Swiss-born painter and graphic artist whose personal, often gently humorous
works are replete with allusions to dreams, music, and poetry, Paul Klee, b. Dec. 18, 1879, d. June
29, 1940, is difficult to classify.
art, surrealism, cubism, and children's art all seem blended into his
small-scale, delicate paintings, watercolors, and drawings. Klee grew up in a
musical family and was himself a violinist. After much hesitation he chose to
study art, not music, and he attended the Munich Academy in 1900. There his
teacher was the popular symbolist and society painter Franz von STUCK. Klee
later toured Italy (1901-02), responding enthusiastically to Early Christian
and Byzantine art.
early works are mostly etchings and pen-and-ink drawings. These combine
satirical, grotesque, and surreal elements and reveal the influence of
Francisco de Goya and James Ensor, both of whom Klee admired. Two of his
best-known etchings, dating from 1903, are Virgin
in a Tree and Two Men Meet,
Each Believing the Other to Be of Higher Rank. Such peculiar,
evocative titles are characteristic of Klee and give his works an added
dimension of meaning.
his marriage in 1906 to the pianist Lili Stumpf, Klee settled in Munich, then
an important center for avant-garde art. That same year he exhibited his
etchings for the first time. His friendship with the painters Wassily Kandinsky
and August Macke prompted him to join Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), an
expressionist group that contributed much to the development of abstract art.
turning point in Klee's career was his visit to Tunisia with Macke and Louis
Molliet in 1914. He was so overwhelmed by the intense light there that he
wrote: Color has taken possession of me; no longer do I have to chase after it,
I know that it has hold of me forever. That is the significance of this blessed
moment. Color and I are one. I am a painter. He now built up compositions of colored
squares that have the radiance of the mosaics he saw on his Italian sojourn.
The watercolor Red and White Domes
(1914; Collection of Clifford Odets, New York City) is distinctive of this
often incorporated letters and numerals into his paintings, as in Once Emerged from the Gray of Night
(1917-18; Klee Foundation, Berlin). These, part of Klee's complex language of
symbols and signs, are drawn from the unconscious and used to obtain a poetic
amalgam of abstraction and reality. He wrote that "Art does not reproduce
the visible, it makes visible," and he pursued this goal in a wide range
of media using an amazingly inventive battery of techniques. Line and color
predominate with Klee, but he also produced series of works that explore mosaic
and other effects.
taught at the BAUHAUS school after World War I, where his friend Kandinsky was
also a faculty member. In Pedagogical
Sketchbook (1925), one of his several important essays on art
theory, Klee tried to define and analyze the primary visual elements and the
ways in which they could be applied. In 1931 he began teaching at Dusseldorf
Academy, but he was dismissed by the Nazis, who termed his work
"degenerate." In 1933, Klee went to Switzerland. There he came down
with the crippling collagen disease scleroderma, which forced him to develop a
simpler style and eventually killed him. The late works, characterized by heavy
black lines, are often reflections on death and war, but his last painting, Still Life (1940; Felix Klee
collection, Bern), is a serene summation of his life's concerns as a creator.
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please ignore the very first picture in the next page, entitled 1914, as the Klee Estate reported in
July 2002 that it wasn't an authentic work by Paul Klee.
studies in the related fields of natural history, comparative anatomy and
anthropology had brought Klee to the belief that nature was characterized by
the permutation and movement of fundamental units of construction. He wanted to
achieve an equivalent way of working in painting. In addition to his interest
in the natural world. Klee also turned to theories of both color and music. As
he worked on the basis of units of construction taken from nature, Klee tried
to create linear improvisations which he likened to the melody of the work.
Klee evolved a system of color organization in which all the colors of the
spectrum were conceived of as moving around a central axis dominated by the
three pigmentary colors - red, yellow and blue.
1923 Klee created a series of imaginative color constructions which he called
'magic squares' in which he applied his theories. This series came to a
conclusion in 1932 with Ad Parnassum.
