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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2311

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.

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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; one of these is the luminous watercolor Once Emerged from the Gray of Night . . . (1918).

The period immediately after the war was particularly productive for Klee, and the scope of his activities increased. In 1918, he wrote an essay on the formal elements of the graphic arts, which was published as part of his Schöpferische Konfession (1920; Creative Credo, 1959). By 1921, three monographs on the artist were published. In October, 1920, Walter Gropius invited Klee to teach in Weimar at the Bauhaus. Gropius required strict collaboration among faculty, and this brought Klee into close association with his friend Kandinsky and with Lyonel Feininger.

Until 1933, instruction and theory were major concerns for Klee. He felt a strong need to define that which he had previously done instinctively. A conscientious teacher, he prepared his lessons in advance and recorded them meticulously. His theoretical work and his teaching, like his art, relied on the careful study of the creative and structural principles of nature. Yet theory was always placed at the service of his creative activities. In 1925, his Pädagogisches Skizzenbuch (Pedagogical Sketchbook, 1953) was published as second in the series of Bauhaus Books.

At the Bauhaus, Klee experimented continually with new techniques and unusual combinations of media. A favorite method of Klee was the transfer drawing, in which he used oil or ink to trace a drawing onto a new sheet to which watercolor was added. The process produced random smudges that cue the viewer to the method of creation. The stains also add an ambiguity to spatial relations on the composition. The famous Twittering Machine (1922) is a fragile example in which sensitive lines connect birds to a mechanical contraption which holds them and forces them to sing in an atmospheric haze of delicate color.

Through the Bauhaus, Klee came to know such artists as Kurt Schwitters, Amédée Ozenfant, and Albert Gleizes. The 1923 Bauhaus Exhibition afforded him the opportunity of talking with such notable musicians as Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith. In 1925, Klee organized a one-man show at the Galérie Vavin-Raspail in Paris and took part in the first Surrealist exhibition at Paris’ Galérie Pierre. By 1929, he achieved international acclaim, and his fiftieth birthday was marked by a one-man show at the Flechtheim Gallery in Berlin. In 1930, this show was exhibited in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

On April 1, 1931, Klee left the Bauhaus to take a professorship at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, a position that he held for two years. When the Nazis came to power, he was dismissed from the academy, and, shortly before Christmas, 1933, he and his wife left Germany for good and returned to Bern. In 1935, the Bern Kunsthalle held a large Klee retrospective.

From 1933 to 1937, Klee’s creative activity diminished, and in 1935 he began to suffer from the incurable illness scleroderma. In 1937, more than one hundred of his works were confiscated from German museums by the Nazis, and seventeen pieces were included in Hitler’s Degenerate Art Exhibition. Yet, despite increasingly failing health, Klee’s productivity suddenly exploded in an intense outpouring of drawings and paintings. In 1937, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Kandinsky all visited him in Bern.

During his last three years, Klee worked in unorthodox media and larger formats. Many pieces of 1939-1940 are full of presentiments of his own death. Painted only months before his death, Death and Fire (1940) consists of an ashen death mask being ferried toward the sunset on its final trip to the next world. The simple black lines form letters from his own name. Thus, Klee, with courageous humor, confronted his own death in a touching requiem. He continued to create until six weeks before his death.

On January 7, 1940, Klee submitted an application to Bern city officials for Swiss citizenship, but it was never granted. In February, a large Klee exhibition was held at the Zurich Kunsthaus. On May 10 he entered the sanatorium, where he died on June 29. Soon after his death, large retrospectives of his work were held in Bern, New York, Basel, and Zurich.


Paul Klee’s importance as an artist lies in his ability to transcend the abstract elements of pictorial composition in order to achieve a parallel with creation. The creative process itself, not the finished forms of nature, was his point of departure. He sought to transform and not merely to imitate nature in his attempt to make visible the essence that lies behind visible things.

