Paul Klee: Life And Works

Paul Klee: life and works

Paul Klee (18 December 1879 – 29 June 1940) was a Swiss-German artist. His highly individual style was influenced by movements in art that included Expressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism. Klee was a natural draftsman who experimented with and eventually deeply explored color theory, writing about it extensively; his lectures Writings on Form and Design Theory (Schriften zur Form und Gestaltungslehre), published in English as the Paul Klee Notebooks, are held to be as important for modern art as Leonardo da Vinci’s A Treatise on Painting for the Renaissance.

He and his colleague, Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, both taught at the Bauhaus school of art, design and architecture. His works reflect his dry humor and his sometimes childlike perspective, his personal moods and beliefs, and his musicality.


Paul Klee biography

Paul Klee art

Paul Klee facts

Paul Klee paintings

Paul Klee   quotes

Paul Klee biography

Paul Klee was a Swiss-German painter who though originally associated with the German Expressionist group ‘Der Blaue Reite’, refused to adhere to any single artistic movement over the span of his career. He was also a gifted draughtsman and an educator whose lectures on color theory hold an important place in modern art. He taught at the German Bauhaus school of art, design and architecture, and his unique style was influenced by several art movements including expressionism, cubism, and surrealism. A highly creative and independent minded person, he challenged the traditional norms of expression in art and writing and explored abstract and poetic ideas in his paintings and writings. He was a transcendentalist who believed that the material world was only one among many realities open to human awareness. He was also a musician who used to practice on his violin before he started painting; as an artist, he could feel the analogies between music and the visual arts. He experimented freely with artistic techniques and applied paint in ways unusual for his era, and he greatly admired the unrestrained, free-flowing art of children. He suffered from a wasting disease towards the end of his life, the pain of which was reflected in his later paintings. A highly prolific artist, he left behind a legacy comprising about 9,000 works of art at the time of his death.

Childhood & Early Life

He was born on 18 December 1879 as the second child of German music teacher Hans Wilhelm Klee and his Swiss wife, Ida Marie Klee. He had one elder sister.

From a young age he was encouraged by his parents to learn music. He was sent to attend violin classes at the Municipal Music School when he was seven. He was musically talented and was invited to play as an extraordinary member of the Bern Music Association when he was just 11.

But eventually his interests turned towards art and he began studying art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich with Heinrich Knirr and Franz von Stuck in 1898. He drew well but seemed to lack a natural color sense.

He traveled to Italy with a friend after receiving his Fine Arts degree and spent a few months in 1901–02 studying the master painters of past centuries. He returned home and took occasional art classes.


He started developing some experimental techniques during the 1900s, including etching and drawing with a needle on a blackened pane of glass. From 1903 to 1905 he worked on a series of etchings called ‘Inventions’ in which he illustrated several grotesque characters. During this time he was also playing violin in an orchestra and writing concert reviews.

He met Alfred Kubin in 1911 and Kubin encouraged him to illustrate Voltaire’s ‘Candide’. Kubin was very supportive of the young artist and appreciated his inclination towards the absurd and the sarcastic.

Through Kubin, Klee met many other artists and art critics, and by the winter of 1911 he joined the editorial team of the journal ‘Der Blaue Reiter’ which was co-founded by Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky. This period saw Klee experimenting with colors in landscapes.

His work reached a new level of maturity during the World War I. Several of his friends including Auguste Macke and Franz Marc were killed and this deeply affected Klee. He made many pen-and-ink lithographs, including ‘Death for the Idea’, in response to these losses.

He joined the German army in 1916, restoring aircraft camouflage and working as a clerk. He also continued to paint during the entire war and also managed to exhibit in several shows. He became very popular by 1917 and was hailed as the best of the new German artists.

In 1919 he secured a three-year contract with dealer Hans Goltz, whose influential gallery gave Klee major exposure as well as commercial success. He also held a retrospective of over 300 works in 1920.

In 1920, Walter Gropius invited Klee to join the faculty of the Bauhaus, a school of architecture and industrial design. He accepted this post and started teaching in January 1921. His friend Kandinsky joined the staff the next year, and the two men formed the Blue Four with two other artists, Alexej von Jawlensky and Lyonel Feininger, and toured the United States to lecture and exhibit work.

Klee began teaching at Dusseldorf Academy in 1931. However, he was fired under Nazi rule in 1933 and moved with his family to Switzerland. He was at the peak of his career at this time. He soon started suffered from ill health and his output dropped considerably even though he continued painting until his last years.

