Paul Klee

A Swiss-born painter and graphic artist whose personal, often gently humorous works are replete with allusions to dreams, music, and poetry, Paul Klee, b. Dec. 18, 1879, d. June 29, 1940, is difficult to classify. Primitive art, surrealism, cubism, and children’s art all seem blended into his small-scale, delicate paintings, watercolors, and drawings. Klee grew up in a musical family and was himself a violinist. After much hesitation he chose to study art, not music, and he attended the Munich Academy in 1900. There his teacher was the popular symbolist and society painter Franz von STUCK. Klee later toured Italy (1901-02), responding enthusiastically to Early Christian and Byzantine art.

Klee’s early works are mostly etchings and pen-and-ink drawings. These combine satirical, grotesque, and surreal elements and reveal the influence of Francisco de Goya and James Ensor, both of whom Klee admired. Two of his best-known etchings, dating from 1903, are Virgin in a Tree and Two Men Meet, Each Believing the Other to Be of Higher Rank. Such peculiar, evocative titles are characteristic of Klee and give his works an added dimension of meaning.

After his marriage in 1906 to the pianist Lili Stumpf, Klee settled in Munich, then an important center for avant-garde art. That same year he exhibited his etchings for the first time. His friendship with the painters Wassily Kandinsky and August Macke prompted him to join Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), an expressionist group that contributed much to the development of abstract art.

A turning point in Klee’s career was his visit to Tunisia with Macke and Louis Molliet in 1914. He was so overwhelmed by the intense light there that he wrote:

“Color has taken possession of me; no longer do I have to chase after it, I know that it has hold of me forever. That is the significance of this blessed moment. Color and I are one. I am a painter.”

He now built up compositions of colored squares that have the radiance of the mosaics he saw on his Italian sojourn. The watercolor Red and White Domes (1914; Collection of Clifford Odets, New York City) is distinctive of this period. Klee often incorporated letters and numerals into his paintings, as in Once Emerged from the Gray of Night (1917-18; Klee Foundation, Berlin). These, part of Klee’s complex language of symbols and signs, are drawn from the unconscious and used to obtain a poetic amalgam of abstraction and reality. He wrote that “Art does not reproduce the visible, it makes visible,” and he pursued this goal in a wide range of media using an amazingly inventive battery of techniques. Line and color predominate with Klee, but he also produced series of works that explore mosaic and other effects.

Klee taught at the BAUHAUS school after World War I, where his friend Kandinsky was also a faculty member. In Pedagogical Sketchbook (1925), one of his several important essays on art theory, Klee tried to define and analyze the primary visual elements and the ways in which they could be applied. In 1931 he began teaching at Dusseldorf Academy, but he was dismissed by the Nazis, who termed his work “degenerate.” In 1933, Klee went to Switzerland. There he came down with the crippling collagen disease scleroderma, which forced him to develop a simpler style and eventually killed him. The late works, characterized by heavy black lines, are often reflections on death and war, but his last painting, Still Life (1940; Felix Klee collection, Bern), is a serene summation of his life’s concerns as a creator.

Photographs by Mark Harden.

  • 1914
  • Red and White Domes
    1914 (140 Kb); Watercolor and body color on Japanese, vellum mounted on cardboard, 14.6 x 13.7 cm; Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf
  • Remembrance of a Garden
    1914 (150 Kb); Watercolor on linen paper mounted on cardboard, 25.2 x 21.5 cm; Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf
  • Southern (Tunisian) Gardens
    1919 (180 Kb); Watercolor, 9.5 x 7.5 in; Collection Heinz Berggruen, Paris
  • Dream City
    1921 (140 Kb); Watercolor and oil, 18 7/8 x 12 1/4 in; Private collection, Turin
  • The Golden Fish
  • Ancient Sound, Abstract on Black
    1925 (140 Kb); Oil on cardboard, 15 x 15 in; Kunstsammlung, Basel
  • Highway and Byways
    1929 (300 Kb); Oil on canvas, 32 5/8 x 26 3/8 in; Collection Christoph and Andreas Vowinckel
  • Ad Parnassum
  • Southern Gardens
    1936 (220 Kb); Oil on paper, mounted on cardboard, 10 3/8 x 12 1/4 in; Collection Norman Granz, Geneva
  • Legend of the Nile
    1937 (190 Kb); Pastel on cotton cloth mounted on burlap, 69 x 61 cm (27 1/8 x 24 in); Kunstmuseum Bern
  • Insula Dulcamara
    1938 (210 Kb); Oil on newsprint, mounted on burlap, 31 1/2 x 69 in; Klee Foundation, Bern
  • Park of Idols
    1939 (150 Kb); Watercolor on blackened paper, 14 x 8 1/4 in; Collection Felix Klee, Bern
  • Embrace
    1939 (140 Kb); Paste color, watercolor, and oil on paper, 9 1/2 x 12 1/4 in; Collection Dr. Bernhard Sprengel, Hanover
  • Captive
    1940 (210 Kb); Oil on burlap, 18 7/8 x 17 3/8 in; Collection Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Zimmerman, New York

