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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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Follow Paul Klee's path to stardom in this extensive biography of his life and career.

Paul Klee was born by a German father and a Swiss mother. His father taught music at Berne-Hofwil teacher's college and his mother trained as a professional singer. At age seven, Klee took up violin lessons, and other hobbies including writing poems, drawing and hobbies. He decided he would have a better career in the visual arts despite his parents’ insisting he pursue a musical career.

Early training

Paul's academic training mainly focused on his drawing skills. Before joining the studio of Franz von Stuck (a German symbolist) in 1990, he studied in a private studio for two years. He met a pianist, Lily Stumpf, during his studies in Munich, and the couple married in 1906. Klee's early years as an artist were supported by Lily’s work as a piano instructor even after the couple had a son in 1907. The artist remained isolated from modern art developments until 1911, when he met Franz Marc, Wassily Kandinsky and August Macke of Der Blaue Reiter.

In 1912 he participated in the 2nd Blaue Reiter exhibition where he saw work of avant-garde artists such as Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and Robert Delaunay. During the same year, Klee visited Delaunay’s studio in Paris and this is when his experiments with abstraction began. Klee's relationship with colour changed in 1914 during his trip to Tunisia. In his diaries he stated that he is one with colour and that he is a painter. Travelling with Louis Moillet and August Macke, Paul painted and drew watercolour landscapes of Kairouan, Hammamet and Tunis. When he returned, he created a number of abstract works that was based on his Tunisian watercolours.

Mature period

Wilhelm Worringer's thesis Empathy and Abstraction (1907) had a big influence on Klee’s views on abstract art. The thesis hypothesized that abstract art came about during a time of war. About three months after Paul returned from Tunis, World War I broke out. Even though he was called to duty in 1916, he was not posted at the front line. Meanwhile, he was successful financially, especially after a large Berlin exhibition in Der Sturm Gallery. The artist was quite reserved in his opinions regarding the war. However, in November 1918 he did not hesitate to accept a position on the Executive Committee of Revolutionary Artists when a communist government was declared in Munich. Soon thereafter the November Revolution failed and Paul returned to Switzerland. The Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar invited Klee to teach in 1920 and he accepted. The Bauhaus was a very influential school of industrial design and architecture that strived to provide students with a foundation in all of the visual arts.

He taught at the institution for 10 years, moving with the Bauhaus to Dessau from Weimar in 1925. Klee painted stained glass and taught workshops in book binding. His series of detailed lectures on visual form were responsible for gauging his influence as a teacher. Klee left the Bauhaus in 1930 to go to the art academy in Dusseldorf, but this short period of calm came to an end on 30th January, 1933, when Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany. The artist was denounced as a ‘cultural Bolshevik’ and a ‘Galician Jew’, while his work was derided as ‘insane’ and ‘subversive’. His Dessau home was searched, and he was dismissed from his teaching position in April 1933. In December, Klee and his wife returned to Berne.

Late period and death

Paul, a couple of years after returning to Switzerland, fell ill with a disease that was later diagnosed as progressive schleroderma. It can be described as an autoimmune disease that hardens body organs and the skin. When he was ill, the artist created only 25 works, but his creativity was revived in 1937 increasing to a record 1,253 in 1939. Klee’s late works dealt with resilience, pain, grief, and acceptance of approaching death. Some of Paul’s works were included in the ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition which was staged in 1937 by National Socialists in Munich. The accusations against his politics and character that had been waged against him in Germany interfered with his 1939 application for Swiss citizenship. According to Swiss law, Klee was a German because his father was German, despite the fact that the artist was born in Switzerland. Paul Klee died in Locarno, Switzerland on June 29, 1940 before his final application for citizenship could be approved.


Even if a large number of Klee's successors have not openly referenced his work as an influence or an apparent source, his artistic legacy has been immense. The Surrealists found his seemingly reductive symbols, abstract signs and random juxtaposition of text of the way of the mind in dream state, brings forth new insights on how the unconscious mind wields power as a result of recombination of disparate objects of everyday.