The Shy Museumgoer

ART + HISTORY

Decoding the mysterious art of Paul Klee

Paul Klee’s first solo show in America opened in 1924 inside a posh gallery on 57th Street in Manhattan, two blocks south of Central Park. In The New York Sun, art critic Henry McBride reviewed the show:

The charm of his color and the delicacy of his lines attract many to him. But what does Klee say? Ah, that is the question! Is it only something whimsical, or beneath the whimsicality is it something profound?

Good question. The best way to answer it, I think, is to follow the advice of author Lewis Carroll: “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

Klee’s story begins at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, Germany. After graduation, he traveled around Europe studying the Old Masters, the Impressionists, and the Cubists. He spent weeks in Robert Delaunay’s studio discussing complementary color theory.

A natural draftsman, Klee quickly found work as an illustrator on the editorial staff of Der Blaue Reiter Almanach, a volume of essays put together by artists Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. This job opportunity changed the course of Klee’s career. 

Could art be more like music?

Kandinsky thought art — like music — could be enjoyed without having to be “read.” The idea struck a chord with Klee, who could play the violin well enough by age ten to perform with the Bern Orchestra. He began to work out a painting style based on symbolic expression rather than realistic description. “Abstract with memories,” he called it.

Paul Klee, "Women's Pavilion" (1921)
Paul Klee, Women’s Pavilion (1921)

Klee’s pictorial vocabulary grew increasingly sophisticated over the years. In the catalogue introduction to one of his later shows, the celebrated muralist Diego Rivera said:

Klee’s new paintings contain all the science of the great masters, and all the freshness and genius of children.

This is high praise. At the time, modern artists had so much admiration for primitive art, the gilt-framed canvases in museums seemed almost counterfeit.

In his mid-50s, Klee began to suffer from the symptoms of scleroderma, an incurable illness that hardens the skin. But he kept on painting, ultimately creating some of the most poignant images of his career.

Paul Klee, "Insula Dulcamara" (1938)"
Paul Klee, Insula Dulcamara (1938)

He painted Insula Dulcamara two years before his death. The title contains Latin references to dulcis (sweet) and amarus (bitter), which might refer to solanum dulcamara, an herb whose anti-inflammatory properties were rumored to ease scleroderma. The title might also refer to Klee’s bittersweet feelings about having a fatal illness that was progressing slowly.

There are many riddles in a Klee painting

To create this uncharacteristically large, six-foot-wide panel, Klee glued newspaper over burlap to serve as a ground. Newsprint peeks through the paint, allowing us to read snatches of advertisements and editorials.

Cloud-like patches of green, peach, and periwinkle create an enormous space suffused with warmth and light. A black calligraphic line running across the top of the picture resembles a coastline. Above it, the moon rises, a steamer sails by, the moon sets: Time passes by, people pass on.

A large face covered with white paint holds the composition in balance. It’s hard not to associate the P-shaped figure with Paul Klee. But why is he standing in a puddle of blue? Is the artist getting wet feet? There are many riddles in a Klee painting. Art historian Will Grohmann provides some insight: “References to human destiny are never far from his work.”

Is this a modernist interpretation of the three ages of man?

Does the squiggly creature on the left represent a baby crawling on all fours? Is the upright, P-shaped figure preparing to pass through a tunnel, to an afterlife portrayed by a small halo of white light? 

Who can say? I could write ten different interpretations of a Klee painting and the artist liked it that way. “If you portray the normal too literally, you wind up in a wasteland,” he said.

He initially called this painting Calypso’s Island after a chapter in Homer’s Odyssey. In the story, the sexy nymph Calypso holds the Greek hero Odysseus hostage on an island for seven years. Despite her best efforts, she cannot quell his longing for his wife, even by offering him immortality — with benefits. Odysseus escapes from the island and returns home.

Klee ultimately rejected the title Calypso’s Island because he thought it was too on the nose. “But it’s true many of my works point in that direction,” the artist confided to Grohmann. “They say, the time has come.”

Paul Klee was an isolated artist, yet a pivotal one

“Whether they were conscious of it or not, everyone was learning from Klee,” said critic Clement Greenberg, who added he didn’t understand abstract painting until he came across images like Twittering Machine, an astonishingly prescient image of mechanical birds whose twitter draws its victims into a pit.

Paul Klee, "Twittering Machine" (1922)
Paul Klee, Twittering Machine (1922)

Paul Klee died in 1940, a few months after a show of his large-scale works opened in Zurich, Switzerland. Art historian Carola Giedion-Welcker remembers opening night —

Monumental images glowed like the characters of a Runic language, revealing a style of drawing that was linear, black, thick — like great wooden beams set on a colored background. I understood a new symbolic language had come to its maturity in these large-scale works and that they were, perhaps, Klee’s most original contribution to the art of the twentieth century.

3 responses to “Decoding the mysterious art of Paul Klee”

  1. When I was first introduced to the work of Paul Klee I was very much into it, but then I started seeing it with different eyes and now I really think that his work looks more to me like a quest, a beginning, a search and a way to get somewhere that he never got to and it became too repetitive. I think about the same thing when I consider Kandinsky as well. It was an interesting search but it was never fully pursued, in my opinion.

    • When you mentioned Klee, the first thing that popped into my head was the Bauhaus, where he shared a two-family faculty house with Kandinsky, and together they took long walks in the valley of the Elbe river. I’d love to know what they talked about.

      I do think both artists achieved their goal to paint abstractly, yet evocatively, although I’m not a huge fan of Kandinsky’s later work. Maybe he took an idea too far?

      I understand what you’re saying about styles becoming repetitive. I often wonder if that’s what troubled Jackson Pollock the most — that he had no idea what to do next, after the huge success of the drip paintings.

      • Yes, I quite agree with the reference to Pollock. It was a great idea but it never evolved and all he did was repeat it. I think I could go through a Pollock exhibition in 30 seconds or less, as with Kandinsky and Klee. Their first works were experimental and intriguing, the geometric forms and colours as well the philosophy behind it, but I never saw them going beyond the experiment.

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