The Golden Fish

Images of death and fear

Klee painted with intense rapidity and sureness and it is impossible to indicate the full breadth of his range, his unfailing magic, and his poetry. Diana in the Autumn Wind (1934; 63 x 58 cm (24 3/4 x 19 in)) gives a hint of his sense of movement. Leaves flying in a moist breeze are, at the same time, the Virgin goddess on the hunt, and yet also a fashionably dressed woman from Klee’s social circle. The eeriness of the dying year takes shape before our eyes and beyond all this are lovely balancing forms that exist in their own right. This work is strangely pale for Klee, yet the gentle pallor is demanded by the theme: he hints that Diana is disintegrating under the force of autumnal fruitfulness. Klee died relatively young of a slow and wasting disease, his death horribly mimicked by the death of peace that signified World War II. his last paintings are unlike any of his others. They are larger, with the forms often enclosed by a thick black line, as if Klee were protecting them against a violent outrage. The wit is gone and there is a huge sorrow, not personal, but for foolish and wilful humanity.

Death and Fire (1940; 46 x 44 cm (18 x 17 1/3 in)) is one of Klee’s last paintings. A white, gleaming skull occupies the center, with the German word for death, Tod, forming the features of its face. A minimal man walks towards death, his breast stripped of his heart, his face featureless, his body without substance. Death is his only reality, his facial features waiting there in the grave for him. But there is fire in this picture too: the sun, not yet set, rests on the earth’s rim, which is also the hand of death. The upper air is luminous with fire, presenting not an alternative to death, but a deeper understanding of it. The man walks forward bravely, into the radiance, into the light. The cool, grey-green domain of death accepts the fire and offers wry comfort.

Three mysterious black stakes jag down vertically from above, and the man strikes the skull with another. If fate forces him down into the earth, he does not go passively or reluctantly: he cooperates. Death’s head is only a half-circle, but the sun that it balances in its hand is a perfect globe. The sun is what endures the longest, what rises highest, what matters most, even to death itself. Klee understood his death as a movement into the deepest reality, because, as he said, “the objective world surrounding us is not the only one possible; there are others, latent”. He reveals a little of that latent otherness here.


Author: James Presley

I am an artist and I love it. What do I have to do to live from what I love? I'm not dying or cutting me bloody ear off, that's for sure.

One thought on “Paul Klee”

  1. I read this w interest.
    Klee suffered from scleroderma, which I believe may have influenced his art profoundly.

    see below:

    Illness and Art: the Legacy of Paul Klee

    John Varga

    Along with Picasso and Matisse, Paul Klee was the dominant figure of 20th century art. His works, characterized by brilliant color, breathtaking inventiveness, spectacular versatility and unmatched productivity, have had a profound influence on all major graphic artists to follow, and fundamentally shaped our sensibility of art. At his untimely death in 1940, Klee left a staggering 10,000 paintings, drawings and etchings. When he was 56 years old, Klee came down with scleroderma, the illness that was to progressively disable and ultimately kill him. While its onset had an initially devastating impact, during the remaining five years of his life Klee’s struggle with his illness energized him, emboldened his vision and led him to new insight. It is with his late work that Klee created his artistic manifesto.

    Klee was a complex and enigmatic painter working with infinite styles and techniques, equally comfortable with Abstract and representative art. He was also a gifted musician and composer, passionate teacher, poet and philosopher, an artists who was had the courage to stand firm by his convictions in the face of grave danger. He was a calm self-contained man who spoke little; his art spoke for him. Klee was born in 1879 in Switzerland. His father was a music teacher, and young Klee grew up in a richly cultured and happy home. His childhood was dominated equally by music and art. As a young man, he supported himself as a violinist in a chamber orchestra and as a music critic, and except for his final illness, he played the violin every morning for an hour before he got down to work. Throughout his life, Klee’s dedication to, and love for, musical forms informed his drawings and paintings. As reflected in his writings (he left 4,000 pages of diary entries, analytical texts and lecture notes from his years as a teacher), he viewed art through the prism of music. Klee left home at 19 to study painting in Munich. There, he married the concert pianist Lily Stumpf, and their only child, Felix, was born in 1906.