Personal Life & Legacy

During his youth he developed the habit of frequenting pubs. As a young man he also became involved in numerous affairs with lower class women and artists’ models. One of his several liaisons resulted in the birth of a son in 1900 though the baby died after a few weeks.

In 1906, he married Bavarian pianist Lily Stumpf and they had one son, Felix Paul. His wife gave piano lessons while he kept house and focused on his art.

He suffered from a wasting disease, scleroderma, during his later years and was constantly in pain. His unbearable pain is reflected in one of his last paintings, ‘Death and Fire’ which depicts a skull with the German word for death, “Tod”.

He died on 29 June 1940 in Muralto, Locarno, Switzerland.

Paul Klee art

Paul Klee liked to work on several paintings at once. He would spend hours wandering between the easels in his studio, adding paint here, dabbing watercolour there, coaxing new worlds from flat canvasses. He moved easily, but mostly he smoked and waited, confident that his creations would ripen with a bit of time.

By the time he died in 1940 aged 60, Klee had created nearly 10,000 artworks, mostly paintings, drawings and some puppets. A restless innovator, he spent a lifetime experimenting with new techniques, tools and materials. His oeuvre defies classification, spanning Symbolism, German Expressionism, Cubism and Surrealism. The paintings themselves are wildly varied, blending oils with watercolours, burlap with newspaper. Dreamily, they dance in and out of abstraction.

“Klee was a singular artist,” marvels Daniel Spanke of the Kunstmuseum in Bern, the Swiss city near where the artist was born. He created a visual language all of his own—childlike and harmonious.

A retrospective of the artist’s work opens at London’s Tate Modern later this month. Matthew Gale at Tate had the idea for the show while he was working on the gallery’s 2011 Joan Miró retrospective. “Klee’s name kept coming up as an important influence,” he says. More than a decade after London’s last Klee survey, it was time to re-examine his work.

The show gathers around 130 of Klee’s paintings and drawings from collections around the world, many of them private. Arranged chronologically, it presents the works Klee himself chose to display during several formative shows in the early 20th century.

The exhibition opens with early works from 1912 and 1913, created while he was part of the German Expressionist Blaue Reiter group in Munich with Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky. These somewhat lacklustre pieces soon give way to more sensuous abstract watercolours, created after a breakthrough trip to Tunis in 1914. (“Colour and I are one,” he observed in his diary. “I am a painter.”) Works such as “Space Architecture with the Yellow Pyramid, Cold Warm” from 1915 illustrate Klee’s ability to layer colours in a way that evokes both depth and light. That same year Klee would observe in his diary that “the more horrifying the world becomes (as it is these days) the more art becomes abstract.”

Klee’s career finally hit its stride in 1921, after he was invited to teach at the Bauhaus, a new and somewhat idealistic school of art, architecture and design in Weimar, Germany. Klee’s wife Lily, a piano teacher, had long been supporting the couple and their son Felix. The Bauhaus job gave the 41-year-old artist a steady income, time to work and a chance to discover his talent for teaching. Klee’s “Pedagogical Sketchbook”, a compilation of his lectures, still circulates among art students today.

Comedy, 1921

Here Klee’s paintings become more assured. Watercolours such as “Comedy” (1921) combine subtle gradations of colour with amusingly surreal creatures. The vibrant squares of “Static-Dynamic Gradation” (1923) have a mesmerising intensity. “Fish Magic” (1925) is darkly sumptuous, with little sketches that demand close attention. Klee’s playful lines appear to have influenced Miró; his saturated colours, as in “Clouds” (1926), evoke the work Mark Rothko would later become known for.

Static-Dynamic Gradation

The Nazis, who came to power in 1933, accused Klee (among others) of being a degenerate artist. He swiftly gathered his family and moved back to Bern, where they lived in cramped quarters on the edge of town. Klee then became ill with scleroderma, a fatally debilitating autoimmune disease. But he continued to work, and enjoyed a burst of frenzied creativity in the last years of his life. In his small flat he churned out hundreds of lively drawings with a feverish intensity, and painted some of his largest, boldest canvasses (such as “Park near Lu” from 1938, pictured left). “I can no longer keep up with these children of mine,” he wrote to his son in December 1939. “They run away with me.” Klee created more than 1,250 works that year.

Park near Lu

Klee’s artistic output was so vital and varied that “not even Picasso approaches him in sheer inventiveness,” observed Alfred Barr junior, a former director of New York’s MoMA, in 1945. Yet Klee’s gifts are often overlooked. Barr reckoned that this was because unlike the “roar or stamp” of Picasso’s pictures, Klee’s “whisper a soliloquy”. Perhaps Tate’s show will encourage more people to lean in and listen.

