Paul Klee
Biography of Swiss Expressionist Painter, Printmaker.

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Southern (Tunisian) Gardens (1919)
Collection Heinz Berggruen, Paris.

Paul Klee (1879–1940)


Early Life
Art Career
Ecole de Paris
Recognition and Bauhaus
Degenerate Artist
Klee's Style of Art
Major Paintings by Paul Klee

NOTE: For analysis of works by semi-abstract expressionists like Paul Klee,
please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

Senecio (1922)
Kunstmuseum Basel.


The Swiss-born painter, graphic artist and printmaker Paul Klee was involved in several of the major modern art movements including Expressionism and Surrealism, and is noted for his colourful and varied fantasy-style of art depicting a world of semi-abstract, dreamlike images. A master of drawing, he also experimented endlessly with colour theory in painting, and was closely associated with the Ecole de Paris. His style changed considerably over the years, but it was always highly imaginative, often strange, and sometimes playful. He was greatly admired by Pablo Picasso and the surrealists. Klee himself defined his art as "taking a line for a walk". Now regarded as one of the great expressionist painters of the 20th century, his masterpieces include: The Golden Fish (1925), Ad Parnassum (1932) - a large but fragile work, produced in the pointillist style - and Revolution of the Viaduct (1937). For more about Klee's links with expressionism, see: History of Expressionist Painting (c.1880-1930).

For a guide to the best examples
of abstraction, see:
Abstract Paintings: Top 100.
For a list of styles/periods, see:
Abstract Art Movements.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest still life art, see:
Best Still Life Painters.
For the greatest genre-painting, see:
Best Genre Painters.

For fine art painting, by the
world's top artists, see:
Greatest Modern Paintings.

For artists like Paul Klee,
see: Twentieth Century Painters.

Early Life

Klee was born near Bern in Switzerland in 1879. His father was a music teacher and his mother had trained to be a singer. In his early years he studied and showed talent for both music and art, but in his teens declared his preference for the visual arts. By 16, his drawings already showed considerable draftsman skills. He barely passed his school exams, preferring to sketch caricature in his school books rather than study.

In 1898, at the age of 19, he went to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. At first he showed little skill in mastering the art of colour, to the extent that he thought he should never learn to paint. A few years later, he graduated with a degree in Fine Art, and went to Italy for a few months to study Renaissance art, noting sadly in his diary: "a long struggle lies in store for me in this field of colour.” He returned to Bern and lived with his parents for the next few years, attending the odd art class. He began to experiment with various mediums - notably printmaking and graphic art, in which he was strongly influenced by both William Blake (1757-1827) and Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98) - and in 1905 produced over 50 etchings, including Portrait of my Father (1905) - created by using a needle to scratch an image on a blackened pane of glass.



Art Career

In 1906 he married a Bavarian pianist Lily Stumpf and together they moved to Munich. While Lily worked playing music, Klee tended the house and worked on his art in the kitchen. Progress for the next 5 years was slow and an attempt at magazine illustration failed. However by 1910, things had improved. He was given his first solo show and met other artists who were to influence him greatly - Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. Together they formed the German Expressionism group known as the Der Blaue Reiter. Its members were influenced by Cubism, but they also emphasized the process of painting with vibrant brushstrokes and dramatic colour. They tried to reflect their inner impulses and feelings to provoke a reaction in their audience. They also believed that sources like children's drawings, oriental paintings and African sculpture could be the root for the rebirth of art. Kandinsky became a mentor of sorts to Klee, although Klee admitted in later years that he found Kandinsky's works 'bizarre'.

Ecole de Paris

In 1912 Klee travelled to Paris and was exposed to the new works of Cubism and early abstract art - particularly being impressed by the works of the neo-Cubist Robert Delaunay. In Delaunay's paintings he saw that Cubism did not have to be static and that it was possible to create a completely separate and independent picture with its own abstract formality, its own life. In other words a painting could be both natural and abstract at the same time. He also came into contact with the Futurist movement and was particularly impressed with the masterpiece Nude Descending a Staircase by Marcel Duchamp.

