Method in his madness

Was Paul Klee a creator of whimsical fantasies, or a dry academic? Ned Denny is uncomfortable with B

Paul Klee, who famously pictured the artist as a tree, is perhaps the strangest of all the strange growths scattered on the plain of the 20th century. His is a body of work with the magnitude (at the risk of cheapening his metaphor) of the mythological world-tree, a veritable Yggdrasil whose runic silhouette disturbs the horizon.

What single exhibition can hope to do justice to an oeuvre of this scale, one that comprises around 10,000 individual works, executed using a huge variety of techniques? The hundred or so pieces that make up "Paul Klee: the nature of creation" at London's Hayward Gallery (too many pieces to take in during a single viewing, as Klee's work requires the concentrated attention of the oriental connoisseur) represent no more than a handful of clippings from his prodigious output. And although Bridget Riley - who has curated the show alongside the German academic Robert Kudielka - no doubt thinks she made a fairly representative selection, what she has actually done is to reinvent Paul Klee in the image of herself. For Riley, Klee first comes into his own as an artist with the semi-abstract watercolours executed on a visit to Tunisia, the geometric flicker of which anticipates her own style. But although these pictures are undoubtedly important in terms of Klee's development (via these, he learnt that true painting begins not with ideas, but with colours and forms), they are not among his strongest works. Klee is too playful ever to be a truly "abstract" painter like Kandinsky or Mondrian, and the impression persists that, here, he is merely tuning up for the vast comic-opera to come.

A subtle "Riley-isation" of Klee continues throughout the Hayward show, favouring those works that approach the "op art" pioneered by Riley. Thus there is a large number of the extraordinary drawings in which strange crystalline forms seem to emerge from a background resembling the grain of wood or the finely raked gravel of a Japanese Zen garden. As with Riley's own pictures, dense patterning evokes a sense of unknown forces at play. Less welcome is the inclusion of a number of diagrams - not in themselves artworks and with ponderous titles such as "Stratification Applied Genetically" - from Klee's dry theoretical writings. By drawing attention to these, and to the academic teachings of which they formed a part, Riley and Kudielka are trying to counteract the prevailing image of Klee as a creator of whimsical fantasies. They want to show the structural logic behind his exquisitely odd pictures. There is, they seem keen to stress, method in his madness.

All this is very well, but there's a more direct and far more illuminating approach. The key to understanding Klee isn't so much in the formal analysis of his pictures as it is in sensing, insipid as this may sound, the spirit that imbues them. Klee's images, more than those of any other artist of his generation, Picasso included, have an uncanny vitality. For him, art was a question not of slavishly reproducing the visible world, but of tapping into the generative powers that lie behind the surface of things. "People used to reproduce things seen on earth," he wrote in his Creative Confession. "Today the reality of visible objects has been revealed and the belief has been expressed that, in relation to the universe, the visible is only an isolated case and that other truths exist latently and are in the majority." The artist's gaze, Klee implied, should move beyond appearances to embrace what is known, felt or perhaps merely imagined. "The artist of today," he added later, "is more than official photographer trained to the point of perfection; he is more complicated, more rich and greater in stature. He is a creature living on the earth, a creature living at the centre of the universe - that is to say, a creature on a star among other stars." The task of the artist, then, is to sense and give form to the invisible forces that animate not only this world, but also the entire cosmos. He doesn't blankly mirror things as they are, but participates in creation itself.

These may sound like ambitions worthy of Faust, but Klee is in fact the most modest of artists. It is his modesty, his ability to efface his personality in the presence of things, that allows him to transmit something of their inner life. He seems at times to possess a kind of X-ray vision, an eye that penetrates to the vital pulse at the heart of a plant, bird, fish or star. Speaking at Klee's memorial service, the curator George Schmidt asserted that, far from being (as some would claim) a fantasist, he is in fact the greatest of realists: "For Klee, reality does not stop at the world of visible or tangible objects. It embraces the whole living world, the world which includes all organised beings and inorganised things, the active forces of formation, mutation and destruction . . . there is no artist of our time who comes so close to whatever is living and formed - that is to say, to reality - as Paul Klee." True realism, in fact, necessitates fantasy.

How does this portrait of the artist as a kind of demented magus compare with Riley's Klee? The Klee presented at the Hayward is more academic, more schematic and, perhaps crucially, less comic. But the show does Klee a service by reminding us that his works are first and foremost - before any associations conjured by their poetry - complex arrangements of forms on a two-dimensional surface. They speak their own enigmatic and irreducible language in the same way that music does, their inner logic being not that of reason, but that of the dream. But Riley is mistaken in thinking that it is in arid theoretical speculation that we can find a useful means of approach. On the contrary, Klee's pictures require that we put words to one side and enter them like a child entering a maze, that we surrender ourselves entirely to their rich inner life. "There is behind the ambiguity a last mystery," he wrote, "and at that point the light of the intellect dies away miserably." And elsewhere: "One leaves the region on this side and builds for oneself in the beyond, where an unequivocal 'Yes' is possible."

"Paul Klee: the nature of creation" is at the Hayward Gallery, London SE1 (020 7960 5226), until 1 April

This article first appeared in Revealed: how Labour sees women