Klee's art explores where humorous and serious mingle

It is a kind of juggling, this small painting (left) from Paul Klee's prolific late period. Instead of taking a line for a walk across the paper as he did in some of his earlier works, the Swiss artist here deploys bold, primitive characters, composed of thick black lines relating perhaps to Chinese calligraphic symbols. It is as if they've been tossed into the air. They have space between them, but at the same time they fit together like large jigsaw pieces. They animate, without confusion, every part of the picture surface.

Klee's art, however abstract it might be, always allowed for reference to the familiar world around us - creatures, gardens, houses, people. In this painting, comic figures, such as marionettes, can be spotted, along with other figures that suggest animals and letters of the alphabet.

"Comedians' Handbill" is part of the Berggruen Klee Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. It's currently on view in a selection of 24 Klees from that collection. Heinz Berggruen was an art dealer and collector with a special dedication to Klee. His presented the Met with 90 Klees. The current selection is from Klee's later period, 1925 to 1940.

In some ways, the artist's later work is rather different from his previous work. If it is in some ways "darker," it is also less intimate in scale and perhaps more of a consciously public statement. By the large-sized standards of some 20th-century art, though, even Klee's biggest works, belonging to this late period, were comparatively small. But scale and size are different things, and Klee was not an artist out to merely impress. He could take the viewer into the surprising recesses of his visionary world without overwhelming him.

His art was closer to chamber music than symphony or grand opera. But this did not mean he was less serious in intent. On the other hand, it did mean that he could explore the place where the comic and the tragic, the humorous and the serious mingle, each intensifying the other.

'Klee: The Late Years,' is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until June 27.

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