Klee’s art possesses a wide range of allusions to music, poetry, and Eastern philosophy. His travels to North Africa help to explain similarities in his art to that of the Islamic world in the interweaving of figures, animals, and plants, and the ambiguity of figure-ground relationships. Although Klee believed in a clear separation of the arts, his work has many points of contact with music. He always began a piece with a small pictorial motif, which was then developed as a composer develops a musical theme. There are works that have a distinguishable polyphonic character, such as Ad Parnassum (1932), a major piece done in the pointillist technique. Its color harmonies develop from superimposed planes, one of colored dots, the other of squares. Each plane further consists of two layers, the first in white, the second a glaze of color. Visual tension is conveyed from the contrast between the elaborate surface of shimmering color and the insistent lines that suggest images that can be read several ways: mountain, pyramid, gateway, heavenly body, dynamic crescendo. The title refers to Mount Parnassus, home of Apollo and ideal of art. It may also recall the title of a baroque treatise on musical counterpoint. The painting can even be viewed as a highly varied intricate polyphony of voices.

It is difficult to trace Klee’s stylistic development even after 1914, since he continually reexamined themes in his attempt to come to grips with the creative process. His methods of creation enabled him to invent images in painting of an unprecedented originality. He was a poet, and the associational titles he gave to his pictures show a highly inventive use of language. Finally, it is difficult to select masterpieces from Klee’s body of work, since almost everything he made is of the same high quality.


Grohmann, Will. Paul Klee. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1954. Monumental biographical volume on Klee by an author who knew him personally for twenty years. Contains a wealth of material on the artist’s personality and much instructive information on his art and career, including pertinent references to Klee’s writings. Includes color and black-and-white reproductions.

Klee, Paul. The Diaries of Paul Klee 1898-1918. Translated by R. Y. Zachary and Max Knight. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964. Intimate, all-encompassing autobiographical picture of Klee’s many sided interests, including his views on painting, sculpture, drawing, poetry, architecture, theater, dealings with others, and, above all, music. Includes black-and-white reproductions of drawings and photographs.

Klee, Paul. Paul Klee. Edited by Carolyn Lanchner. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1987. Comprehensive catalog of the extensive Klee retrospective held at the Museum of Modern Art in the spring of 1987. Contents include four essays with new material on various aspects of the artist’s career, influences, and historical significance. Includes excellent color plates and bibliography.

Klee, Paul. Paul Klee: His Life and Work in Documents. Translated by Richard Winston and Clara Winston. New York: George Braziller, 1962. This authoritative, varied volume supplements the diaries with Klee’s posthumous writings and unpublished letters to and from the artist. Includes black-and-white illustrations and photographs.

Klee, Paul. Pedagogical Sketchbook. Translated with an introduction by Sibyl Moholy-Nagy. New York: Frederick Praeger, 1953. This major document of twentieth century art theory is a simple introduction to the nature of Klee’s inductive vision. Many large illustrations accompany brief statements about the nature of line, dimension, curve, and energy.

Klee, Paul. The Thinking Eye: The Notebooks of Paul Klee. Edited by Jürg Spiller. Translated by Ralph Manheim. Vol. 1. New York: Wittenborn, 1961. Includes Klee’s early lecture notes from the Bauhaus as well as such seminal theoretical documents as The Creative Credo, “Wege des Naturstudiums” (1923: “Ways of Nature Study,” 1961), and the Jena lecture Über die moderne Kunst (1924; On Modern Art, 1947). Contains extensive color and black-and-white reproductions, and diagrams.

Klee, Paul. The Nature of Nature: The Notebooks of Paul Klee. Edited by Jürg Spiller. Translated by Heinz Norden. Vol. 2. New York: Wittenborn, 1973. This is a continuation of the artist’s meticulous Bauhaus lectures on design, color, and form. Contains extensive color and black-and-white reproductions, and diagrams. Includes a very comprehensive bibliography on Klee.

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