The Genovan architect Renzo Piano is justly celebrated for the beautiful, natural white light that he puts into his designs. Notable successes in this regard are the Menil Collection in Houston (1986) and the recently opened Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. So it was with some anticipation that I traveled to the Swiss capital of Bern to take a look Piano's newest museum, the new Paul Klee Center, which opened on June 20, 2005.
During his lifetime, Paul Klee had an uneasy relationship with Bern. But, like other cities that have claimed long-lost native sons (the birthday of exile James Joyce is now a Dublin holiday, despite the fact that it was the scorn of his fellow Irishmen that caused him to leave), Bern has reclaimed Klee, even though he was denied Swiss citizenship while he was alive.
The decision to build a museum to house 4,000 Klee works works that had, until now, been on loan to other museums or in storage, and that represent some 40% of the artist's oeuvre was the brainchild of Klee's grandson, the 65-year-old Alexander Klee, who owns a substantial number of these pieces. The burly Bernese never met his grandfather, but recalls living with thousands of pictures that were hung in double rows, and "thinking nothing of all those pictures on the walls." In 1997, Klee's daughter-in-law, Livia Klee-Meyer (Alexander Klee's stepmother), agreed that she would contribute her own collection on the condition that the city build a museum dedicated specifically to Klee's legacy -- much to the chagrin of the original Kunstmuseum in Bern, an institution which has exhibited Klee for the past 40 years.
But city elders recognized that a new museum designed by a famous architect could turn ignoble Bern into a Bilbao, and along with proceeds from a city lottery, wealthy locals such as Maurice Mueller (inventor of the artificial hip) donated more than $60 million and a large piece of land that overlooked the highway. Total cost of the Center: $85 million. To design the museum, star donor Mueller suggested his friend, architect Renzo Piano, who was hired for the job without competition.
Piano was given carte blanche, with the (practical, Swiss) proviso that in addition to the museum he create a multi-purpose civic facility that could be rented out convention-style to offset operating costs. (Response has been terrific, and the facilities are fully booked for the following year.)
Piano responded by designing what he calls a work of "land art [M]ore a work of topography than of architecture," consisting of three steel and glass hills mimicking the rolling landscape that surrounds the site and the Alps in the background. On one side, the gently undulating mounds are sunk into the earth, as if in deference to Klee's gravesite, which is situated nearby. It is only when approached from the highway that the three curvilinear structures are fully visible.
It is clear that for Piano, Klee's legacy as one of the "great teachers of the Bauhaus" is referenced not only in the spare, functional vocabulary of the space, but also in the spirit of the Center, where two of the three buildings house a new concert hall, caf, Klee archives and a children's museum. Although crowds of locals gathered on the opening day in the caf or at the children's museum where kids were busy collaging together Klee-like works, only a few ventured into the heart of the Center, the Klee museum. Perhaps the 14 Swiss Franc admission fee was a barrier.
Due to the fragile nature of many of the works on paper which were done with diverse materials, including burlap and sandpaper, Piano had to use artificial light (between 50 and 120 lux) in the galleries. The result is more of a cavern-like interior, as opposed to the glorious, light-filled chambers of the architect's other museums. Temporary walls suspended from the ceiling enable museum curator Michael Baumgartner to create a dynamic installation. "We wanted to make a strong statement right at the beginning," Baumgartner enthused.
In addition to the more famous works, such as 1939's High Spirits (depicting a stick man balancing on a tightrope), the opening exhibit, titled "Nulla dies sine linea" ("not a day without line/drawing") featured Insula Dulcamara (1938), one of the artist's signature paintings, made the year before his death. Also dotting the galleries are hand puppets that Klee made for his son Felix between 1916 and 1925. The variety of materials, and the inventiveness and whimsy bring to mind Alexander Calder's "Circus" figures.
With such a wealth of works gathered from private hands works that have never before been exhibited and Renzo Piano's truly original design, it is inevitable that the Paul Klee Center will become an international destination. Not just for art historians and Klee lovers, but for cultural tourists who now have a reason to leave Basel behind.
DEBORAH RIPLEY is a New York art dealer who writes on art.