Although Paul Klee is best known for paintings that integrate a range of early 20th-century aesthetics with childlike symbolism and delicate colouring—and for his talents as a Bauhaus theoretician and teacher—he exhibited an aptitude for a wide range of artistic disciplines early on. Born in Switzerland to musician parents, the young artist honed a passion for music as a violinist, occasionally playing in the Bern Symphony Orchestra. His secondary school was devoted to literature, and during his studies there he wrote poetry and dabbled in landscape drawing and cartooning.Read More
Of all his creative passions, Klee chose to pursue a tertiary education in fine arts. He travelled to Munich at the end of the 19th century for school, ending with an extended visit to Italy, where he became disillusioned with his classical education. Early subsequent works were caricatures; the 'Inventions' (1903—1905) etching series' 'Virgin in the Tree; (1903) turns the idealised female nude on its head by presenting a gnarled figure lying across a gnarled tree. Finding little financial success with these works, the artist began to experiment with the genre of children's drawings—looking at its spontaneity—and travelled to France to study newly emerging, modern French avant-gardism.
At the same time as Klee became part of the avantgarde Der Blaue Reiter—Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc's Munich-based collective—he became influenced by Cubism, and the final piece of the puzzle fell into place with a visit to Tunisia in 1914, in which a methodical approach to colour distinguished the artist from his peers. Abstracted scenes like Introducing the Miracle (1916) show Klee experimenting with a wide chromatic spectrum and the alternative representational perspectives Cubism offered. During World War I, he incorporated symbols of the political landscape in subtle, childlike demon forms, as in the fantastical Demon above the Ships (1916).
From 1921, Klee taught classes at the Bauhaus. In works like Static-Dynamic Gradation (1923), his interest in geometry and pattern during this period come to the fore, with a quilt-like composition of squares taking varying tones. With the rise of Nazism, his content developed a satirically political edge, as in Mask of Fear (1932)—painted on the eve of Adolf Hitler's rise to power—in which two figures hide behind a large moustachioed mask. Although the mask was intended by the artist to be a metaphor for art, it is not hard to simultaneously see the mask as representing the propaganda the Nazi Party used to gain power. Ridiculed as a 'degenerate artist' in Germany (having his home searched by the Gestapo), in 1933 Klee moved back to Switzerland where his health began to decline from the debilitating disease scleroderma, creating a new visual urgency aesthetically indebted to Cubist Pablo Picasso, with bolder strokes, such as the thick black horizontal lines of Heroic Fiddling (1938). The artist died in 1940.
There have been several large surveys of this much loved, influential, extraordinarily innovative, Bauhaus master. They include: Paul Klee 1879-1940: A Retrospective Exhibition at the Guggenheim (1967); The EY Exhibtion: Paul Klee—Making Visible at Tate Modern (2013–2012); and Paul Klee: l'ironie à l'oeuvre at the Centre Pompidou (2016).
Casey Carsel | Ocula | 2019