For the next two years Klee began to experiment with bold colours, completing a number of landscape watercolour paintings, including In the Quarry (1913) and Houses near the Gravel Pit (1913). As he learned more about colour he strove to incorporate it's attributes into drawings. The breakthrough came in 1914 when he met August Macke. Impressed by Macke's use of colour, he finally felt that "colour has taken possession of me; no longer do I have to chase after it". Indeed, just before war broke out in Europe in August 1914, Klee took a trip with Macke to Tunisia. He had rarely worked in colour, but the strong North African light, lush foliage, painted roofs and colourful local fabrics made a powerful impression on him. He had been inspired already by Robert Delaunay's use of colour in his vast murals. Now, a whole new world of colour opened up for him. He painted his first piece of abstract art - In the Style of Kairouan (1914), a work consisting of coloured rectangles and circles - when he returned from Paris. The coloured rectangle was to become one of his fundamental building blocks to a painting, laying them side by side, or slightly overlapping.

In 1914 the First World War broke out, and news soon reached him of the death of his friends Macke and Franz Marc. Turning to his memories he produced a stunning series of vibrant watercolours that evoked the towns and landscapes of Tunisia - as it was, these Mediterranean or Arabian motifs - domes, palms and camels - resurfaced in Klee's work, even in the last years of his life. Klee also created several pen and ink drawings on war themes including Death for the Idea (1915). In 1916 he joined the army but spent his time painting camouflage on airplanes, and so survived the war.

Recognition and Bauhaus

In 1919 Klee received a 3 year contract from an art dealer, Hans Goltz, whose gallery was able to give him the sort of exposure he needed and helped to establish him as an important contributor to the abstractionist wing of the expressionist movement. Success was quick and by 1920 Klee was in a position to hold his first retrospective with over 300 works. At the same time he was invited to teach art at the short-lived Bauhaus art and design school, in the German city of Weimar. At first, the bearded, quiet family man, who loved cats and classical music, did not immediately fit in with the avant-garde spirit of the Bauhaus. But he was serious about teaching and soon gained the respect of many staff and students through his lectures and educational writings, which are still regarded as important today. Taking his wife and son, Klee moved with the Bauhaus to Dessau in 1926, where he stayed until 1931. In 1923, he and fellow teacher Wassily Kandinsky combined with Lyonel Feininger and Alexei von Jawlensky to form the Blue Four (Die Blaue Vier), and began exhibiting internationally together. The same year Klee had a successful exhibition in Paris and became popular with surrealist artists. Paintings from this period include The Golden Fish (1925) in oil and watercolour, which demonstrates a masterful study of colour. The gold warmth of the fish glows undimmed by the deep blue of the surrounding sea. There have been many interpretations of the painting, including one that says the painting symbolises a love that cannot be extinguished.

In 1933, denounced by the Nazis as a Galician Jew, Klee and his family were hounded out of his job and home. They moved to Switzerland later that year. His self-portrait Struck from the List (1933) commemorates his troubles. Just before his move, he created some 500 works, but the following year, in Switzerland, this was reduced to a mere 25. It was about this time that he started showing symptoms of scleroderma, which was only diagnosed by autopsy a few years later.

Degenerate Artist

In 1937, his art together with that of fellow painters Emil Nolde (1867-1956), Otto Dix (1891-1969), Max Beckmann (1884-1950), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), and Marc Chagall (1887-1985), was labelled "Degenerate Art" (Entartete Kunst) by the Nazi government. Over the next few years he would go through periods of activity and quieter times, depending on his health. But even now, at the end of his life and suffering from illness, Klee produced bold, simplified images that remin us of prehistoric cave paintings or ancient hieroglyphics. Their titles referred to ancient myths and powerful emotions, and the images were now darker and more morbid. He died in Switzerland in 1940 at the age of 61.

