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Paul Klee's paintings finally find a home

Swiss embrace works 66 years after turning him away
/ Source: The Associated Press

When Paul Klee applied for Swiss nationality after fleeing Nazi Germany, his request was refused because it was feared that if his art should "take root in Switzerland, it would insult real art and cause good taste to deteriorate."

Sixty-six years later, the work of the painter — now considered one of the greatest modern artists — has found a permanent home in Bern, the Swiss capital that finally accepted him. The Zentrum Paul Klee, which opens Monday, will house over 4,000 pieces of Klee's creations — one of the world's largest collections from a single artist.

"This is a belated reconciliation (of Switzerland) with Klee," says the artist's 65-year old grandson, Alexander Klee, who calls himself "the most authentic Klee groupie around."

Klee was born in Bern in 1879 but had to take his German father's citizenship rather than his Swiss mother's under Switzerland's strict citizenship rules. He moved to Munich, Germany, to study art when he was 19 and lived most of the next 35 years in Germany. Soon after the Nazis came to power in 1933, Klee — targeted for his "decadent" art — returned to Switzerland and took refuge in Bern.

Adolf Hitler's regime confiscated Klee's abstract and expressionist works in German museums and stripped him of his teaching post at the Duesseldorf Academy. In 1936, he was diagnosed with incurable scleroderma, a chronic autoimmune disease. He applied for Swiss naturalization in 1939, about a year before his death, and never received it.

"This museum is much nicer than anything I would have ever dreamt of," says his grandson, who recalled growing up "thinking nothing special of all those pictures on the wall."

There were so many of his grandfather's paintings stored at his childhood home that they were hung in double rows and even behind doors, Alexander Klee told The Associated Press in an interview.

Alexander, who was born the year his grandfather died and who never met him, first proposed combining the family's private collections with Klee pictures in Bern's art museum, where they had been stored ever since a Bern businessman bought thousands of works in 1946 to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Allies under post-World War II compensation accords.

In 1997, Paul Klee's daughter-in-law, Livia Klee-Meyer (Alexander Klee's stepmother), donated her collection of paintings on the condition that Bern build a dedicated museum. She set a deadline for the museum to be finished by 2006.

The city had another stroke of luck when Maurice Mueller — a world-famous orthopedist and the inventor of artificial hips — and his wife, Martha, donated over $60.6 million to build the museum and a large piece of land on which to place it. To design the Zentrum Paul Klee, they worked with their friend Renzo Piano, the celebrated architect whose recent work includes Kansai airport in Osaka, Japan.

Inspired by the rolling hills surrounding the site, Piano imagined a massive landscape sculpture made of steel and glass that stretches over the length of one and a half soccer fields. It consists of three hills, or waves, and resembles a dinosaur's back. Piano said he wanted to give Klee's work "ample room to breathe."

Bordered by a highway on one side and the cemetery where Klee is buried on the other, the museum is a "green island and mysterious space," Piano says.

Inside the main exhibition, gauze has been stretched over the dividing screens. There are no closed rooms and no direct spotlights. The idea is that visitors should perceive the exhibition hall as a single room and move unhindered through the exhibit.

To pay tribute to Klee's wide-ranging interests — teaching, playing the violin and writing poetry — the museum also houses a music hall with 300 seats, a children's museum and room for workshops. The center will also be home to a summer academy for young artists, and children will offer guided tours to other youngsters.

In the permanent exhibit, visitors are immediately greeted by one of Klee's masterpieces "High Spirits," a 1939 oil and colored paste painting. Drawn with bold, black strokes, it depicts a stick man balancing on a tightrope with characteristic blotches of red and teal. The risky dance of the tightrope walker is a metaphor for Klee's own endangered artistic career, representing the twin threats of Nazi Germany and Klee's faltering strength.

"We wanted to make a very strong statement right at the beginning," Michael Baumgartner, a museum curator, says.

Around the corner is a rare sample from Klee's early career, a 1900 five-piece folding screen in art nouveau style, somewhat different from his other works. Following his return from the Munich art school, Klee drew the picture for his sister but later pledged "never to follow this path any more."

In 1914, Klee visited Tunisia with his friend, August Macke, a trip that became a key moment in 20th-century art history and inspired a series of watercolors that became a touchstone for the modern movement.

"Color has got hold of me, I no longer need to grasp it," Klee wrote in his diary.

The museum also shows hand puppets Klee made for his son, Felix, between 1916 and 1925. Assembled from odd materials ranging from beef bones to rabbit fur and matchboxes, the dolls look almost like assemblages, which at the time were the latest invention of the avant-garde movement of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.

There are also several square oil paintings with colored geometric shapes from the 1920s, when Klee became deeply involved with the Bauhaus, a hugely influential architectural and design movement that lasted from 1919 till 1933. As a teacher in Weimar and Dessau, Klee developed systematic theories on color.

In the early 1930s, he moved on to upbeat pointillist mosaics, whereby he spread colors across the surface as dots.

In "Tendril," from 1932, the plant strives upward to the light of the cosmos, symbolized by the sun, moon and stars — characteristic elements in many of Klee's paintings. Klee, who liked experimenting with strange surfaces, made the sun as sand on wood.

While many artists' skills diminish with age, his grew stronger. As the illness took hold, his paintings changed; colors became bolder, formats became larger and lines stronger. During the last year of his life, Kless drew over 1,200 pictures.