Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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The paintings of Klee are tied to a number of groundbreaking movements which took place during the 20th century movements, including Bauhaus, surrealism and expressionism.

One of the fascinating things about Klee is that he uses a lot of mystical hieroglyphs, forms and unconventional-looking creatures to populate his creations, which is why his body of work cannot be pigeon-holed into a particular category.

In fact, his symbols were considered to be one of the firsts to be included in abstract art during the 20th century because spiritual content and the subconscious were rarely incorporated in case of abstract art.

Born in 1879, Paul Klee is a Swiss-German artist who is also known as the father of abstract art. He had many art historians and fans who call themselves ‘Klee-mates’.

Apart from being an extremely celebrated artist of the Twentieth Century, Klee was also a great art teacher. He served as a faculty member at Bauhaus, which is a German art school that existed from 1919 to 1933.

The school was known for combining crafts and the fine arts. The approach to design taught and publicized in this school was very different. The story to how Klee began teaching in Bauhaus is very interesting. In 1920 Klee came up with his own seminal text, known as ‘Creative Credo’.

The punchline was ‘Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible’. Creative Credo caught the attention of a lot of contemporaries and surrealist scions during that time and also Mr. Walter Gropius, who is the founder of Bauhaus. Gropius then invited Klee to become a faculty member in the school in 1920, which he readily agreed.

Klee, along with other teachers at Bauhaus, particularly Kandinsky has managed to formalize and shape the tenets of modern design and abstract art.

Klee is known for his signature style or approach to art-making, one that included animating the elements of art and also infusing it with an element of magic. For instance, he described drawings as ‘a line going for a walk’. Now, this does not just include an element of art, which is the line but it also adds movement and spontaneity to it along with a pinch of magic since it is ‘going for a walk’.

Klee has been associated with Surrealism, Abstraction, Expressionism, Cubism and Futurism because, as mentioned above, his paintings cannot be restricted to a single category. Those who knew him said that he liked to work in isolation from his peers and concentrated on interpreting new art trends in his own unique way. His methods and techniques were inventive. Klee worked with a variety of media, including pastel colours, oil paints, water colors, etching and so on. He liked combining different media into a singular work. He often uses newsprint, wallpaper, fabric, metal foils, cardboard, gauze, linen, muslin, burlap and canvas in his works. He also employed media such as spray paint, stamping, glazing, impasto and knife application into his work.

Paul Klee was a natural draftsman who constantly experimented; this led to him mastering tonality and colors in his works. A look at some of his famous works would reveal that he used a wide variety of color palettes from high polychromatic to monochromatic. Some critics would also term his works as one which has a precious and fragile ‘child-like’ quality. Geometric forms such as arrows, numbers and letters commonly populated his paintings along with figures of people and animals. Klee was also known for showing moods and dry humor in his work, sometimes even expressing political convictions. His works generally alludes to dreams, music, poetry and even musical notations. For some experts, like Rainer Maria Rilke, it was possible to tell that his drawings were transcriptions of music even without knowing that Klee was a violinist.

One of the lesser known facts about him is that he was left-handed, but at the same time ambidextrous. His artistic skills managed to create a deep impression on his students at Bauhaus. He was also a bibliophile, he loved to read and listen to music. Klee was also quite a gifted writer and talented violinist. This is reflected in his painting ‘Redgreen and Violet-Yellow Rhythms’ which was created in 1920. Even though this painting was full of squares and rectangles, it managed to emanate a kind of rhythm which one would associate with Bach or Mozart.

Klee’s viewpoints were quite out-of-the-box and refreshing. For instance, he regarded children and people with psychological disorders as pure forms of expression because they had the power to see certain things which others don’t. While he draws inspiration from a variety of places, people and things, his trip to Tunisia in 1914 was a turning point in his life. He embarked on this trip with Louis Moillet and Macke. The trip was particularly memorable and acted as a turning point in his life because it inspired him to use a rich color palette and also to develop his own set of distinctive mystical symbols. For instance, the topsy-turvy checkerboards, glowing suns, twinkling stars, disembodied heads and so on. The trip played a pivotal role in Klee’s art evolution over the course of his career. In fact, right after returning home from this trip, he painted his first pure abstract, which is called ‘In the Style of Kairouan’.

What’s interesting about his first abstract painting is that even though it contained a colored rectangle and a handful of circles, there is a kind of musical note to it. The colored rectangle was the foundation or the basic building block of the painting. Some scholars would even term it as a musical note. Other color blocks are combined with this in order to produce a harmony analogous, which is similar to a musical composition. According to critics, his selection of the color palette for the painting emulated a musical key since he used complementary pairs of colors as well as dissonant colors. Thus, despite being a novice as far as abstract painting is concerned, Klee managed to show his connection with musicality through this painting.

Klee’s early life was also quite fascinating. He used to draw a lot as a child and some of his early drawings are preserved by his grandmother, who also played an important role in his life by encouraging him to draw. He made etchings which can were considered quite good considering his age. In 1905 Klee introduced a new technique of creating art, scratching a glass panel that has been painted black with a needle. He also tried to combine painting with scratching during his early years. It wasn’t until 1914 that he began to experiment with mystical and abstract themes in his paintings. The period from 1914 to 1919 was termed as the ‘Mystical-Abstract’ period of his career because this was the time when he produced his most famous abstract works.

At a young age of 19 he relocated to Munich in order to study painting. His artistic development was brought about by artists such as Van Gogh and Matisse who walked ‘the path less travelled’ and dabbled in psychologically charged matter and unconventional representation of patterns, light and color. Klee also admired the cubist compositions of Picasso and he made some of his own as a tribute. Hommage a Picasso (in 1914), Paysage pres de E (en Baviere) (1921) and Senecio (1922) are some of the loosely-based cubist creations of Klee. Apart from these renowned artists of the past, Klee’s peers too had a big role to play in shaping his artistic development. Kandinsky, better known as a godfather of abstraction, was said to be Klee’s greatest inspiration by many.

Although we are in the twenty first century today, Paul Klee is still quite relevant and many still talk about him. This is because he was amongst one of the artists from the early 1900s who managed to permanently change the course of modern art. Of course, Klee also influenced generations of artists through his works and teachings, something that cannot be easily forgotten. His place in the art-historical realm ensures that people would be talking about him even for the coming decades! Klee had a deep interest in the subconscious, and even received a lot of scorn and taunts for this. Even though his fixation or interest was deemed ‘insane’ by many and even ridiculed, he continued to work on it. Today, his works resonates with the fascination that modern society has for abstract art.