Careful Titles and Triumphant Colors : Notes on Paul Klee
Dec. 18 is the birthday of a painter who instructed us on how to read his vibrant abstract works.
Paul Klee (1897–1940) explored shapes and geometry in his paintings as did the famous leaders of a movement in art called Cubism. But Klee’s works somehow remain emotional even when abstract, a trait not seen in all Cubist works.
Compare Pablo Picasso’s 1914 Cubist painting, “Pipe, Glass, Bottle of Vieux Marc,” seen below on the left, with one of Klee’s most important works, “Temple Gardens.” (His last name Klee is pronounced Clay.)
It was 1914 trip to Tunisia brought alive Klee’s love of color, as seen in “Temple Garden.” The trip appears to have freed him, to have helped him to develop his unique style.
Before that, Klee had what a Met article described as “a prolonged self-education as an artist.” (There’s a link at the end of this essay to a bibliography of works I’ve used in research on European artists with an entry on Klee.)
Born in 1879 in Switzerland to a German father, Klee met Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky in 1911. He also was influenced by artists like Georges Braque and Robert Delaunay, who also embraced vibrant colors.
Klee spent much of his career teaching at Germany’s influential Bauhaus school, first in Weimar (1921–26) and then in Dessau (1926–31). By 1930, Klee had caught the attention of Alfred H. Barr Jr., the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art. After seeing Klee’s paintings in Europe, Barr gave Klee what may have been the first one-person show of a living European painter at the then newly opened museum.
The attention from MOMA’s Barr must have been a boost for an artist whose work didn’t fit neatly into popular styles of painting, wrote Grace Glueck in the New York Times in 2006.
“Although by the 20’s in Europe Klee was mentionable in the same breath with Picasso and Matisse, his work really stood apart from big-time modernism. For one, it was hard to categorize, with its teasing mix of Surrealist, Expresionist, Art Brut and, well, Klee-like elements,” Glueck wrote. “And the small, sometimes postcard-size creations, with their childlike drawing, mysterious symbols and ethereal fantasies often puzzled viewers, even those familiar with the modernist vocabulary.”
The painting below, for example, refers to parties and little theatrical performances that were a regular feature of student life at the Bauhaus. Burlesque and mechanical elements were common themes in these entertainments.
Klee often incorporated “merry symbols” into his paintings, drawing from “his imagination, poetry, music, literature, and his reaction to the world around him,” wrote Sabine Rewald in an article in the Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.
‘Always preoccupied with the ring of words, titles played a major part in his work,” Rewald observed. “Whether ironic, poetic, irreverent, deadpan, flippant, or — near the end of his life — melancholic, his titles set up the perspectives from which he wanted the works to be seen.”
Like many artists of his time, Klee saw his art declared “degenerate” by Nazis. He spent his final years in Switzerland, coping with an autoimmune disease of the skin, scleroderma, that made it tough for him to continue his art.
There’s an entry for Klee in my bibliography of sources used in writing on European artists.
For more on Delaunay, click here for my Medium essay on his life and work. For more on the Bauhaus, click here for my essay, Design Genius Bullied by a Dictatorship : Notes on Oskar Schlemmer