Paul Klee facts

1. When he was young, Paul Klee wanted to be a musician

Paul Klee was born on 18 December, 1879 in Switzerland. Both his parents were involved in music. His father Hans Wilhelm Klee was a German music teacher while his mother Ida Marie Klee was a Swiss singer. Initially Klee was inclined towards following his parent’s footsteps and becoming a musician but in his teenage he switched to visual arts as he “didn’t find the idea of going in for music creatively particularly attractive in view of the decline in the history of musical achievement.” Klee didn’t think highly of the musicians of the time and the greatest composers according to him were Bach and Mozart.

2. Initially he struggled with color

Robert Delaunay – Self PortraitRobert Delaunay – Self Portrait
At first, although he was satisfied with his etchings, Klee struggled with colors. The use of bold colors by artists like Robert Delaunay and Maurice de Vlaminck inspired Klee and so did Paul Cezanne’s coloring in which he modified naturalistic color to harmonize them. But instead of copying these artists, Klee started doing his own experimentation with colors.

3. He is called the ‘Newton of Color’

Klee studied the color theory and wrote about it extensively. He once remarked, “Color has taken possession of me; no longer do I have to chase after it, I know that it has hold of me forever… Color and I are one. I am a painter.” Today, Klee is referred to as the Newton of Color.

4. Klee had a very individualistic style

Klee was a natural draftsman and once he successfully combined his knowledge of color with his abilities as a draftsman, he created a highly individualistic style. One of the first examples of this synthesis is The Bavarian Don Giovanni (1919).

The Bavarian Don Giovanni (1919)

5. Paul Klee served in the military during World War I

In 1916, Klee was forced to join the military forces due to the advent of World War I. Although he never served on the frontline, the death of two of his friends in the war affected him and its influence can be seen in some of his paintings. From early 1917, he was transferred to work as a clerk for the treasurer till the end of the war. This allowed him to continue painting and by the end of the year he was considered by critics as best of the new German painters.

6. ‘Paul Klee Notebooks’ are the Bible of modern art

From 1921 to 1931, Paul Klee taught at the German Bauhaus school of art, design and architecture. A collection of his Bauhaus lectures and other essays on art are known as the ‘Paul Klee Notebooks’. These are held in the same regard in modern art as Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘A Treatise on Painting’ holds for Renaissance artists. A critic even went to the extent of saying that as Newton is to Physics, Klee is to modern artists.

7. He had to flee from Germany

From 1931 ton 1933, Klee taught at the Dusseldorf Academy. During this time he was targeted by a Nazi newspaper who labeled him as a ‘typical Galician Jew’. His house was searched by the Gestapo and he was fired from his job. This sad occasion has been commemorated by Klee in his self-portrait Struck from the List (1933). All this led to Klee immigrating to Switzerland with his family by late 1933.

8. He died of scleroderma

Klee died on 29 June 1940 in Switzerland, 7 years after being diagnosed with the deadly disease scleroderma. At the time of his death, he didn’t have Swiss citizenship, though he was born in that country, as his work was considered too revolutionary. His request was accepted six days after his death.

9. The most famous painting by Klee is ‘Ad Parnassum’

Klee was a prolific painter with over 9000 works of art. He created nearly 500 works in 1933 and over 1200 in 1939, which was the most he produced in a year. Klee once described drawing as “taking a line for a walk”. ‘Ad Parnassum’, which he painted in 1932, is widely considered his masterpiece and the best example of his pointillist style.

10. His style is associated with many art movements

Klee’s works have been associated with Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism and Abstraction but it is difficult to classify them. He interpreted art trends in his own way and used innovative methods and techniques. He worked in multiple media and even combined them into one work at times. Influence of his interest in music can be seen in his works, which also showcase his varying moods and dry humor.

Paul Klee quotes

“A line is a dot that went for a walk.”

“Art does not reproduce what we see. It makes us see.”

“Art does not reproduce the visible; it makes visible.”

“One day I will lie nowhere with an angel at my side.”

“Color has got me. I no longer need to chase after it. It has got me for ever. I know it. That is the meaning of this happy hour.”

“Art does not reproduce what is visible, it makes things visible.”

“It is the artistic mission to penetrate as far as may be toward that secret ground where primal law feeds growth.”

“Colour and I are one.”

“After all, it’s rather difficult to achieve the exact minimum, and it involves risks.”

“Becoming is superior to being.”

“I imagined face and genitals to be the corresponding poles of the female sex, when girls wept I thought of pudenda weeping in unison.”

References and useful Resources

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