What might Paul Klee (1879-1940) and Asger Jorn (1914-1973) have in common? Klee was German, born in Switzerland, and founded the Blaue Reiter movement in 1911 with Kandinsky, Marc and Macke. Jorn was Danish, and founded the Cobra group in 1948 (or CoBrA, being an acronym for Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam), with the Dutch painters Appel, Corneille and Constant and the Belgian poets Dotremont and Noiret. The answer might be that they were both painters and made significant contributions to two of the 20th century's major avant garde artistic movements. But that's not it.
What Klee and Jorn have in common is a snake goddess. In 1940, Klee drew a black pictogram called The Snake Goddess and her Foe. The snake goddess winds herself voluptuously across the page, while a geometrical hedgehog bristles at her. Given the date, it signalled the death of all beauty and pleasure, since the evil destroying Europe was advancing as fast as the disease that killed Klee a few months later. Klee's pictograms are personal and historic symbols.
In 1947, a year before founding the Cobra group, Jorn published a manifesto in a Copenhagen review, which he illustrated with a reproduction of Klee's Snake Goddess. He promoted a revival of a radical art form that returned painting, drawing and sculpture to its original state, the one that existed before the history of art and culture - the art of cave men, or young children. Little wonder that he felt such empathy with the Klee of snake goddesses, prehistoric drawings, an d the graffiti of exile or prison.
The Paul Klee Centre in Berne has put on a remarkable exhibition (until 4 September), that analyses this in detail and illustrates it with a marvellous selection of works. The focal point lies in the two rooms proving that, from the end of the 1930s, all the future Cobra group artists knew about Klee. They viewed him as an artist whose sense of simplicity, grasp of fantasy and propensity to dream, together with his imagination and natural disrespect, transformed him into a marvellous child, preserved from the affectation of knowledge. Those Danish and Dutch artists were fascinated by Klee. Miró and Picasso might just as easily have been decisive references for them, but they were not, perhaps because they found Klee's writings more accessible or because they were wary of Parisian surrealism.
To prove this, the works in the exhibition fan out in juxtaposed chapters: animals, games, masks and fantastical creatures. The same rule applies to all the artists, and Klee's works are jumbled up with those by Appel, Constant and Jorn, as well as other, less well-known Cobra members. To achieve this, the Centre has brought together a vast number of works. It is one of the best endowed galleries in the world for Klee, and is able to draw on its resources and knowledge of private and public collections. But considerable effort was also put into to Cobra, and the exhibition may well be one of the best retrospectives ever devoted to the group. Several representative masterpieces are displayed here, first and foremost being Karel Appel's polychrome relief, Begging Children (1949), the result of a journey across war-ravaged Germany, and Constant's Scorched Earth, another painting about the tragedy of history.
Despite the exhibition's title, it is not entirely composed of playful and mythical works, comic animals and clowns. They are there. But for both Klee and the Cobra group, simplifying art was not an end in itself. The purpose of straightening lines and bringing colours back to primary brightness, of stark symbols, was to amplify the expressiveness of their art.
It is no coincidence that most of the Klee works in the exhibition were composed in the last few years of his life. Extreme economy of means was integral to the political and social satire of the time. Forced to flee Germany in 1933, Klee knew what the Third Reich was about. The devouring creatures, killer birds, idiot men and monsters in his drawings clearly show that he understood what was to come. Ten years later, the Cobra artists had seen it happen. They sought refuge from the present in ideal childhoods, but wanted their art to recover its original purity to express their ideas and fears. And to announce that the snake goddess would never dance in the same way again.
This article originally appeared in Le Monde