Painted during the summer of 1927, Explosion is an exquisite pen and watercolour work that displays Klee’s complete mastery over a wide range of different pictorial techniques. Comprising a stunning array of fine graphic line and abstract geometric form whimsically set against gentle modulations of colour on a delicately spray-painted surface that has in places been punctuated by subtly scratched highlights, it is one of the finest of a series of ironic, mock-abstract spray-paintings that Klee made in 1927. Indeed, it is a work that the artist appears to have originally earmarked for himself, intending to keep it for his own reserve collection.
Klee had made use of blowpipes and sieves as a means of spray-painting prior to joining the Bauhaus in 1921. After he joined the famous art school as a teacher, however, he began to use such utensils ever-more frequently in accordance with their principles of seeking industrial means of production. Klee told his students that such techniques were useful in aiding in what he called the ‘manufacture’ of the image and in attaining the effects of a smooth finish similar that of printing. By 1927, however, Klee was also employing such techniques to deliberately ironic effect.
Throughout the latter half of the 1920s both Klee, and, to a lesser extent, his friend and Bauhaus colleague, Wassily Kandinsky had come under criticism from the growing Constructivist wing within the Bauhaus for continuing to pursue what faculty members such as Hans Meyer perceived as an essentially individualist form of art. Part of Klee’s response to this had been to work through the various reproaches levelled at him by his colleagues artistically, often playfully critiquing or ironizing them in his work.
Explosion appears to be just such a painting. It derives from a time of particularly heightened fervour for the Constructivist aesthetic at the Bauhaus. In April 1927, Kazimir Malevich had visited the Dessau-based art school in conjunction with the major travelling retrospective of his work that throughout that summer had formed the centrepiece of the Grosse Berliner Kunstaustellung that year. Rumours were also rife that Malevich was interested in joining the Bauhaus faculty and the art school had signalled its own approval by publishing Malevich’s The Non-Objective World as a Bauhaus book.
Within this context, the exquisite if also slightly comic combination of rigid geometry and slightly tottering, wiry, non-objective forms with the rich, organic, firework-like explosion of spray paint to the right of this great 1927 work, speaks of dramatic, polar opposites. The care with which Klee has created the imagery here is also extraordinary. Contrasting with the dark centre of the explosion, small sparkles of light have been created by gently scraping off the painted surface of the picture with a scalpel to reveal small spots of pale watercolour paper beneath. From these spots of light amongst the darkness, fine directional geometric lines have then been ruled toward the centre of the picture’s explosive vortex. The painting, in this way becomes an object-lesson in the contrasts between geometric and organic form.
Klee was evidently proud of this work. As the exhibition catalogue for the 2017 show of his work at Centre Pompidou in Paris noted, in 1928 the artist loaned it for exhibition to the Galerie Alfred Flechtheim in Berlin and in the accompanying list of pictures for this exhibition noted, “Priv Besitz/S.Cl” (Private Collection/ S.Cl) - thereby transferring the work on this occasion into category “Sonderklasse” (Special Class) on the cardboard mount. With this ranking, which Klee used between the years 1925 and 1933 for his production between 1901 and 1933, he generally designated works as “not for sale”. Following the turning point represented by his exile in late 1931, he was however to abandon this special category. In 1929, Klee presented Explosion at the exhibition marking his 50th birthday at the Anhaltische Gemäldegalerie in Dessau and in 1931 at his farewell exhibition at the Dessau Bauhaus. After the deaths of Lily and Paul Klee, the work then entered the collection of the Klee Gesellschaft in Bern. (See Paul Klee, Irony at Work exh, cat, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2017, p. 146).