The Shy Museumgoer


Decoding the mysterious art of Paul Klee

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

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. I think the best way to answer it 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 staff of Der Blaue Reiter Almanach, a volume of essays put together by artists Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. This job changed the course of Klee’s career. 

Could art become 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 experiment with 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)

Over the years, Klee’s pictorial vocabulary grew increasingly sophisticated. In the catalogue introduction to one of his later shows, Mexican 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 was high praise. Modern artists like Rivera, Picasso, and Matisse 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. Somehow he kept on painting, ultimately creating some of the most poignant images of his career.

He painted Insula Dulcamara two years before he died. 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 his bittersweet feelings about contracting a fatal illness that at least progresses slowly.

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

To create this uncharacteristically large work, which is nearly six feet wide, Klee glued newspaper over burlap to serve as the ground. In a few places, the newsprint peeks out through the paint, allowing us to read snatches of old advertisements and editorials.

The 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, and 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 this figure standing in a puddle of blue paint? Is the artist getting wet feet? There are many riddles in a Klee painting.

Is the painting a modern interpretation of the three ages of man?

Does the squiggly creature on the left side of the canvas represent a baby crawling on all fours? Is the older 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 explained.

Klee initially called this painting Calypso’s Island after a chapter in Homer’s Odyssey. In the ancient Greek legend, a sensual nymph named Calypso holds a Greek hero named Odysseus hostage on an island for seven years, but cannot quell his longing for his wife, even by offering him immortality “with benefits.” Odysseus escapes from the island and returns home to his family.

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

Klee was an isolated artist, but a pivotal one

“Whether they were conscious of it or not, everyone was learning from Paul Klee,” said critic Clement Greenberg, who confessed 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, just a few months after a special exhibition of his large-scale works opened in Zurich, Switzerland. Art historian Carola Giedion-Welcker recalls 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.