    Klee’s youthful work is characterized by vitality, whimsical light touch and irrepressible humor. He favored prints, etchings and pen-and-ink drawings that revealed a fondness for the satirical, the grotesque and the surreal. He gave his pictures evocative and satirical titles such as “Two Men Meet, Each Believing the Other to be of Higher Rank” (Fig. 1). In 1912, Klee met and exhibited with Vasily Kandinsky and other members of the influential der Blaue Reiter Expressionist group. A trip to Tunis in 1914 had an enormous impact on his art. During this trip, Klee experienced North African architecture and intense light; he discovered color. He wrote, “Color has taken possession of me; no longer do I have to chase after it. I know that is has hold of me forever… Color and I are one. I am a painter”. The result was his “square paintings” which begun as squares of sun-splashed colors, often accompanied by triangles or domes (Fig. 2 – Red and White Domes, 1914). While these images are described as “abstract”, for Klee the meaning of abstraction lay in the opposite direction to the intellectual effort of abstracting. As he famously wrote, “Art does not reproduce the visible, it makes visible”.

    Although close friends were killed in the First World War, Klee, who was drafted into the German Army at age 36, managed to spend two relatively quiet years in a Bavarian garrison, painting airplane wings. With the collapse of Germany, he returned to his family deeply disillusioned by war. In 1925, he was invited to join the faculty of Bauhaus, the newly established State School of Art and Design in Weimar. During the next 16 years, he taught arts and craft, painting, drawing, bookbinding, stained glass and textile design. It was a happy and fertile period, with growing complexity of his square paintings and bold experimentations with color paralleled by increasing international reputation. The occasion of his 50th birthday was celebrated with a big exhibition in Berlin.

    With the rise of the Nazis, this tranquil phase of Klee’s life had come to an end. Already suspect and accused of being non-Aryan, Klee refused to declare loyalty to the Nazi regime, and was dismissed from his job. As his persecution intensified, his works were removed from private and public German collections. In the fall of 1933, Klee decided to leave Germany and settled in his native Bern. In 1937, seventeen of his paintings were included in Goebbels’ infamous Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) show. The exhibition, including also works by Picasso, Edvard Munch, Chagall, Kokoschka and others, was designed to ridicule and denigrate creative art not upholding “correct” National Socialist virtues, and was seen by millions of Germans. Two years later, much of the “Degenerate Art” was burned in the courtyard of a Berlin fire station, while others were auctioned off to the highest bidder.

    The flight from Germany had shaken Klee severely; he lost his home, his professorship, his culture. Although his name was already famous around the world, there were few people in his native town who have heard of him. Worse, all the money he had earned and banked in Germany was lost; he was back once more in the financial state he had been when he first left Bern 30 years before. Ironically, he never became a citizen of Switzerland, the country of his birth; his application, initially turned down by the authorities, was finally granted only after his death.

    On top of his isolation in his new surroundings, Klee started to feel exhausted. While he was characteristically stoic and kept his concerns largely to himself, his wife made reference to his fatigue in correspondence. In 1935, Klee developed a skin rash that was diagnosed as measles. According to his son, he never fully recovered, and the measles was followed by a succession of illnesses. He complained of difficulty swallowing, and eventually only take a liquid diet. Because of his embarrassment, he ate his meals alone. An avid hiker, he developed exertional shortness of breath. In his letters, he complained of arthritic pain in his hands, making it difficult to hold the paintbrush. He visited several doctors and health spas. Finally, the diagnosis of scleroderma was made in 1936. As his health declined, his doctors ordered him to stop smoking. Around this time, he had also to give up playing the violin. His friends Picasso and Braque came to pay homage.

    Photographs taken during Klee’s last years attest to the progressive ravages of his illness. The pictures show curling of his fingers, sclerodacytly, hollow cheeks and taut facies with drawn lips and prominent nose. He appears increasingly thin, and is wearing a sweater in his studio, suggesting cold intolerance. While no medical records survive, there can be little doubt in retrospect that Klee had scleroderma. Although the “measles” diagnosed at age 56 is difficult to explain (perhaps it was telangiectasia, perceptible in a later photograph of Klee’s face), his exhaustion, stiff hands, dysphagia and weight loss, dypnea and ultimately heart failure, represents a characteristic clinical picture of progressive scleroderma. Seventy years ago, little could be offered to alleviate the misery of scleroderma, or to halt its progression.

    Although in poor health, and shaken by the recent death of his father, in 1940 Klee mounted a final exhibition in Zurich, featuring over 300 pieces. The exhibition was badly received, with negative allusions to the artist’s mental state. Exhausted, he entered a sanitarium for several weeks. In May 1940, feeling that the end was near, Klee was accompanied by his wife to a nursing home in Locarno. In order not to upset him, no one talked about the war or the fall of Paris. He died on the morning of 29th of June. His death was attributed to heart failure.

