Klee, Paul (1879–1940)

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KLEE, PAUL (1879–1940)


Swiss painter.

Color, composition, and line are perceptual elements in the construction of a work of art, either as means of representation, or as ends. However, to envisage Paul Klee's work according to these schemas, as either mimesis or pure abstraction, is to miss out on the process itself. Klee's painting eschews the principle of reflecting reality in favor of a return to the essence of painting itself: the sensation of a particular moment transposed through memory. Indeed what Klee sought, through a work of returning to memory and therefore beyond visible presence alone, was to restore this past moment in which there had been a fusion between man and nature. Like the mnemonic image, these elements then present themselves in a composition that only becomes coherent through progressive mental reconstruction. Although patterns are clearly identifiable, they are more like indicators than representations.

Reduced here to its essentials, this theory of painting governs the entirety of Klee's work, including the periods when it was yet to be formalized. Although his 1914 voyage to Tunisia is often associated with the moment when this theoretical approach revealed itself to him; it nonetheless underlies everything he painted from 1900 onward—years of exploration and relatively restrained productivity during which he was preoccupied with the education of his son, but which nevertheless constitute the indispensable groundwork for the production of works that principally question the relationship of fusion between man and world, and how not to betray it in images. This time was therefore a primordial and constitutive element in the foundation of Klee's theoretical approach, permitting him to engage and nourish his unique statement based on a training in a diverse array of artistic techniques including music, poetry and painting, as well as through the discovery of contemporary artistic techniques including postimpressionism, cubism, expressionism, and Blaue Reiter (a group of expressionist painters) especially.


Born in Münchenbuchsee in 1879, Klee departed for Munich in 1898 and enrolled in Heinrich Knirr's Free Academy of Drawing. This, followed by Franz von Stuck's courses in painting in 1900, led Klee to make the most important choice of his life—to become a painter. Often interpreted as a means of escape from a preordained career as a violinist, Klee's choice also seems to have been his intuitive conception of what held true potential for him. Although he did not consider music capable of expressing all the force of his connection to the world, the fact that he never ceased to play it reflected his continued belief that it was indispensable to his art. As such, an important part of his work was founded on his supple interpretation of musical scoring, which was not confined to the act of transposing musical notes but referred back to the principle of composition itself and induced a mode of reading through rhythm, harmony, and attunement. In short, before 1914, the year when his theoretical approach became enshrined, he continually felt the influence of music because of his intuitive predilection toward it.

Before this date, Paul Klee was in a phase of experimentation, during which he encountered a number of difficulties, primarily due to the fact that he was unable to go beyond the figurative. At the time, this made it impossible for him to represent nature according to his own self-conception. The persistence in his work of a pictorial story and the conditions this imposed on representation constituted the primary obstacle whose removal would be necessary in order to translate into images this man-nature intimacy. This difficult but ever-sought-after transgression of the rules of representation, however, tended also to entail challenges in the domain of technique, especially as concerns color. A series of works that is more or less exclusively black and white as well as certain statements he makes in his journal both speak of these troubles with color, a bitter marker during this so-called symbolist period of an impotence that assumed the attributes of an output saddled with irony, borrowing from the universes of the English poet and painter William Blake (1757–1827) and the Spanish painter Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828) their most grotesque and fantastic figures of disillusion. However, he was not to remain forever stymied in this impasse.


It was between 1908 and 1914 that Klee discovered the force and expressiveness of postimpressionist color, particularly in the works of Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) and Paul Cézanne (1839–1906). In 1911 he also met Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), August Macke (1887–1914), and Franz Marc (1880–1916), members of the Munich expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter (The blue rider), in whose second exhibition he even participated. Klee's intuitions were reinforced by the principles the group espoused, including "to be inspired by neither the Past nor Nature, but from Oneself," an idea that he associated with his discovery in 1912 of the French painter Robert Delaunay's harmonious work with color, which he translated into his Essay on Light.

Doors began to open for him, and he prepared himself at last to formalize and put his theoretical approach to the test by extending its application to works in color. His voyages to Tunis, Kairouan, and Hammamet set off the explosion. He wrote at the time in his journal, "color has taken hold of me, I no longer need to chase after it … color and I have become one. I am a painter." Composition, expressive color, pattern as a trigger of memory, the unreality of the image as expression of a shimmering instant in time—Klee's system was born, and he perfected it during his Bauhaus years, after Walter Gropius (1883–1969) contacted him in 1920 to propose he become one of the school's central teachers. Working within this framework of constant artistic and intellectual exchange for nearly ten years, Klee analyzed, nourished, and retouched his artistic procedures, making these teaching years particularly productive in creative terms. He also explored other functional modes, developing for example his series of magic squares that used mathematical schemas to combine color and composition.

But as time passed, teaching turned to constraint and hindered his creative activity, so he left the Bauhaus School on friendly terms in 1930 and joined the Düsseldorf Academy. Klee, ever unwilling to see things as they were, soon found himself caught up in the increasingly stultifying and repressive political context of his day. The Nazis stripped him of his post and quickly denounced his art as degenerate. Harsh years followed for Paul Klee. He left Germany for Switzerland but never found there the intellectual effervescence of the previous years. He felt increasingly isolated and was therefore all the more affected by the news of his illness in 1935. Knowing he had but a few years to live, he reduced his theoretical activities considerably, to the point that he abandoned them entirely, in order to consecrate himself to productive output exclusively. The knowledge of his impending death drove him to accelerate innovations in his creative procedures from 1938 onward. One last time therefore he won the day by extending the reach of his work.

See alsoBauhaus; Expressionism; Modernism; Painting, Avant-Garde .


Grohmann, Will. Der Maler Paul Klee. Paris, 1966.

Klee, Paul. Journal. Translated by Pierre Klossowski. Paris, 1959.

Kudielka, Robert, ed., with an essay by Bridget Riley. Paul Klee: The Nature of Creation Works, 1914–1940. London, 2002. Exhibition catalog.

Lanchner, Carolyn, ed. Paul Klee. New York, 1987. Exhibition catalog.

Musée des Beaux-Arts (Bern). Paul Klee, Catalogue Raisonné. London, 1998–2004.

Alexandra Koeniguer