Paul Klee (1879-1940) was a Swiss painter and graphic artist of extraordinary formal inventiveness whose art combined a childlike, primary vision and the utmost sophistication.
Paul Klee was one of the great masters who established the essence and character of modern art. He was an artist of a creative capacity and an artistic range and depth that had not existed in German countries since Albrecht Dürer's time. Like Dürer, Klee was predominantly a draftsman. Color entered his art late, and the main body of his work was always dominated by the linear component. His fantasy seemed inexhaustible—the demonic bordering on the grotesque, the humorous on the anecdotal—but it was always rooted in his metaphysical, even mystical, attitude to life and art. Klee was also an outstanding writer on formal and esthetic problems and a distinguished teacher. To him we owe some of the most beautiful statements on modern art.
In Klee's work, thought and emotion form a whole out of which grows a myth of universal validity. Thus, he wrote: "My hand is only a tool of a far-off sphere. Nor is it my head that functions but something else, something higher, farther, somewhere. … The primitive mentality does not invent myths, it experiences them. … Progression toward a philosophy of life is essentially productive. … At the point where the central organ of all temporal spatial movement rules all functions: who would not live there as an artist? There, in the womb of nature, where the secret key to all being is hidden? … Our quaking hearts drive us downward, deep down to the origin of things."
Klee was born on Dec. 18, 1879, in München-Buchsee near Berne. His father was a musician, and in his youth Paul could not decide whether to become a musician or a painter. He was a fine violinist, and music remained a source of inspiration throughout his life.
In 1898 Klee went to Munich, Germany, where he studied briefly with Erwin Knirr and then attended the academy until 1901, studying with Franz von Stuck. The Jugendstil with its emphasis on curved lines and the fin-desiècle symbolism and romanticism of the Munich school influenced the young Klee, who admired Odilon Redon, Aubrey Beardsley, William Blake, Francisco Goya, and James Ensor. In 1901 Klee visited Italy, and in 1905 he made his first trip to Paris. Between 1902 and 1906 he lived in Berne, where he produced his first characteristic works.
In 1906 Klee married the pianist Lily Stumpf and moved to Munich. They had one son, Felix. Klee exhibited etchings in the Munich Secession in 1906, and the first large exhibition of his graphic works took place in Switzerland in 1910. The following year Klee met the artists of the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) group and exhibited drawings at the Galerie Tannhauser in Munich. In 1912 Klee visited Paris, where he met Robert Delaunay, whose Orphist paintings stimulated him; saw pictures by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque; and was much impressed by the works of Paul Cézanne, Vincent Van Gogh, and Henri Matisse. This trip to Paris and one to Kairouan in Tunisia in 1914 in the company of August Macke and Louis Moilliet were decisive for Klee as a painter. At the age of 35 he was still predominantly a draftsman and only occasionally a watercolorist. But after his trip to Tunisia all the influences he had been absorbing fused into a totality, and his unique pictorial metaphor was established.
In 1914 Klee helped to found the Neue Münchner Sezession (New Munich Secession). From 1916 to 1918 he served in the German army. In 1920 he had a large retrospective at the Gallery Goltz in Munich and was invited to teach at the Bauhaus in Weimar. He taught there and at the Bauhaus in Dessau until 1931; the Bauhaus years were most inspiring for Klee both as an artist and as a teacher. In 1923 he had a one-man show at the Kronprinzenpalais in Berlin, and the following year his first exhibition in the United States took place.
In 1924 Klee made a trip to Sicily, in 1926 to Italy, in 1927 to Corsica. He was one of the founders of the Blaue Vier (Blue Four) group in 1924. The following year he participated in the first surrealist exhibition in Paris. In the winter of 1928/1929 Klee visited Egypt. To celebrate his fiftieth birthday, Klee was given a major retrospective in Berlin in 1929. His work became more inaccessible to rational analysis. The titles of his works, which had always been poetic and surprising, became mystical, for example, Archangels, Angels Bring What Is Longed For, and Saints of the Inner Light.
In 1931 Klee began to teach at the Düsseldorf Art Academy; the Nazis dismissed him from his post in 1933. He returned to Berne, where he lived the rest of his life. In 1935 and 1936 he had large exhibitions in Switzerland. In 1935 the first signs of the illness that caused his death appeared. His paintings became larger, more hieroglyphic, and more remote; they are filled with images of death and angels.
In 1937 Picasso, Braque, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner visited Klee in Berne. That year his works were included in the Nazi exhibition of "degenerate" art in Munich, and 102 of them were confiscated from public collections in Germany.
Klee's most important writings are the Pädagogisches Skizzenbuch (1925; Pedagogical Sketch Book, 1944); Schöpferische Konfession (1920; Creative Credo); and Ü ber die Moderne Kunst (1945; On Modern Art, 1947), a lecture delivered at the Jena Kunstverein in 1924. He executed nearly 9,000 individual works, beginning with a preponderance of pen and pencil drawings and gradually expanding to watercolors and oil paintings. He died on June 29, 1940, at Muralto near Locarno.
Further Reading on Paul Klee
The most comprehensive study of Klee is Will Grohmann, Paul Klee (1954), which contains extensive quotations from Klee's writings, a bibliography, and an index. See also Carola Giedion-Welcker, Paul Klee (trans. 1952). Important books on special aspects of Klee's art are Karl Nierendorf, Paul Klee: Paintings, Watercolors, 1913-1939 (1941); Margaret Miller, ed., Paul Klee (1941), which has statements by the artist and articles by Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Julia and Lyonel Feininger, and James Johnson Sweeney; James Thrall Soby, The Prints of Paul Klee (1945); Werner Haftmann, The Mind and Work of Paul Klee (1954), a penetrating study of Klee's philosophy, his art theory, and his teaching method; and Jürg Spiller, ed., Paul Klee: The Thinking Eye (1956; trans. 1961), which contains Klee's notebooks with all particulars of pedagogical importance.