Paul Klee by Susanna Partsch (1993)

Taschen produce large format art books with high quality colour reproductions. The text is often foreign – I think this one was translated, not always fluently, from German. Who cares. It gives a good brief overview of Klee’s career with lots of full-page colour illustrations.

Early life

Born into a musical family, Klee was a prodigy on the violin who eventually plumped for the visual arts but, in his earlier career, made more from performing in concerts than by selling paintings. (Interestingly he was a conservative in his musical taste, devoted to Bach and Mozart, with no time for Schoenberg and his circle, which is odd considering he became good friends with Kandinsky who knew and had an important correspondence with Schoenberg.)

Paul Klee, photographed in 1911 by Alexander Eliasberg (Wikimedia Commons)

Paul Klee, photographed in 1911 by Alexander Eliasberg (Wikimedia Commons)

Die Blaue Reite

Having developed a distinctive early style which combined detailed draughtsmanship of often grotesque and fantastical creatures, Klee was experimenting with a more abstract approach to design and layout of paintings when he was invited to join the Blaue Reite group – including Russians like Wassily Kandinsky and Germans like August Macke and Franz Marc – in 1911. In 1912 he exhibited with them. In those brief years before the War all sorts of influences were exploding across the European art world: in Paris they saw Robert Delaunay experimenting with colour, Picasso and Braque’s cubism ripping up perspective, along with the other post-Impressionist experimenters about to be dubbed the Fauves.

Die Blaue Reite group were interested in the liberation of colour (many of the group produced detailed writings investigating the psychological and aesthetic impact of colours and colour arrangements) and in freedom of inspiration (in art produced by children, primitives, the mentally ill) both of which left traditional Renaissance ideas of figurative representation in a fully-worked out perspective far, far behind.

Epiphany in Tunisia

Klee and Macke along with fellow painter Louis Moilliet visited Tunisia in June 1914 and forever afterwards Klee mythologised this trip as the moment when pure colour took control of his soul, when he realised the power of colour alone in painting.

‘Color possesses me. I don’t have to pursue it. It will possess me always, I know it. That is the meaning of this happy hour: Color and I are one. I am a painter.’

Tunisia, 1914

Tunisia, 1914

The ‘reality’ of the scene is metamorphosing into a matrix of colour possibilities, squares and square-ish blocks of colour, whose sharpish juxtaposition creates a ‘feel’, an affect. In the next few years Klee quickly grasped the opportunities presented by this ‘Move to Abstraction’; henceforth colour and line are to be deployed for their psychological affects, not for any relation they have to an external ‘reality’:

‘Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.’

Colour, tone, shapes, squares, triangles, lines, columns, circles, cones – all will be deployed as experiments, to see what affects they produce on the viewer. From this date stems Klee’s lifelong interest in analysing all the various components which go toward a painting – line, colour, shape, form and so on.  He constantly tried this, that or the other in order to hone his judgment on how to deploy them.

The book very usefully includes paintings by his colleagues on the trip, Macke and Moilliet, allowing us to see how very similar their thinking about colour and design were during this intense period of debate and experiment.

The Great War

The Blaue Reite published one almanac – containing reproductions of art works and key essays on form and colour and spirit – and organised two exhibitions, before the Great War broke out and was a catastrophe for them. Kandinsky was forced to go home to Russia and Macke and Marc were drafted into the German Army, Macke killed in September 1914, Marc at Verdun in 1916. Klee managed to sit out the war in a series of administrative jobs well away from the Front.

Experimentation

Klee had a lifelong dedication to experimenting with technique. According to Wikipedia Klee “worked in many different media – oil paint, watercolor, ink, pastel, etching, and others. He often combined them into one work. He used canvas, burlap, muslin, linen, gauze, cardboard, metal foils, fabric, wallpaper, and newsprint. Klee employed spray paint, knife application, stamping, glazing, and impasto, and mixed media such as oil with watercolor, water color with pen and India ink, and oil with tempera.”

An early example is the technique of ‘oil transfer’ which he developed, which produced a highly characteristic fragmenting the lines of his fantastic doodles, giving them an eerie remoteness, as if degraded images recovered from a remote past or intermittent signals from a distant universe.

They're biting by Paul Klee

They’re biting by Paul Klee (1920)

The German army and navy mutinied at the end of the 1918, the government collapsed and the Kaiser abdicated. In 1919 a Bolshevik republic was declared in Bavaria and Klee volunteered to be art delegate (rather like Daumier volunteering to serve on the Paris Commune, 1871) but it was quickly repressed by the Army and some 500 comunists were gaoled or executed, Klee escaped.

Breakthrough exhibition

The following year, 1920, came Klee’s breakthrough exhibition, in which he exhibited 362 pieces in a wide range of media including oil paint, oil on glass, prints, drawings, plaster casts, sculptures. It made his reputation and the next 20 years he was acknowledged as a major European painter and pioneer.

Of the exhibition and the power of his fantastical draughtsmanship, his colleague Oskar Schlemmer commented: ‘In a minimum of line he can reveal of his wisdom, this is how Buddha draws’.

The Bauhaus

In 1921 Klee was invited to join the Bauhaus where he was to become one of the most respected teachers, teaching a wide range of course, for the next 10 years. His technical experiments continued apace as did his writings leading up to publication of the Pedagogical Notebook in 1925 with its famous opening about taking a line for a walk. Throughout his life he experimented and recorded his technical experiments so that, at his death, he left some 3,000 manuscript pages on art theory.

