “It’s strange because even though he had to go to war, he always found the time to really work and evolve. It’s interesting to see how those two worlds go together.”
In the early 20th century, Klee was already well-established as a member of the avant-garde movement Der Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider), participating in numerous exhibitions in the years before the war. But the buzzing art scene came to an abrupt halt when conflict broke out in the summer of 1914. Klee’s friends and fellow Blue Rider artists, August Macke and Franz Marc, were killed in action in 1914 and 1916, respectively, and abstract pioneer Wassily Kandinsky temporarily fled back home to Russia.
Klee was drafted into the German army in 1916. Fortunately for him, he was not deployed to the front. Instead, he was posted to airfields far behind the lines where he was responsible for cash administration and painting aircraft with templates in the army’s air corps. Eggelhôfer, who conceived the idea for the Klee show, says she has long been fascinated by the artist’s continued artistic output during this period, as well as his ability “to keep this kind of ironic distance to what was happening during the war.”
The show consists of more than 130 works—including paintings, drawings, watercolors, prints, and even hand puppets—rooted in the Expressionist, Cubist, and Surrealist movements for which his oeuvre is known. Almost all are from the museum’s collection, including an original Kaiser helmet from a Bavarian regiment that was a gift from esteemed Swiss dealer Eberhard Kornfeld. Working with another German institution, the Dreiländermuseum in Loerrach, the Zentrum Paul Klee also obtained loans of materials the artist worked with during his time in uniform.
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