Paul Klee: Life and work of the German artist

Portrait of Paul Klee by Hugo Erfurth, 1927
Portrait of Paul Klee by Hugo Erfurth, 1927

In the 61 years of his life, the German artist Paul Klee has created various works, classified as Expressionism, Constructivism and Cubism as well as Primitivism and Surrealism. In his creative period, Paul Klee was part of many art movements and at the same time remained an individualist throughout his whole life.

Like Joan Miró or Pablo Picasso, Klee also worked with motifs of childlike drawing and the art styles of various then so-called “primitive peoples”. Klee once described these supposedly primitive 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 was a left handed artist

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 coloured 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

Paul Klee was born on December 18, 1879, in Muenchenbuchsee, Switzerland as a child of two musicians. Pauls 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 watercolour of a butterfly, that Klee is said to have painted at the age of 13, dates from this period. 

unnamed, Paul Klee, circa 1892
unnamed, Paul Klee, circa 1892

Paul Klee had a pronounced sense of humour 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 honour, the two rulers face each other. 

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

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.  

Portrait of the father, Paul Klee, 1906 
Portrait of the father, Paul Klee, 1906

“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 Stuch. 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.

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 though, Paul Klee first met the French painter Robert Delaunay in 1912, he got interested in painting in colour. Robert Delaunay’s work is attributed to the “orphic” Cubism, also called Orphism. Examining the work and theories of Delaunay for Klee meant turning to abstraction and autonomy of colour. In 1911, the German artist also met August Macke and Wassily Kandinsky. He soon became a member of the editorial group “Blue Rider”, founded by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc in 1910. 

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

Even if in this time, Paul Klee was becoming more and more excited about painting in colour, 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 colour 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 April 1914, Paul Klee travelled to Tunis. With him were the painters August Macke and Louis Moilliet. During this time, Klee painted watercolours that depict the strong light and colour 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”. 

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

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

Coloured circles connected by colour ribbons, Paul Klee, 1914
Coloured circles connected by colour ribbons, Paul Klee, 1914

A few months after his return to Munich in 1914, First World War 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 graphic, colour and the object. 

Funeral Flowers, Paul Klee, 1917
Funeral Flowers, Paul Klee, 1917

Bauhaus period and Klee’s time in Düsseldorf

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. 

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

This is also the first time, there was a critical discussion with technology in his work. At first sight, the childlike and yet full of great significance is also the famous painting “Goldfish” from 1925. Through variations of the canvas background and his combined painting techniques, Klee had always achieved new colour 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 composition principles.  

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

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. 

Two famous examples that were created in this period are the watercolour “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.

Revolution of the Viaduct, Paul Klee, 1937
Revolution of the Viaduct, Paul Klee, 1937
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap