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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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Senecio is a bright, abstract portrait painted by Paul Klee in 1922

Senecio draws in influences from several artistic cultures, including Africa in the way in which the old man's face is constructed. Indeed, many believe that the original title of this artwork was Head of a Man Going Senile (Senecio is the Latin word for old man).

Klee uses geometric shapes to create this portrait, in a similar way to that of his Castle and Sun cityscape.

Triangles and rectangles mingle together to form the facial features, where as in Castle and Sun he would use these shapes to compose buildings. Klee continued this in Three Houses and a Bridge and Architecture.

This was a learned artist who took great care to understand the impact in art of combining shape, form and colour. In Senecio, geometric shapes are used to give the impression of a man raising his eyebrow.

In Senecio, triangles produce eyebrows for the old man, whilst squares build up his neck and cheeks. Yellows and whites are again used to draw the eye to key points of the painting, whilst reddish browns are used to complete the background. Cat and Bird is another painting which combines colour and form in this way.

The style used here strongly resembles a child-like approach but was in fact carefully planned down to the last detail of colour and line. This seemingly simple arrangement of objects is typical of abstract art.

Senecio himself was a performer who is depicted in this artwork. It also links drama, theatre and painting together in a way which was common during this period of art history, particularly within the Bauhaus movement and Abstract Expressionists.

Paul Klee was an experimental and highly productive artist who refused to settle on one artistic style. He would produce hundreds of portraits during his extensive career, featuring all manner of different approaches. Some would be simple pencil drawings (such as Angelus Novus), perhaps with a splash of colour. Subtle watercolour paintings were also common.

Senecio is one of the more famous portraits from Klee's career due to the geometric methods used here, as well as the warm colour palette which reminds many of artists from more southern regions of Europe.

The African simplicity of form touched on in this artwork is also carried on in Death and Fire and Actor's Mask.

Some observers of Senecio have pointed to elements of Klee's sense of fun and humour being present in this artwork. There are also clear signs of the rhythm of music which continues throughout his career.

Some other observers have claimed that the painting's title, Senecio, refers to the botanical name for a plant grouping that includes multiple round flower heads. From that would come new theories about how Klee was symbolising nature in the form of man, but most art critics do not believe this explanation to be correct.

There is no single artwork from Klee's career that can truly summarise such a diverse plethora of work but Senecio does serve as an excellent example of one of his more famous styles, namely the combination of colour, line and form through abstract geometric shapes.