Klee likened each element in the painting to a theme in a polyphonic
composition. He defined polyphony as 'the simultaneity of several independent
themes'. In addition. each artistic element in Ad Parnassum is itself a distillation of several ideas
and personal experiences. For example. the graphic element illustrates the gate
to Mount Parnassus, the home of Apollo and the Muses, and also may refer to the
Pyramids which Klee saw in 1928, and to a mountain near Klee's home.
Klee was an introverted Swiss painter who spent most of his adult life in
Germany until he was expelled by the Nazis in 1933. His work is impossible to
clarify, except to say that it is hardly ever wholly abstract, but equally,
never truly realistic. He had a natural sensitivity to music, the least
material of the arts, and it runs through all his work, clarifying his
spellbinding color and dematerializing his images.
Klee was one of the greatest colorists in the story of painting, and a skilled
deployer of line. His gravest pictures may have an undercurrent of humor, and
his powers of formal invention seem infinite. After making an early choice
whether to pursue painting or music as a career, he became one of the most
poetic and inventive of modern artists. He taught at the Bauhaus in Weimar and
Dessau and then at the Dьsseldorf Academy. Until his expulsion from Dьsseldorf
by the Nazis, Klee painted and drew on a very small scale, yet the small size
of his pictures does not affect their internal greatness.
The Golden Fish glides through the kingdom of its
underwater freedom, all lesser fish leaving a clear space for its gleaming
body. This is a magical fish with runic signs upon his body, scarlet fins, and
a great pink flower of an eye. He hangs majestically in the deep, dark blue
magic of the sea, which is luminous with secret images of fertility. The great
fish draws the mysteriousness of his secret world into significance. We may not
understand the significance, but it is there. The sea and its creatures are
arranged in glorious homage, belittled but also magnified by this bright
presence. This quiet nobility, the brightness, the solitude, the general
respect: all are true of Klee himself. Whether the art world knew it or not, he
was their golden fish.
Images of death and fear
painted with intense rapidity and sureness and it is impossible to indicate the
full breadth of his range, his unfailing magic, and his poetry. Diana in the Autumn Wind (1934; 63 x 58
cm (24 3/4 x 19 in)) gives a hint of his sense of movement. Leaves flying in a
moist breeze are, at the same time, the Virgin goddess on the hunt, and yet
also a fashionably dressed woman from Klee's social circle. The eeriness of the
dying year takes shape before our eyes and beyond all this are lovely balancing
forms that exist in their own right. This work is strangely pale for Klee, yet
the gentle pallor is demanded by the theme: he hints that Diana is
disintegrating under the force of autumnal fruitfulness.
died relatively young of a slow and wasting disease, his death horribly
mimicked by the death of peace that signified World War II. his last paintings
are unlike any of his others. They are larger, with the forms often enclosed by
a thick black line, as if Klee were protecting them against a violent outrage.
The wit is gone and there is a huge sorrow, not personal, but for foolish and
Death and Fire (1940; 46 x 44 cm (18 x 17 1/3 in))
is one of Klee's last paintings. A white, gleaming skull occupies the center,
with the German word for death, Tod,
forming the features of its face. A minimal man walks towards death, his breast
stripped of his heart, his face featureless, his body without substance. Death
is his only reality, his facial features waiting there in the grave for him.
But there is fire in this picture too: the sun, not yet set, rests on the
earth's rim, which is also the hand of death. The upper air is luminous with
fire, presenting not an alternative to death, but a deeper understanding of it.
The man walks forward bravely, into the radiance, into the light. The cool,
grey-green domain of death accepts the fire and offers wry comfort.
mysterious black stakes jag down vertically from above, and the man strikes the
skull with another. If fate forces him down into the earth, he does not go
passively or reluctantly: he cooperates. Death's head is only a half-circle,
but the sun that it balances in its hand is a perfect globe. The sun is what
endures the longest, what rises highest, what matters most, even to death
itself. Klee understood his death as a movement into the deepest reality,
because, as he said, ``the objective world surrounding us is not the only one
possible; there are others, latent''. He reveals a little of that latent
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