(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Klee was one of the most brilliant, varied, and complex artists of the twentieth century. Klee, whose paintings and graphics were always rooted in physical reality, invented symbols for the formative process of nature. As a teacher and theoretician, he was able to provide significant insights into the meaning of art. His writings include the most complete principles of design devised by a modern artist.

Early Life

Paul Klee was the son of Hans Klee, a German music teacher, and Ida Maria Frick of Basel. In 1880, the family moved to Bern, where Paul attended primary school and in 1898 was graduated from the Literarschule (humanities program) of Bern Gymnasium (secondary school). As a young boy, he displayed unusual talent both as a violinist and as a draftsman. In 1898, he began his Tagebücher (diaries), which he maintained until 1918.

In October, 1898, he moved to Munich, and there, until 1901, he studied first at the painting school of Heinrich Knirr and later with Franz von Stuck at the Munich Academy. In Munich, he took courses in art history and anatomy and learned etching. Also at this time, his interest in music, which he had inherited from his family, was strengthened, and for a long time he was undecided in his choice of careers. When he chose to pursue the visual arts, music continued to inspire him in developing his theories of visual design; they were formed to a great extent by analogies with musical theory. His favorite composer was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but he also appreciated Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg, and Bruno Walter. Titles of many subsequent paintings referred to his musical interests.

In October, 1901, Klee traveled to Italy, returning in May, 1902, to Bern, where he remained for financial reasons with his parents until 1906. In April, he traveled to Germany and saw the Centenary Exhibit in Berlin, works by Matthias Grünewald at Karlsruhe, and works by Rembrandt at Kassel. On September 15, he married Lily Stumpf, a Munich pianist whom he had known since 1899. They settled in Schwabing, the artists’ quarter of Munich, where they lived until 1920. In November, 1907, Felix, their only child, was born.

During the early Munich years, Klee devoted himself more to drawing and graphics than to painting, in the hope that he could earn enough to survive as an illustrator. Unfortunately, the couple’s sole source of income until the start of the war was from the music lessons given by Lily. From 1902 to 1912, Klee struggled with black-and-white compositions in etchings, charcoals, watercolors, and glass paintings, with which he explored methodically the possibilities of line, tone, and chiaroscuro. From 1903 to 1905, Klee etched his first original works, the ten Inventions, which he exhibited at the 1906 Munich Sezession. Exhibitions of the art of Vincent van Gogh in 1908 and of Paul Cézanne in 1909 gave Klee the opportunity to study these masters. In the Munich Pinakothek, he also studied prints of William Blake, Francisco de Goya, and James Ensor.

Life’s Work

In 1910, the Bern Kunstmuseum housed the first exhibition of Klee’s collected works. In the spring of 1911, he began a catalog of his own works, retroactively recording work dated as far back as 1883, and maintained it until his death.

Klee was intimately involved with the ferment of modern art in the early decades of the century, absorbing the tenets of cubism, Dada, and Surrealism without relinquishing his own slowly developing sense of direction. In the autumn of 1911, through his friend Louis Moilliet, he met Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, August Macke, Alexey von Jawlensky, and Gabrielle Münter, who composed a group called Der Blaue Reiter (the blue rider). He joined this avant-garde group and in February, 1912, participated in their second Munich exhibition. The group stimulated Klee’s interest in cubism, and in April he went to Paris, where he met Robert Delaunay, in whose painting he saw for the first time an attempt to free color from reference to precise objects. Klee then carefully developed from cubism a set of pictorial principles that permitted him to construct his art in such a way that he could reject art derived from outward appearances in favor of one dependent solely on the inherent principles of pictorial organization. It did not matter to Klee if references to reality appeared in the work as long as they did not interfere with the primary requirement of obeying the rules of pictorial structure.

Klee’s art, which evolved slowly until 1914, was predominantly in black and white. Full maturity of his painting occurred during the trip he made to Tunisia in April with Macke and Moilliet. Then the range of pictorial devices in Klee’s painting, especially color, expanded dramatically. Exquisite watercolors such as Before the Gates of Kairouan (1914) demonstrated his ability to free color from representation. The painting, constructed of simple overlapping color planes, is practically abstract. Although it was painted from nature, internal pictorial concerns rather than fidelity to natural appearances regulated its construction.

By the time Klee was recruited into the German Army in March of 1916, his friends Macke and Marc had been killed. Since he was never sent to the front, he continued to draw and paint whenever possible. He expanded his vocabulary to include arrows, letters, numbers, exclamation points, heavenly bodies, eyes, and hearts in his compositions. He made a number of poem-paintings that attempt to fuse painting compositionally with poetry;...

(The entire section is 2311 words.)