Orson Welles contrasted Florence under the Borgias producing Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance with peaceful Switzerland only ever having produced the cuckoo clock. But Alberto Giacometti, Jean Tinguely and Paul Klee in the twentieth century alone refute Welles. The pedant might point out that although Klee was born in Bern and died in Locarno and had a Swiss mother, he inherited German citizenship from his father and was only accorded the privilege of Swiss nationality six days after his death. By the same token, it could be queried whether, if an artist is disabled for his last five years, he can be classified as a disabled artist? The same question could be asked of Francisco Goya, who became deaf in his later years. In both examples, as perhaps also with David Hockney’s deafness, the disability has an impact on the work, although the art historians seem rarely to have acknowledged or discussed this aspect of the biography.
From the start, Paul Klee was a natural at drawing. He described it most memorably himself: “A line comes into being. It goes out for a walk, so to speak, aimlessly for the sake of the walk.” Colour was more of a struggle. In the early years of the century he lived in Munich where his wife Lily gave piano lessons and he was a house husband and kept on with his art work. After travelling to Tunisia in 1914, he wrote “colour has taken possession of me; no longer do I have to chase after it, I know that it has hold of me forever.” After 12 years of experiment he was now able, on 16 April 1914, to write in his diary “I am a painter”.
During the First World War, he managed to avoid the fighting. In 1918, he was briefly involved in the Bavarian Soviet uprising, before fleeing to Switzerland. In the 1920s he moved to Weimar to teach at the Bauhaus school of art for 10 years.
Music was at least as important to Klee as painting, and early in his career it was not certain whether he would be an artist or a musician. He wrote: “I embrace the oil-scented goddess of the brush only because she is my wife” – but also that to him music was “my beloved”. Paul Klee treated colours like notes in music. He said to his students at the Bauhaus “To paint well is simply this: to put the right colour in the right place.” Rhythm too is of supreme importance in his work. The poet Rilke said in 1921 “Even if you hadn’t told me he plays the violin, I would have guessed that on many occasions his drawings were transcriptions of music.”
When the Nazis came to power, Klee was dismissed and the Bauhaus school was closed down. Later, he was labeled a degenerate artist. But Klee had already emigrated to Switzerland in 1933. In 1935 he contracted measles, and this developed into scleroderma, diagnosed in 1936. This condition is a chronic systemic autoimmune disease, predominantly affecting the skin, but also the heart, long and kidneys.
In the initial crisis, Klee’s creative output fell away, but he then rallied to continue his prodigious output, with the year before his death being his most prolific. His movement now restricted, he could no longer simply “take a line for a walk”, but a new sense of rhythm took over. The later work can be dark and threatening, perhaps influenced by his personal suffering as well as by the wider context of war. For example, in his last year, his “Eidola” series of drawings depict archetypal figures existing in a realm between life and death. Still, Klee’s art retained its sense of childlike experimentation, for example in a painting like “Children’s game”.
In 1924, Klee had aspired to create a diverse and broad body of work “spanning all the way across element, object, content, and style”. His success meant that he began many lines of enquiry which others went on to develop further. Beginning with his Bauhaus students, he was influential on many artists, from Joan Miro to Bridget Riley and beyond.He wrote extensively, responsible for many memorable insights on art, among which most famously:
“art does not reproduce the visible, but makes visible.”
I like particularly a photograph of Klee from 1935. He is standing next to his wife Lily, wearing his dressing gown and holding his pipe. He has the trace of a smile on his face, and his cat, Bimbo, is climbing down from his shoulders. His paintings are often suffused with a sense of joy, just as he once wrote “the picture has no particular purpose. It only has the purpose of making us happy”. Perhaps for this reason, as Christine Hopfengart has written, Paul Klee’s work is not only admired or valued, but is loved.