Paul Klee (18791940)
NOTE: For analysis of works by semi-abstract
expressionists like Paul Klee,
The Swiss-born painter, graphic artist and printmaker Paul Klee was involved in several of the major modern art movements including Expressionism and Surrealism, and is noted for his colourful and varied fantasy-style of art depicting a world of semi-abstract, dreamlike images. A master of drawing, he also experimented endlessly with colour theory in painting, and was closely associated with the Ecole de Paris. His style changed considerably over the years, but it was always highly imaginative, often strange, and sometimes playful. He was greatly admired by Pablo Picasso and the surrealists. Klee himself defined his art as "taking a line for a walk". Now regarded as one of the great expressionist painters of the 20th century, his masterpieces include: The Golden Fish (1925), Ad Parnassum (1932) - a large but fragile work, produced in the pointillist style - and Revolution of the Viaduct (1937). For more about Klee's links with expressionism, see: History of Expressionist Painting (c.1880-1930).
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In 1898, at the age of 19, he went to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. At first he showed little skill in mastering the art of colour, to the extent that he thought he should never learn to paint. A few years later, he graduated with a degree in Fine Art, and went to Italy for a few months to study Renaissance art, noting sadly in his diary: "a long struggle lies in store for me in this field of colour. He returned to Bern and lived with his parents for the next few years, attending the odd art class. He began to experiment with various mediums - notably printmaking and graphic art, in which he was strongly influenced by both William Blake (1757-1827) and Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98) - and in 1905 produced over 50 etchings, including Portrait of my Father (1905) - created by using a needle to scratch an image on a blackened pane of glass.
In 1912 Klee travelled to Paris and was
exposed to the new works of Cubism and early abstract art - particularly
being impressed by the works of the neo-Cubist Robert
Delaunay. In Delaunay's paintings he saw that Cubism did not have
to be static and that it was possible to create a completely separate
and independent picture with its own abstract formality, its own life.
In other words a painting could be both natural and abstract at the same
time. He also came into contact with the Futurist movement and was particularly
impressed with the masterpiece Nude Descending a Staircase by Marcel
In 1919 Klee received a 3 year contract
from an art dealer, Hans Goltz, whose gallery was able to give him the
sort of exposure he needed and helped to establish him as an important
contributor to the abstractionist wing of the expressionist
movement. Success was quick and by 1920 Klee was in a position to
hold his first retrospective with over 300 works. At the same time he
was invited to teach art at the short-lived Bauhaus
art and design school, in the German city of Weimar. At first, the
bearded, quiet family man, who loved cats and classical music, did not
immediately fit in with the avant-garde spirit of the Bauhaus. But he
was serious about teaching and soon gained the respect of many staff and
students through his lectures and educational writings, which are still
regarded as important today. Taking his wife and son, Klee moved with
the Bauhaus to Dessau in 1926, where he stayed until 1931. In 1923, he
and fellow teacher Wassily Kandinsky combined with Lyonel
Feininger and Alexei von Jawlensky
to form the Blue Four (Die Blaue Vier), and began exhibiting internationally
together. The same year Klee had a successful exhibition in Paris and
became popular with surrealist
artists. Paintings from this period include The Golden Fish
(1925) in oil and watercolour, which demonstrates a masterful study of
colour. The gold warmth of the fish glows undimmed by the deep blue of
the surrounding sea. There have been many interpretations of the painting,
including one that says the painting symbolises a love that cannot be
In 1937, his art together with that of fellow painters Emil Nolde (1867-1956), Otto Dix (1891-1969), Max Beckmann (1884-1950), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), and Marc Chagall (1887-1985), was labelled "Degenerate Art" (Entartete Kunst) by the Nazi government. Over the next few years he would go through periods of activity and quieter times, depending on his health. But even now, at the end of his life and suffering from illness, Klee produced bold, simplified images that remin us of prehistoric cave paintings or ancient hieroglyphics. Their titles referred to ancient myths and powerful emotions, and the images were now darker and more morbid. He died in Switzerland in 1940 at the age of 61.
Klee's life began and ended in Switzerland, but he spent most of his working years in Germany. There he came into contact with many of the leading modern artists of his generation and with ideas that changed art and design forever. In his painting and graphic art, Klee developed an extraordinary range of techniques and styles. These can be traced to his many interests. He wrote poems when he was young and drew inspiration from them years later for his paintings. He was interested in theatre and seriously considered music as a career. In fact, his paintings have been likened to music. Some, such as the portraits, have a theatrical quality; in others, objects look like floating notes from a page of sheet music. Even when he finally settled on art as a career, Klee continued to write extensively. He was always a deep thinker as well as a painter. His large number of works were part of an attempt to discover what he called "the reality that is behind visible things".
His earlier works were generally small in scale, but they became larger in later years. He displayed a wide variety of palette colour - from primary colours to monochromatic. There is a childlike quality to his work. He created a whole series of new worlds, usually happy cheerful ones with shimmering fish, mysterious plants and dancing matchstick figures. The titles of his works often allude to his love of music and his desire to make his paintings 'sing' through use of colour and line. His painting The Twittering Machine (1922), shows four little matchstick, bird-like, fishermen who are perched on a handle, which looks like it needs to be cranked to make them sing.
The paintings from his last few years are
not only bigger, but also bolder. They have black borders and the paint
is applied more thickly. Many of these paintings reflect death and the
Nazi regime but they also have great vitality and energy. Revolution
of the Viaduct (1937) is possibly one of his most famous works; it
was inspired by the turmoil around him. The arches, as they seem to march
toward the observer can be considered a challenge to Nazism, they trample
something, maybe the repressive regime.
- On a Motif from Hamamet, Kunstmuseum
Basel, Basel (1914)
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