The Artistic Journey of Swiss-German Painter Paul Klee

Discover the ups and downs of one of the most important artists of the 20th century

By Google Arts & Culture

The Lamb (1920) by Paul KleeStädel Museum

Swiss-German artist Paul Klee (1879–1940) was a painter, printmaker, and draughtsman, but his artistic path was not a smooth one. For years, Klee worked hard to understand and use color in a way that gave it the respect he felt it deserved. As such, Klee's diverse body of work cannot be categorized according to any single artistic movement, or "school”. Instead, the artist constantly experimented with artistic techniques, the power of color, and often broke the “academic” rules of painting. Here we discover Klee’s artistic journey and his breakthrough moments.

With the Mauve Triangle (1914/1914) by Paul KleeFranz Marc Museum - Art in the 20th Century

Klee was initially set on a path towards becoming a musician by his father, Hans Wilhelm Klee, who’d studied music himself and was still an active music teacher. While he continued playing music throughout his life, in his later teen years, Klee decided on the visual arts as the career he wanted to push for, partly out of rebellion and partly because he felt modern music lacked real meaning for him. As a burgeoning artist, he craved the freedom to explore radical ideas and styles.

In 1898, with his parents' reluctant permission, Klee began studying art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. He was an excellent draughtsman, though he didn’t possess any natural color sense. He once stated: “During the third winter I even realized that I probably would never learn to paint”. In October 1901, having received his Fine Arts degree, Klee moved to Italy for eight months with his friend and sculptor Hermann Haller. The pair stayed in Rome, Florence, and Naples, and studied the master painters of past centuries.

The Literary Piano (1918/1918) by Paul KleeFranz Marc Museum - Art in the 20th Century

By 1905, the artist was living in Bern, Switzerland with his parents. He was developing experimental techniques in his art, including drawing with a needle on a blackened pane of glass. By that time he’d also exhibited work for the first time, a series of 11 zinc-plate etchings called Inventions, which depicted grotesque characters. He said at the time: “Though I’m fairly satisfied with my etchings, I can’t go on like this. I’m not a specialist”. To make ends meet, Klee was also playing violin in an orchestra and writing concert and theatre reviews.

In 1906, Klee married Bavarian pianist Lily Stumpf and soon after they had a son named Felix Paul. While living in Munich, Germany, Lily gave piano lessons and occasional performances, while Klee kept house and tended to his artistic practice, which slowly progressed over the next five years.

Things began to pick up for Klee in regards to his art through a series of chance meetings. Klee met Alfred Kubin, an Austrian printmaker and illustrator who encouraged the artist to do more graphic work. Kubin enjoyed Klee’s inclination towards the absurd and the sarcastic and he became an early collector of Klee’s work. Later that year in the autumn, he met fellow artists August Macke and Wassily Kandinsky, and by the winter he’d joined the editorial team of the almanac, Der Blaue Reiter founded by Kandinsky and Franz Marc.

Park (1914) by Paul KleeThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Der Blaue Reiter was a collection of essays about art and a selection of work by a group of artists of the same name in Munich, who were united in their rejection of the Neue Künstlervereinigung München. The group decided that the principles of the Neue Künstlervereinigung München had become too strict and traditional, despite Kandinsky founding the group himself in 1909.

The work within the almanac was dominated by primitive, folk, children’s, and naive art, something Klee had always been drawn to. Within its pages pieces from the South Pacific and Africa, Japanese drawings, medieval German woodcuts and sculpture, Egyptian puppets, and Russian folk art could be found. There were also works from well-known artists including Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and Henri Rousseau.

Klee’s philosophies and approach to creating art became integral to the group, though he was one of the last members to join. The artist’s work with the collective opened Klee’s mind to modern theories of color and his travels to Paris in 1912 furthered this exploration. Here, he was introduced to Cubism and pioneering examples of “pure painting”, an early term for abstract art. Inspired by the bold colors of Robert Delaunay and Maurice de Vlamnick’s works, Klee set about working on his own color experiments in pale watercolors and began painting primitive landscapes.

