Paul Klee

“Transcendentalism was the common interest of the painters who formed the Expressionist group known as Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) in 1910. It was also a deep-set part of Bauhaus thought and practice, for nothing could be further from the truth than the idea that the Bauhaus represented some kind of logic opposed to the world-transforming aspirations of Expressionism. When Kandinsky taught at the Bauhaus, so did a Swiss artist named Paul Klee. And though Klee was not a Theosophist he was, like Kandinsky, devoted to an ideal of painting that stemmed from German idealist metaphysics.
“The monument of Klee’s obsession with this metaphysics was a singular book, The Thinking Eye, written during his teaching years at the Bauhaus – one of the most detailed manuals on the “science” of design ever written, conceived in terms of an all embracing theory of visual “equivalents” for spiritual states which, in its knotty elaboration, rivalled Kandinsky’s. Klee tended to see the world as a model, a kind of orrery run up by the cosmic clockmaker – a Swiss God – to demonstrate spiritual truth. This helps account for the toylike character of his fantasies; if the world had no final reality, it could be represented with the freest, most schematic wit, and this Klee set out to do. Hence his reputation as a petit-ma?tre.
“Like Kandinsky, Klee valued the “primitive,” and especially the art of children. He envied their polymorphous freedom to create signs, and respected their innocence and directness. ‘Do not laugh, reader! Children also have artistic ability, and there is wisdom in their having it! The more helpless they are, the more instructive are the examples they furnish us ….’ In his desire to paint ‘as though newborn, knowing absolutely nothing about Europe,’ Klee was a complete European. His work ferreted around in innumerable crannies of culture, bringing back small trophies and emblems from botany, astronomy, physics, and psychology. Music had a special influence on him. He believed that eighteenth-century counterpoint (his favourite form) could be translated quite directly into gradations of colour and value, repetitions and changes of motif; his compositions of stacked forms, fanned out like decks of cards or colour swatches, are attempts to freeze time in a static composition, to give visual motifs the “unfolding” quality of aural ones – and this sense of rhythmic disclosure, repetition, and blossoming transferred itself, quite naturally, to Klee’s images of plants and flowers. He was the compleat Romantic, hearing the Weltgeist in every puff of wind, reverent before nature but careful to stylize it. Klee’s assumptions were unabashedly transcendentalist. ‘Formerly we used to represent things visible on earth,’ he wrote in 1920, ‘things we either liked to look at or would have liked to see. Today we reveal the reality that is behind visible things, thus expressing the belief that the visible world is merely an isolated case in relation to the universe and that there are many more other, latent realities …’
“Klee’s career was a search for the symbols and metaphors that would make this belief visible. More than any other painter outside the Surrealist movement (with which his work had many affinities – its interest in dreams, in primitive art, in myth, and cultural incongruity), he refused to draw hard distinctions between art and writing. Indeed, many of his paintings are a form of writing: they pullulate with signs, arrows, floating letters, misplaced directions, commas, and clefs; their code for any object, from the veins of a leaf to the grid pattern of Tunisian irrigation ditches, makes no attempt at sensuous description, but instead declares itself to be a purely mental image, a hieroglyph existing in emblematic space. So most of the time Klee could get away with a shorthand organization that skimped the spatial grandeur of high French modernism while retaining its unforced delicacy of mood. Klee’s work did not offer the intense feelings of Picasso’s, or the formal mastery of Matisse’s. The spidery, exact line, crawling and scratching around the edges of his fantasy, works in a small compass of post-Cubist overlaps, transparencies, and figure- field play-offs. In fact, most of Klee’s ideas about pictorial space came out of Robert Delaunay’s work, especially the Windows. The paper, hospitable to every felicitous accident of blot and puddle in the watercolour washes, contains the images gently. As the art historian Robert Rosenblum has said, ‘Klee’s particular genius [was] to be able to take any number of the principal Romantic motifs and ambitions that, by the early twentieth century, had often swollen into grotesquely Wagnerian dimensions, and translate them into a language appropriate to the diminutive scale of a child’s enchanted world.’

