Paul Klee: The Life & Work of an Iconic Artist

With an incredibly large number of graphics, drawings and paintings, the Swiss-German artist is recognized as one of the 20th century's most pioneering artists.

Aug 27, 2019By Alexandra Karg, BA Art History & Literature
Watercolor and drawings by Paul Klee
Watercolor and drawings by Paul Klee

 

In the 61 years of his life, the Swiss-German artist Paul Klee pioneered various styles, including Expressionism, Constructivism, Cubism, Primitivism and Surrealism. This role as a part of many art movements meant he remained an individualist throughout his whole life.

Like Joan Miró or Pablo Picasso, Klee worked with motifs of childlike drawing and the art styles of various then so-called “primitive people”. Klee once described these elements as stick figures, scribbles and simplified outlines in his diary. According to the artist, the childish impression of his drawings is the “last professional insight” – which was: “the opposite of real primitiveness”.

 

Paul Klee Worked With His Left Hand

Throughout his life, Paul Klee created an incredibly large number of graphics, drawings and paintings. In his catalogue of works, which he built from 1911 until his death in 1940, several thousand works were listed: 733 panels (paintings on wood or canvas), 3159 colored sheets on paper, 4877 drawings, 95 prints, 51 reverse glass paintings and 15 sculptures. Even in the last years of his life, the artist created 1000 works – despite serious illness and physical limitations. Paul Klee is said to have drawn and painted most of his artworks with his left hand – even though he was right-handed. 

 

Early Work

Unnamed (butterfly), Paul Klee, ca. 1892
Unnamed (butterfly), Paul Klee, ca. 1892

 

Paul Klee was born on December 18, 1879, in Muenchenbuchsee, Switzerland as a child of two musicians. Paul’s father, the German Hans Wilhelm Klee, worked as a music teacher and his mother, Ida Marie Klee, was a Swiss singer. Inspired by his parents, Paul Klee learned to play the violin as a schoolboy. At school though, the later artist also developed another passion: drawing his notebooks full. The watercolor of a butterfly, that Klee is said to have painted at the age of 13, dates from this period.

 

Two MenMeet, Paul Klee, 1903, drawing
Two MenMeet, Each Supposing the Other to Be of Higher Rank, Paul Klee, 1903, MOMA

 

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Paul Klee had a pronounced sense of humor as a young boy, proven by his first caricatures. This can be seen for example in the etching Two Men Meet, Each Supposing the Other to Be of Higher Rank [Invention No. 6] from 1903. Because of the hair and beards, the two men were identified as Emperor Wilhelm II. and Franz Joseph I. Obviously confused by their nudity, which takes away all conventional references to honor, the two rulers face each other. 

 

Portrait of Hans Wilhelm Klee, 1906, glass painting; with photo of Paul Klee by Hugo Erfurth, 1927
Portrait of Hans Wilhelm Klee, 1906, glass painting; with a photo of Paul Klee by Hugo Erfurth, 1927

 

What’s already looming here is: Paul Klee liked to experiment with different techniques of painting and drawing. In 1905 the artist developed a new technique. With a needle, he scratched motifs on blackened glass panes. One of these glass paintings is Portrait of the Father from 1906 which shows Hans Wilhelm Klee in a powerful and dominating posture. Klee’s early, solitary work came to an end in 1910, when he met the printmaker and illustrator Alfred Kubin, who strongly inspired him artistically.  

 

Blue Rider

Before Paul Klee met Alfred Kubin, he moved to Munich to study drawing and graphic art at the private art school of Heinrich Knirr. In February 1900, Klee changed his studies and began studying at the Academy of Arts in Munich in October 1900 in the master class of the painter Franz von Stuck. Klee did not like his studies and left university only one year later. During this short time, however something meaningful happened: Paul Klee met his later wife, Lily Stumpf. They married in 1906. Only one year later, their first son Felix was born.

 

Candide ou l’optimisme, Part of the illustration of Voltaires, Paul Klee, 1911
Candide ou l’optimisme, Part of the illustration of Voltaires, Paul Klee, 1911

 

In his creative time, Paul Klee had always been mainly an artist creating graphics and drawings. That had not changed until his death in 1940. Graphic arts had always played the main role in his oeuvre and half of his artwork in total consists of graphic art. When Paul Klee first met the French painter Robert Delaunay in 1912, he became interested in painting in color. Robert Delaunay’s work is attributed to “orphic” Cubism, also called Orphism. Examining the work and theories of Delaunay for Klee meant turning to abstraction and autonomy of color. In 1911, the German artist also met August Macke and Wassily Kandinsky. He soon became a member of the artist group “Blue Rider”, founded by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc in 1910. 

