Bernat Klein: A Life in Colour

Publication: The Times.   
September 2015

This exhibition celebrates the life and work of the Serbian-born painter, textile designer and entrepreneur Bernat Klein CBE, who died last year, aged 91. Originally educated at a Jewish seminary in what was then Czechoslovakia, Klein was sent, aged 16, to Israel by his parents who were aware of the impending catastrophe involving European Jews.  Klein studied at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Crafts in Jerusalem before emigrating to Britain after the war. He resumed his studies in Leeds before working for Munrospun, who were based in Edinburgh and later in the Scottish borders, designing woven textiles.

In 1952 Klein established his own luxury textile enterprise, Colourcraft, based in Galashiels which eventually had several hundred employees. In 1966 Klein sold his shares and left the company, establishing a new colour consultancy business, which he ran from his home and adjoining studio, High Sunderland, near Selkirk.

High Sunderland, the apotheosis of the modernism of that era, was designed by architect Peter Womersley (1923-93), and is now an A – listed building. It is from this very personal, domestic collection that this show of paintings and tapestry, dating from the early ‘60s to a year or two before Klein’s death, is drawn.

High Sunderland might be described as what the Bauhaus termed a gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, in that all aspects ­­– building materials (in this case stone, wood, glass concrete) furniture, décor, fittings and art works – amounted to an integrated whole. There is certainly a relationship between the coloured blocks, squares and patterning of Klein’s fabrics (themselves inspired by the pointillism of Seurat) and the juxtaposed abstract shapes, in a variety of palettes, of his painting.

It’s also not difficult to make the case for the High Sunderland as a three dimensional architectural interpretation of Klein’s paintings and tapestries. Nor is it hard to see that his palette of greens, turquoises, russets, yellows and brown owes a great deal to the colours of the borders landscape, seen so vividly through the astonishingly well conceived windows of Womersley’s architectural masterpiece. Such a love of natural colour, and its depiction, were certainly shared by a number of artists who worked in or originated from the region, including Klein’s near neighbour, Earl Haig at Bemersyde.

The symbiosis between Klein’s love of colour and abstraction is evident in a series of work made in 1968 that includes ‘Red Transition’ and ‘Provençal Scarlet’.  These highly coloured pieces incorporate oil paint with polyester and tweed. It seems an unlikely combination but the mix of texture and colour is convincing. Klein’s bold application of paint in regular swabs and smears, combined with cuts of fabric, resulted in an innovative collage.  Klein was almost single-handedly credited with reviving the fortunes of the traditionally milled border textile when his designs were taken up by some of the major Parisian couture houses. These works must be seen in this celebratory context.

In 1971 Klein collaborated with Dovecot Studios on a series of ten wool tapestries.  Here a quintet of these – ‘Grey Mountain’, ‘Scandia’, ‘Brown with Blue’, ‘Grey Harmonies’ and ‘Sutherland’ – show how successful such a venture can be.  These are three-dimensional, sculptural pieces, demonstrating great craft skill and artistic flair.

This is a vivid celebration of a highly innovative entrepreneur and gifted artist whose vision sustained so many.