Fish Magic, 1925

Fish Magic, 1925

Magic squares

Another exhibition of 1923 showed a series which became known as Klee’s ‘magic squares’, for example Architecture, an uncharacteristic palette of purple and yellow, its juxtaposition of rectangles of vivid colours cemented a certain classical ‘look’ of Klee’s. The squares which represent areas of light and shadow, colour and white light in the Tunisia paintings, have now become almost abstract arrangements of colour and tone.

Static-Dynamic Intensification, 1923 Watercolour and transferred printing ink on laid paper with gray and green gouache and black ink mounted on light cardboard 381 x 261 mm Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Static-Dynamic Intensification, 1923 Watercolour and transferred printing ink on laid paper with gray and green gouache and black ink mounted on light cardboard 381 x 261 mm Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

But Klee never quite becomes completely abstract. In even the most pure paintings you can, maybe, just about, make out reference to an origin in organic shapes or landscapes. And in most of them there is some kind of reference to observed reality. And others of them happily incorporate human or animal shapes.

Combining the use of squares with his lifelong ability to produce fantastical versions of the human figure, Battlescene from the Seafarer is a lovely hymn to the quirkiness and humour and strangeness of the human imagination.

Battle scene from the comic fantastic opera 'The Seafarer'

Battle scene from the comic fantastic opera ‘The Seafarer’

Surrealist?

In the mid-20s the French intellectual world discovered Klee especially the Surrealists and, like Picasso and de Chirico, he was adopted as a precursor. The Surrealists associated his dreamlike forms with their own attempts to capture the unconscious via automatic writing or painting. Klee didn’t mind but he never became a party member of the Surrealists.

Portrait of an Equilibrist again shows Klee’s cartoonish imagination, his sense of humour, along with his feel for the arrangement of colour and line. It can be read both as a rudimentary cartoon face, and as an actual stick figure holding a balancing pole weighted with two round red weights. At the bottom left is the ladder the equilibrist used to climb up onto his high wire. Possibly.

Portrait of an Equilibrist

Portrait of an Equilibrist

When the Bauhaus moved to the industrial city of Dessau, Klee and his wife moved into the hypermodern Master’s House designed by Walter Gropius. His studio was described as being like a magician’s lair where multiple canvases were on numerous easels at any one time, and the master magician quietly contemplated them, occasionally stepping forward to paint a detail or finetune the patterns.

From the 1920s come hundreds of images using the oil transfer technique such as Comedy which combines characteristic humorous cartoon-like figures, the oil transfer technique which gives them such a wavering, hesitant finish, and a new technique he experimented with, ‘gradation’, dividing the space into bands and giving the first one layer of paint, the second two layers and so on, thus creating a stylised background, which achieves a sense of depth, but completely different from traditional notions of perspective.

Comedy 1921 Watercolour and oil on paper support: 305 x 454 mm on paper, unique Tate. Purchased 1946

Comedy 1921
Watercolour and oil on paper
support: 305 x 454 mm
on paper, unique
Tate. Purchased 1946

Pointillism

In the late 20s and early 30s he experimented with a form of abstract pointillism and with the shapes and shades he saw on a trip to Egypt. The pointillism is just about the only one of Klee’s styles I don’t like. they are too light without any of the quirky inventiveness of everything else he did.

Clarification, 1932

Clarification, 1932

The Nazis

By 1932 Klee found his teaching duties taking up nearly all his time and so he quit the Bauhaus and moved to a job as professor of Art at Düsseldorf. However, early the next year the Nazis came to power, immediately rounding up communists, socialists, liberals, artist and writers and beginning to persecute Jews. The Bauhaus was closed and Klee fled to Switzerland.

Degenerate Art

In 1937 the Nazis held an exhibition of Degenerate Art which featured 17 pieces by Klee. The Wikipedia article says it all.

Later, bigger

In 1935 his supporters organised a big exhibition at Bern, though Klee insisted it only feature work from the past 5 years, but it was to prove a turning point. In the same year he felt increasingly ill and was diagnosed with an incurable disease. For a few years his legendary productiveness dwindled to a handful of paintings. However, from 1937 he got a second wind and became more prolific than ever.

In this final phase, as his body failed him, Klee painted larger and larger abstracts, the scale becoming larger, the gestures bigger and clearer. The tiny etching-like detail of the 1920s seem a long way behind. For example, the wonderful Forest Witches.

Forest Witches, 1938

Forest Witches, 1938

Or Blue Night. Not only is this a new, more rough and striking type of design, but Klee continued his experiments with surfaces and media, this one painted on burlap or sacking, a rough grainy surface further textured with plaster. Quite apart from the image itself, all Klee’s work repays really close-up scrutiny to enjoy the highly textured surfaces of the pieces, which adds tremendously to their sense of urgency, modernity and wistful fragility.

Blue Night

Last show and death

In 1940 fans and curators organised a last exhibition in Zurich – Twilight Flowers was among his last works, and a has completely new feel. Who knows where these new impulses would have taken him, but Klee died in June 1940. One of his last paintings is the eerie and moving Outbreak of Fear III.

Outbreak of Fear III

Tribute

Klee invented a way to be hugely varied within a distinctive style. So many images, each so vivid and inventive and imaginative and stimulating. I much prefer his quiet, unshouty, consistently strange and quirky and funny and vibrant work to Picasso’s or Matisse’s. He lived though the worst years of the century producing countless works of wistful grace and haunting beauty.

Angelus Novus, 1920

Angelus Novus, 1920

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