Mit der Gaslampe (1915) by Paul KleeLa Galleria Nazionale

Still trying to find a relationship between drawing and color he could adapt for his own work, Klee had a breakthrough in 1914 when he visited Tunisia with August Macke and Louis Moilliet. He was struck by the quality of light there and wrote at the time: “Color has taken possession of me; no longer do I have to chase after it, I know that it has hold of me forever… Color and I are one. I am a painter”.

With that epiphany, Klee began to stray away from depicting the world in a state of naturalness, instead embracing the “cool romanticism of abstraction”. On his return home, Klee painted his first pure abstract painting called, In The Style of Kairouan, composed of colored rectangles and circles. These basic shapes became his bread and butter and some critics have likened these blocks to musical notes, in the way Klee arranged these abstract shapes to create a colorful harmony.

View of Kirwan (1914/1914) by Paul KleeFranz Marc Museum - Art in the 20th Century

Having finally hit his stride, Klee continued to paint even during World War I, in which the artist started out as a soldier and eventually transferred to the Royal Bavarian flying school in Gersthofen in 1917 to become a clerk for the treasurer. By this time, Klee’s work was selling well and he was touted as the best of the new German artists by critics.

In 1919, Klee applied for a teaching post at the Academy of Art in Stuttgart, though he failed. At the same time he managed to secure a three-year contract with dealer Hans Goltz, whose gallery gave the artist more exposure and commercial success, most notably a retrospective of over 300 of his works in 1920.

The Lamb (1920) by Paul KleeStädel Museum

Klee went on to teach at the Bauhaus in 1921 and stayed there until 1931. Bauhaus was a German art school in operation from 1919 to 1933 that combined crafts and the fine arts. It was famous for the revolutionary approach to design it publicized and taught, with its influence still seen all over the world today. At the school, Klee was a Form master in the bookbinding, stained glass, and mural painting workshops.

In 1922, his friend Kandinsky joined the staff and the pair went on to form Die Blaue Vier (The Blue Four) in 1923 along with Lyonel Feininger and Alexej von Jawlensky. Two years later the foursome lectured and exhibited together in the USA and that same year Klee had his first exhibits in Paris, becoming a hit with the French Surrealists.

After Bauhaus, Klee went on to teach at the Düsseldorf Academy for two years. However, he was singled out by a Nazi newspaper, which led to his home being searched by the Gestapo and soon after he was fired from his teaching job. Klee and his family emigrated to Switzerland in 1933 but despite the opposition and threat from the Nazis, he was at the peak of his career having had shows in London and in Paris.

Fish Magic (1925) by Paul Klee, Swiss, 1879 - 1940Philadelphia Museum of Art

He produced nearly 500 works in 1933 alone but at the end of that same year, Klee began experiencing symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as scleroderma, an autoimmune disease. As a result, in 1936 his output was reduced to just 25 pictures. However, after a visit from Kandinsky and Pablo Picasso (who he’d met in Paris), which raised his spirits, Klee decided to simplify his practice to enable him to continue painting – so much so that in 1939 Klee created over 1,200 works.

In these later paintings, Klee adapted his previous practice by using heavier lines and mainly geometric forms with fewer but larger blocks of color.. His palettes remained varied and he often chose colors to reflect his moods, which alternated between optimism and pessimism.

Forest Witches (1938) by Paul KleeFondation Beyeler

In June 1940, Klee died in Muralto, Locarno, Switzerland. Despite his birth in the country, Klee died without having obtained Swiss citizenship. His artwork was considered too revolutionary by the Swiss authorities, but eventually they accepted his request six days after his death.

The prolific artist left behind about 9,000 works of art and his writings about art – including the Paul Klee Notebooks, a two-volume work that collects his lectures at the Bauhaus school and his other main essays on modern art – have left a legacy that has informed, engaged, and inspired generations of artists. On his tombstone, Klee’s son Felix placed the following credo from the artist: “I cannot be grasped in the here and now, for my dwelling place is as much among the dead, as the yet unborn, slightly closer to the heart of creation than usual, but still not close enough”.

Signs In Yellow (1937) by Paul KleeFondation Beyeler

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