Paul Klee (18 December 1879 – 29 June 1940) was
a Swiss-German painter. His highly individual style was influenced by
movements in art that included Expressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism. Klee was
a natural draftsman who experimented with and eventually deeply explored color
theory, writing about it extensively; his lectures Writings on Form and Design
Theory (Schriften zur Form und Gestaltungslehre), published in English as the
Paul Klee Notebooks, are held to be as important for modern art as Leonardo da
Vinci's A Treatise on Painting for the Renaissance. He and his colleague,
Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, both taught at the Bauhaus school of art,
design and architecture. His works reflect his dry humor and his sometimes
childlike perspective, his personal moods and beliefs, and his musicality.
Early life and training
Paul Klee was born in Münchenbuchsee, Switzerland, as the second child of German
music teacher Hans Wilhelm Klee (1849–1940) and Swiss singer Ida Marie Klee, née
Frick (1855–1921). His sister Mathilde (died 6 December 1953) was born on 28
January 1876 in Walzenhausen. Their father came from Tann and studied at the
Stuttgart Conservatory singing, piano, organ and violin, meeting there his future
wife Ida Frick. Hans Wilhelm Klee was active as a music teacher at the Bern State
Seminary in Hofwil near Bern until 1931. Klee was able to develop his music skills
as his parents encouraged and inspired him until his death. In 1880, his family
moved to Bern, where they moved 17 years later after numerous changes of residence
into a house at the Kirchenfeld district. From 1886 to 1890, Klee visited primary
school and received, at the age of 7, violin classes at the Municipal Music School.
He was so talented on violin that, aged 11, he received an invitation to play as an
extraordinary member of the Bern Music Association.
In his early years, following his parents’ wishes, Klee focused on becoming a
musician; but he decided on the visual arts during his teen years, partly out of
rebellion and partly because of a belief that modern music lacked meaning for him.
He stated, "I didn't find the idea of going in for music creatively particularly
attractive in view of the decline in the history of musical achievement." As a
musician, he played and felt emotionally bound to traditional works of the
eighteenth and nineteenth century, but as an artist he craved the freedom to
explore radical ideas and styles. At sixteen, Klee’s landscape drawings already
show considerable skill.
Around 1897, Klee started his diary, which he kept until 1918, and which has
provided scholars with valuable insight into his life and thinking. During his
school years, he avidly drew in his school books, in particular drawing
caricatures, and already demonstrating skill with line and volume. He barely passed
his final exams at the "Gymnasium" of Bern, where he qualified in the Humanities.
With his characteristic dry wit, he wrote, "After all, it’s rather difficult to
achieve the exact minimum, and it involves risks." On his own time, in addition to
his deep interests in music and art, Klee was a great reader of literature, and
later a writer on art theory and aesthetics.
With his parents' reluctant permission, in 1898 Klee began studying art at the
Academy of Fine Arts in Munich with Heinrich Knirr and Franz von Stuck. He excelled
at drawing but seemed to lack any natural color sense. He later recalled, "During
the third winter I even realized that I probably would never learn to paint."
During these times of youthful adventure, Klee spent much time in pubs and had
affairs with lower class women and artists' models. He had an illegitimate son in
1900 who died several weeks after birth.
After receiving his Fine Arts degree, Klee went to Italy from October 1901 to
May 1902 with friend Hermann Haller. They stayed in Rome, Florence, and Naples, and
studied the master painters of past centuries. He exclaimed, "The Forum and the
Vatican have spoken to me. Humanism wants to suffocate me." He responded to the
colors of Italy, but sadly noted, "that a long struggle lies in store for me in
this field of color." For Klee, color represented the optimism and nobility in art,
and a hope for relief from the pessimistic nature he expressed in his
black-and-white grotesques and satires. Returning to Bern, he lived with his
parents for several years, and took occasional art classes. By 1905, he was
developing some experimental techniques, including drawing with a needle on a
blackened pane of glass, resulting in fifty-seven works including his Portrait of
My Father (1906). In the years 1903-5 he also completed a cycle of eleven
zinc-plate etchings called Inventions, his first exhibited works, in which he
illustrated several grotesque characters. He commented, "though I'm fairly
satisfied with my etchings I can't go on like this. I’m not a specialist." Klee was
still dividing his time with music, playing the violin in an orchestra and writing
concert and theater reviews.
In 1919, Klee applied for a teaching post at the Academy of Art in Stuttgart. This
attempt failed but he had a major success in securing a three-year contract (with a
minimum annual income) with dealer Hans Goltz, whose influential gallery gave Klee
major exposure, and some commercial success. A retrospective of over 300 works in
1920 was also notable.