 

Even if in this time, Paul Klee was becoming more and more excited about painting in color, he was not yet able to realize his ideas about the use of it. He himself regarded his experiments as constructed. The final breakthrough to color painting, however, came with the artist’s journey to Tunis in 1914, which led him to an independent work of painting. 

 

1914 – 1919: Paul Klee’s Mystical Abstract Period

In the houses of Saint Germain, Paul Klee, 1914, watercolour
In the houses of Saint Germain, Paul Klee, 1914, watercolour

 

In April 1914, Paul Klee travelled to Tunis. With him were the painters August Macke and Louis Moilliet. During this time, Klee painted watercolors that depict the strong light and color stimuli of the North African landscape, as well as the style of Paul Cézanne, and Robert Delaunay’s cubist concept of form. Two of the paintings that the artist created during his twelve-day study trip are called In the Houses of Saint Germain and Streetcafé. 

 

Circles connected with ribbons, Paul Klee, 1914, watercolor
Circles connected with ribbons, Paul Klee, 1914, watercolor

 

While the artist was in Tunis, he also produced some abstract paintings. However, there was no final separation from the object in his paintings. Klee’s experiments with watercolor had lasted more than ten years and had led him to an independent painterly work, in which the colorful oriental world of Tunis became the basis of his ideas. 

 

Mourning flowers, Paul Klee, 1917, watercolor
Mourning flowers, Paul Klee, 1917, watercolor, via Christie’s

 

A few months after his return to Munich in 1914, World War I started and the artist was called to military service. However, he was spared a frontline operation. It was under the influence of his military service that the painting Funeral Flowers from 1917 was created. With its graphic signs, vegetable and fantastic forms, it gives a forecast of his later works, which harmoniously unite graphics, color, and the object. 

 

Bauhaus Period and Klee’s Time in Düsseldorf

Twittering Machine, Paul Klee, 1922
Twittering Machine, Paul Klee, 1922

 

Even after Paul Klee was appointed to work at Bauhaus Weimar and later in Dessau, a change in his work was noticeable. Thus abstract works with graphic elements such as the 1922 painting Twittering-Machine, can be found from this period. 

 

This is also the first time there was a critical discussion with technology in his work. At first sight, Goldfish, 1925 has a childlike appearance but it is also filled with symbolic significance. Through variations of the canvas background and his combined painting techniques, Klee had always achieved new color and pictorial effects. During his professorship at the academy of art in Düsseldorf, Germany, Klee painted one of his largest pictures: Ad Parnassum (100 x 126 cm). In this mosaic-like work, Klee worked in the style of Pointillism and again combined different techniques and compositional principles. 

 

Goldfish, Paul Klee, 1925, painting
Goldfish, Paul Klee, 1925, painting

 

When the Nazis came to power in Germany, Paul Klee not only lost his position in Düsseldorf in 1933, he was also defamed as “degenerate artist”. Klee was an avowed antifascist from the very beginning and fled with his family to Bern, Switzerland. In his last years, the artist fell seriously ill. Despite physical limitations, his productivity, however, increased even more. In Switzerland, Klee turned mainly to large-format images. His works then dealt with ambivalent topics that express his fate, the political situation and his wit. 

 

Revolution of the Viaduct, Paul Klee, 1937
Revolution of the Viaduct, Paul Klee, 1937

 

Two famous examples that were created in this period are the watercolor Musician, a stickman’s face with a partly serious, partly smiling mouth and Revolution of the Viaduct, which is one of his best-known pictures of all times. Those two can also be seen as Klee’s contribution to anti-fascist art. After years of illness, Paul Klee died June 29, 1940 in a sanatorium in Muralto.



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By Alexandra KargBA Art History & LiteratureHey! I am Alexandra Karg. I am researching, writing and lecturing on topics in the field of art and culture. In my hometown of Berlin I completed my studies in literature and art history. Since then I have been working as a journalist and writer. Besides writing, it is my passion to read, travel and visit museums and galleries. On TheCollector.com you will find articles by me about art and culture, especially about topics referring to the 20th century and the present.