Early life and training

Paul Klee was born in M?nchenbuchsee, Switzerland, as the second child of German music teacher Hans Wilhelm Klee (1849–1940) and Swiss singer Ida Marie Klee, n?e Frick (1855–1921).[a] Under Swiss law citizenship was defined by the father’s nationality and Klee thus inherited his father’s German citizenship. His sister Mathilde (died 6 December 1953) was born on 28 January 1876 in Walzenhausen. Their father came from Tann and studied singing, piano, organ and violin at the Stuttgart Conservatory, 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 throughout his life.[5] In 1880, his family moved to Bern, where they eventually, in 1897, after a number of changes of residence, moved into their own house in the Kirchenfeld district [de].[6] 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.[7]
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 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.”[8] 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.[8] At sixteen, Klee’s landscape drawings already show considerable skill.[9]
Around 1897, Klee started his diary, which he kept until 1918, and which has provided scholars with valuable insight into his life and thinking.[10] During his school years, he avidly drew in his school books, in particular drawing caricatures, and already demonstrating skill with line and volume.[11] 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.”[12] 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.[13]
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.”[12] 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.[14]
After receiving his Fine Arts degree, Klee went to Italy from October 1901 to May 1902[15] with friend Hermann Haller. They stayed in Rome, Florence and studied the master painters of past centuries.[14] He exclaimed, “The Forum and the Vatican have spoken to me. Humanism wants to suffocate me.”[16] He responded to the colors of Italy, but sadly noted, “that a long struggle lies in store for me in this field of color.”[17] 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.[17] 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).[11] In the years 1903–05 he also completed a cycle of eleven zinc-plate etchings called Inventions, his first exhibited works, in which he illustrated several grotesque characters.[14][18] He commented, “though I’m fairly satisfied with my etchings I can’t go on like this. I’m not a specialist.”[19] Klee was still dividing his time with music, playing the violin in an orchestra and writing concert and theater reviews.[20]

Abstract Expressionists and Color Field painters.

In 1920, Walter Gropius invited Klee to join the faculty of the Bauhaus. A school of architecture and industrial design operating first in Weimar (1919–25) and then Dessau (1925–32), it also included the study of arts and crafts. Nearly half of Klee’s some 10,000 works (mainly small-scale watercolors and drawings on paper) were produced during the ten years he taught at the Bauhaus, and they vary widely. Some relate to the subject of his courses, to his preoccupation with the relationship of colors, such as Static-Dynamic Gradation, produced in 1923 (1987.455.12). In the same year, Klee painted Ventriloquist and Crier in the Moor (1984.315.35), which, with its humor and grotesque fantasy, may strike many viewers as the quintessential “Klee.”

From 1931 to December 1933, Klee taught at the Academy of Fine Arts in D?sseldorf. When the National Socialists declared his art “degenerate” in 1933, Klee returned to his native Bern. Personal hardship and the increasing gravity of the political situation in Europe are reflected in the somber tone of his late work. Lines turn into black bars, forms become broad and generalized, scale larger, and colors simpler, as in Comedians’ Handbill (1938; 1984.315.57) or Angel Applicant (1939; 1984.315.60).
“If Klee was not one of the great formgivers, he was still ambitious. Like a miniaturist, he wanted to render nature permeable, in the most exact way, to the language of style – and this meant not only close but ecstatic observation of the natural world, embracing the Romantic extremes of the near and the far, the close-up detail and the “cosmic” landscape. At one end, the moon and mountains, the stand of jagged dark pines, the flat mirroring seas laid in a mosaic of washes; at the other, a swarm of little graphic inventions, crystalline or squirming, that could only have been made in the age of high-resolution microscopy and the close-up photograph. There was a clear link between some of Klee’s plant motifs and the images of plankton, diatoms, seeds, and micro-organisms that German scientific photographers were making at the same time. In such paintings, Klee tried to give back to art a symbol that must have seemed lost forever in the nightmarish violence of World War I and the social unrest that followed. This was the Paradise-Garden, one of the central images of religious romanticism – the metaphor of Creation itself, with all species growing peaceably together under the eye of natural (or divine) order.”