In a massive output of paintings in oil and watercolor, drawings and etchings, the Swiss artist Paul Klee combined a multiplicity of Expressionist and other modern styles to convey, often in a humorous and satirical manner, a personalized vision of 20th-century man's inner imagination, fears, and fantasies. Klee was born at Münchenbuchsee near Bern into a middleclass cultured family. Both his parents were musicians. He soon became an accomplished poet and musician and played the violin in the Bern municipal orchestra. He had a lifelong interest in the formal aspects of literature and music, both of which stimulated his art.
Although Klee was equally talented at an early age as a painter and draftsman, it was not until he was 35 that he came to fully regard himself as a painter. After his formal education had been completed he studied art in Munich from 1898 to 1900, first under Knirr and then under Franz von Stuck; he received a formal training in figure-drawing under the latter but devoted little attention to color. By this time he had decided to become a painter, and after traveling in Italy in 1901, where he became acquainted with the Western Renaissance tradition, he devoted himself on his return to Bern to a series of 17 grotesque satirical etchings. They reveal his admiration for the visionary symbolism of Blake and Goya, as well as for Ensor and Redon whose work he saw in Paris in 1905.
Klee's interests during this period included early Renaissance paintings and German woodcuts. The literary subject matter of his first etchings also reflects his wide reading, particularly Baudelaire and the French Symbolist writers. Ten of the etchings were exhibited at the Munich Secession in 1906; Klee moved to Munich that year and became familiar with Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting, including the work of Van Gogh, Cézanne, and Matisse. Under the influence of French Impressionism he began to work from nature, and although his drawing now included color and reflected something of the flat planar distortions of Cézanne and Matisse, he did not abandon the intuitive approach to subject matter that characterized his early work.
Klee's first one-man exhibition in Munich in 1911 brought his work to the attention of the Neue Künstlervereinigung, and to Alfred Kubin, whose art Klee's superficially resembled at the time. Through Kubin, Klee was introduced to the circle of Kandinsky and Marc. Klee felt strong affinities with Kandinsky's theories of the spiritual essence of art, and he exhibited his work in the second Blaue Reiter exhibition of paintings and drawings in 1912. Franz Marc's interpretation of the rhythmic relationship of animal life also strongly appealed to him, and provided him with a basis for the exploration of the creative life-force which he was later to pursue.
In 1912 Klee visited Robert Delaunay in Paris. Delaunay's individual brand of Orphic Cubism, and his chromatic series of window pictures built up with overlapping color rectangles, further opened his eyes to the potential use of color. The following year he translated Delaunay's Sur La Lumière into German. However, it was not until 1914, when he journeyed to Tunisia with August Macke, that the strong light and intense color of North Africa prompted him to write in his diary: “Color has taken hold of me ... once and for all.... Color and I are one. I am a painter”. In this, Macke, for long a strong colorist himself, proved a decisive influence.
Although Klee's art after 1914 is clearly indebted to Cubism, and particularly to Delaunay, it never became Abstract but was deeply rooted in nature. Between 1914 and 1920, in landscapes and cityscapes, Klee built up a tapestry of rectangles in prismatic colors resembling mosaics; they were strengthened by the grid-like structures of Cubism and painted with all the intensity of Expressionism. The theme of the city and tower in his work is imbued with the mystical qualities of a new Jerusalem, and as such still carries Symbolist and literary and mythological associations (seen in City of Towers, 1916; Philadelphia Museum of Art). In his immediate postwar work Klee was concerned with capturing not just the visual world as he perceived it, but with the processes of creation, genesis, and motion. It was these themes that he analyzed in pictorial terms in his teaching in the following decade.
In 1920 Walter Gropius invited Klee to join the staff of the Bauhaus at Weimar, where he taught at first in the departments of stained glass and weaving. Later he conducted his own course in the theory of forms. In 1925 his Pedagogical Sketchbook, which outlined his fundamental theories of points, lines, and planes, was published by the Bauhaus. He produced paintings during these years in a bewildering variety of different styles which he adapted to suit the requirements of content and subject matter. His subject matter included architecture, plant, animal, and human life, and incorporated reference to child art, primitive, medieval, and folk art. At times the strict geometry of his paintings is reminiscent of Constructivist form. In other instances he departed from the structural basis of Cubism to explore the inner world of the subconscious, although his art in this decade is only tangentially connected to that of the Surrealists, who nevertheless admired his work (for example, Fish Magic, 1925; Philadelpia Museum of Art). In 1924 he exhibited with Kandinsky, Jawlensky, and Feininger as “The Blue Four”.
It is possible to see in Klee's work during these years two distinct lines of enquiry. First there were his formal exercises in pictorial form, expressing growth and movement through line and plane. But there was also Klee's combination of mythological or philosophical truths expresed in more complex language, which are much indebted to concepts in poetry and literature as they are to visual art. Humor and fantasy are often used to explore deeper meanings, as are subjects depicting pain and grief, an approach Klee described as a “synthesis of outward sight and inner vision”. In 1930 Klee left the Bauhaus for a teaching post at Düsseldorf, from which he was dismissed by the Nazis in 1933. His late works increased in size, and the symbolism became more graphic and prophetically doom-laden—yet humor and irony still often lie quite close to the surface (as in Death and Fire, 1940; Paul-Klee-Stiftung, Berner Kunstmuseum, Bern). Klee's art continued to bear out his belief that “art does not reproduce the visible, but makes visible”.
Further reading Grohmann, W. Paul Klee, London (1955). Klee, F. (ed.) The Diaries of Paul Klee 1878 - 1918, Berkeley (1964). Klee, P. Notebooks (2 vols.), London (1961 and 1973). Klee, P. On Modern Art, London (1966). Klee, P. Pedagogical Sketchbooks, London (1953). Lynton, N. Klee, London (1975). Pierce, J.S. Paul Klee and Primitive Art, New York (1976).
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