    How did his illness influence Klee’s art, productivity, creativity, composition and technique? The numbers are telling. Klee, who was Germanic in his passion for cataloguing his artistic output, recorded that in 1936, after the onset of his illness, he produced only 25 works. This was a dramatic fall in productivity. However, subsequent years saw a progressive increase, with a staggering 1,253 pieces completed in 1939, the last full year of his life! It is as if the struggle to come to grips with his mortality allowed Klee to draw on enormous stores of creative energy, imagination and power.

    And what about the nature of his later work? A gradual but profound evolution is taking place. These changes are marked by greater simplicity and greater intensity. Klee begun to employ coarser mediums like poster paints, and rough materials such as burlap and newspaper. He abandoned his intricate, small-scale compositions for much larger one pieces, some over 2 meters in length. The late pictures are bolder; abstract figures painted with simple, heavy black lines; some seem childish or primitive. Lightheartedness and wit of the early works now gives way to introspection and despair. The mood is somber, the colors dull, the subjects become symbols; gone are the whimsy and buoyancy, the exuberant yellows, greens and blues, of 20 years before. The titles (Forgetful Angel; Gloomy Cruise; Hurt; The Sick One in the Boat) reflect the themes of suffering, destruction and death, signifying Klee’s anguish over his illness, and no doubt also his gloom over the inevitability of another world war. Figures of angels and devils betray the Artist’s fear of death. As Gunter Wolf noted, in many late pictures we see the reflection of the profound changes in Klee’s own face and body. Maske (The Mask, 1940) and Durchhalten! (Endure! 1940) show a disfigured face resembling the artist. Bars of thick brushstrokes, menacing and emblematic, make their appearance, often with a skeletal figure behind a grid of bars. Art historians have puzzled over the meaning of the recurrent bars; but it is not hard to look at The Captive (1940; Fig. 3) and see the Artist trapped in the prison of scleroderma, the steel cage of his own physical immobility.

    Like his favorite composer Mozart, Klee created his own disturbing requiem, Tod und Feuer (Death and Fire, 1940). The painting, one of his last, is dominated by a gleaming white skull, with the word Tod (Death) forming the features of the face. A solitary stick figure walks toward the skull; deep shades of red and orange signify burning, a combustion, in contrast to a cool grey-green domain of death below. The featureless man with a body of no substance – Klee? – walks forward without hesitation, even though his next step is into his own grave. Klee now knew that the end is approaching. He was now unafraid of death; Requiem, not despair.
    Klee’s body was cremated, and his ashes were interred in Berne. On his grave are inscribed these words from his diary:

    I cannot be grasped in the here and now
    For I live as well with the dead
    As with the yet unborn.
    A little nearer to the heart of creation than is normal
    But still not close enough.

    Klee’s artistic output was staggering, and his legacy as a writer and philosopher equally copious. He worked in all mediums, and moved freely between abstraction and representation. Unlike other graphic artists, Klee’s reputation is not tied to a single, easily identifiable masterpiece; rather his approach to art was oriented toward a lifelong process of reexamining and redefining themes and form. His career was one of ceaseless experimentation with new techniques, styles and colors. His creative genius remained undiminished throughout his life, and was fundamentally shaped by his final illness. After a period of despair following his flight from Germany and the onset of scleroderma, during which he almost ceased artistic activity altogether, he showed a remarkable turnabout. Even as his health deteriorated and his physical energy declined, his art and creativity mysteriously soared. This paradox, ultimately, remains Klee’s personal triumph and lasting legacy.


    Bridget Riley, Hayward Gallery Exhibit, February 2002.

    Paul Klee: Painting Music by Duechting H. Pegasus, 2002.

    Paul Klee at the Guggenheim Museum. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1993.

    Keller C, Dotz W, Varga J. Scleroderma of Paul Klee. Dermatopathology, 5: 19-22, 1999

    Bywater, EGL. Paul Klee: the effect of scleroderma on his painting. Rheumatic disease in Visual Arts. 1997: 49-50.

    Klee. Grohmann W. Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1985.

    Silver, R. Paul Klee and Scleroderma. Bull Rheum Dis 1995; 45: 4-6.

    Klee. Gualtieri di San Lazzarro. Praeger, New York, 1964.

    The diaries of Paul Klee. Edited by Felix Klee. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1964.

    Wolf G. Endure!: How Paul Klee’s illness influenced his art. Lancet. 1999; 353:1516-8.


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