LONDON - For a curator, the shape-shifting artist Paul Klee (1879-1940) presents a wonderful kind of problem. “How to get a grip on Klee?” the Tate Modern’s head of displays, Matthew Gale recently asked me.

It was a rhetorical question, of course. Gale has tried to answer it with a large retrospective of the painter’s work, “Paul Klee: Making Visible,” that opened in October at the London museum and runs until March.

Paul Klee's Park near Lu, 1938
. Zentrum Paul Klee.

The Swiss-born Klee was able to take what he needed from all the movements of early 20th century art, including the Bauhaus and Cubism, creating pure abstractions one day and whimsically surreal figures the next – always in tightly structured, brilliantly colored compositions.

Children are often delighted to see the face of an animal looking back at them from a Klee work, and there was definitely a playful side to this artist – he famously said that drawing was just “taking a line for a walk.”

“He was a man of astonishing versatility,” Gale told me. “It’s fascinating how these pictures were on easels next to each other at the same time.” He adds­ this may be why Klee is less well known now to mass audiences than some of his contemporaries.

Paul Klee's Steps 1929
Moderna Museet (Stockholm, Sweden).

And although he was involved with the great Blaue Reiter movement early on, it took him a quite a while to have an artistic breakthrough and develop his own style. “He didn’t have the fertile youth of Picasso, even though he was only two years younger,” Gale said.

The Tate’s show is part of an upsurge of interest in Klee, and the focus is on his decade of teaching and working at Bauhaus and his more rigorous abstractions. That makes sense, given current trends in the art world. But I actually think the “cuter” works, for lack of a better word, are truly enduring, precisely because of the tension between the sweetly familiar and their foundation in the bedrock principles of composition and color. (As far as color sense goes, Klee was one of the greats.)

In any case, I agreed with Gale when he told me, “I think Klee is underappreciated. One of our purposes is to get people to look again.”