Klee's Style of Art

Klee's life began and ended in Switzerland, but he spent most of his working years in Germany. There he came into contact with many of the leading modern artists of his generation and with ideas that changed art and design forever. In his painting and graphic art, Klee developed an extraordinary range of techniques and styles. These can be traced to his many interests. He wrote poems when he was young and drew inspiration from them years later for his paintings. He was interested in theatre and seriously considered music as a career. In fact, his paintings have been likened to music. Some, such as the portraits, have a theatrical quality; in others, objects look like floating notes from a page of sheet music. Even when he finally settled on art as a career, Klee continued to write extensively. He was always a deep thinker as well as a painter. His large number of works were part of an attempt to discover what he called "the reality that is behind visible things".

His earlier works were generally small in scale, but they became larger in later years. He displayed a wide variety of palette colour - from primary colours to monochromatic. There is a childlike quality to his work. He created a whole series of new worlds, usually happy cheerful ones with shimmering fish, mysterious plants and dancing matchstick figures. The titles of his works often allude to his love of music and his desire to make his paintings 'sing' through use of colour and line. His painting The Twittering Machine (1922), shows four little matchstick, bird-like, fishermen who are perched on a handle, which looks like it needs to be cranked to make them sing.

The paintings from his last few years are not only bigger, but also bolder. They have black borders and the paint is applied more thickly. Many of these paintings reflect death and the Nazi regime but they also have great vitality and energy. Revolution of the Viaduct (1937) is possibly one of his most famous works; it was inspired by the turmoil around him. The arches, as they seem to march toward the observer can be considered a challenge to Nazism, they trample something, maybe the repressive regime.

At the time of his death he had produced over 9,000 works. At the time his painting was considered too revolutionary even for modern art, and his tombstone bears the words "I cannot be grasped in the here and now, for my dwelling place is much among the dead, as the yet unborn, slightly closer to the heart of creation than usual, but still not close enough". Klee's work in colour influenced a generation of artists and printmakers, notably the younger European COBRA painters like Karel Appel (1921-2006). He was a quiet man, who spoke very little. He didn't have to explain himself - his work, the ultimate self-expression, spoke for him.

List of Major Paintings by Paul Klee

Works by Paul Klee can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world, notably the Kunstmuseum Basel. His major works include:

- On a Motif from Hamamet, Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel (1914)
- Cosmic Composition, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf (1919)
- Nocturnal Festivity, The Solomon R. Guggebheim Museum, New York (1921)
- A Young Lady's Adventure, Tate Gallery, London (1921)
- Crystal Gradation, Kunstmuseum Basel (1921)
- Revolving House, Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Madrid (1921)
- Red Balloon, The Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York (1922)
- Senecio, Kunstmuseum Basel (1922)
- Puppet Theater, Kunstmuseum, Bern (1923)
- Carnival in the Mountains, Kunstmuseum, Bern (1924)
- Botanical Theater, Private collection (1924/34)
- Fish Magic, The Philadelphia Museum of Art (1925)
- Gate in the Garden, Kunstmuseum, Bern (1926)
- Reconstructin, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen (1926)
- Around the Fish, The Museum of Modern Arts, New York (1926)
- Attrappen (Omega 5), Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Madrid (1927)
- Little Jester in a Trance, Museum Ludwig, Cologne (1929)
- Monument in Fertile Country, Kunstmuseum, Bern (1929)
- Fire in the Evening, The Museum of Modern Arts, New York (1929)
- Ad Marginem, Kunstmuseum Basel (1930)
- Fruits on Red, Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich (1930)
- Conqueror, Kunstmuseum, Bern (1930)
- Individualized Altimetry of Stripes, Kunstmuseum, Bern (1930)
- Siblings, Private collection (1930)
- Polyphony, Kunstmuseum, Basel (1932)
- Ad Parnassum, Kunstmuseum, Bern (1932)
- The Future Man, Kunstmuseum, Bern (1933)
- Drawn One, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf (1935)
- Contemplating, Galerie Beyeler, Basel (1938)
- Heroic Roses, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf (1938)
- Red Waistcoat, Kunstzammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen (1938)
- Woman in Peasant Dress, Kunstmuseum, Bern (1940)
- Death and Fire, Kunstmuseum, Bern (1940)

• For details of major art periods/movements, see: History of Art.
• For more information about modern art, see: Homepage.

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