Klee taught at the Bauhaus from January 1921 to April 1931. He was a "Form"
master in the bookbinding, stained glass, and mural painting workshops and was
provided with two studios. In 1922, Kandinsky joined the staff and resumed his
friendship with Klee. Later that year the first Bauhaus exhibition and festival was
held, for which Klee created several of the advertising materials. Klee welcomed
that there were many conflicting theories and opinions within the Bauhaus: "I also
approve of these forces competing one with the other if the result is
Tropical Gardening, 1923 watercolor and oil transfer drawing on paper, The
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
Klee was also a member of Die Blaue Vier (The Blue Four), with Kandinsky, Lyonel
Feininger, and Alexej von Jawlensky; formed in 1923, they lectured and exhibited
together in the USA in 1925. That same year, Klee had his first exhibits in Paris,
and he became a hit with the French Surrealists. Klee visited Egypt in 1928, which
impressed him less than Tunisia. In 1929, the first major monograph on Klee's work
was published, written by Will Grohmann.
Klee also taught at the Düsseldorf Academy from 1931 to 1933, and was singled
out by a Nazi newspaper, "Then that great fellow Klee comes onto the scene, already
famed as a Bauhaus teacher in Dessau. He tells everyone he's a thoroughbred Arab,
but he's a typical Galician Jew." His home was searched by the Gestapo and he was
fired from his job. His self-portrait Struck from the List (1933) commemorates the
sad occasion. In 1933-4, Klee had shows in London and Paris, and finally met Pablo
Picasso, whom he greatly admired. The Klee family emigrated to Switzerland in late
Klee was at the peak of his creative output. His Ad Parnassum (1932) is
considered his masterpiece and the best example of his pointillist style; it is
also one of his largest, most finely worked paintings. He produced nearly 500 works
in 1933 during his last year in Germany. However, in 1933, Klee began experiencing
the symptoms of what was diagnosed as scleroderma after his death. The progression
of his fatal disease, which made swallowing very difficult, can be followed through
the art he created in his last years. His output in 1936 was only 25 pictures. In
the later 1930s, his health recovered somewhat and he was encouraged by a visit
from Kandinsky and Picasso. Klee's simpler and larger designs enabled him to keep
up his output in his final years, and in 1939 he created over 1,200 works, a career
high for one year. He used heavier lines and mainly geometric forms with fewer but
larger blocks of color. His varied color palettes, some with bright colors and
others sober, perhaps reflected his alternating moods of optimism and pessimism.
Back in Germany in 1937, seventeen of Klee's pictures were included in an
exhibition of "Degenerate art" and 102 of his works in public collections were
seized by the Nazis.
Style and methods
Klee has been variously associated with Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism,
Surrealism, and Abstraction, but his pictures are difficult to classify. He
generally worked in isolation from his peers, and interpreted new art trends in his
own way. He was inventive in his methods and technique. Klee worked in many
different media—oil paint, watercolor, ink, pastel, etching, and others. He often
combined them into one work. He used canvas, burlap, muslin, linen, gauze,
cardboard, metal foils, fabric, wallpaper, and newsprint. Klee employed spray
paint, knife application, stamping, glazing, and impasto, and mixed media such as
oil with watercolor, watercolor with pen and India ink, and oil with tempera.
He was a natural draftsman, and through long experimentation developed a mastery
of color and tonality. Many of his works combine these skills. He uses a great
variety of color palettes from nearly monochromatic to highly polychromatic. His
works often have a fragile childlike quality to them and are usually on a small
scale. He often used geometric forms as well as letters, numbers, and arrows, and
combined them with figures of animals and people. Some works were completely
abstract. Many of his works and their titles reflect his dry humor and varying
moods; some express political convictions. They frequently allude to poetry, music
and dreams and sometimes include words or musical notation. The later works are
distinguished by spidery hieroglyph-like symbols. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote about
Klee in 1921, "Even if you hadn’t told me he plays the violin, I would have guessed
that on many occasions his drawings were transcriptions of music."
Pamela Kort observed: "Klee's 1933 drawings present their beholder with an
unparalleled opportunity to glimpse a central aspect of his aesthetics that has
remained largely unappreciated: his lifelong concern with the possibilities of
parody and wit. Herein lies their real significance, particularly for an audience
unaware that Klee's art has political dimensions."
Among the few plastic works are hand puppets made between 1916 and 1925, for his
son Felix. The artist neither counts them as a component of his oeuvre, nor does he
list them in his catalogue raisonné. Thirty of the preserved puppets are stored at
the Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern.