Paul Klee: Bauhaus Master

Paul Klee


 “The more horrifying the world becomes, 

the more art becomes abstract” – Paul Klee


Klee’s Early Life

Paul Klee (December 1879 – June 1940) was born in Münchenbuchsee, a municipality in the Bern-Mittelland district of Switzerland. His parents were both musicians; his German father Hans Wilhelm Klee was a music teacher, and his Swiss mother, Ida Marie Klee was a singer. The couple met when Hans travelled from the German town of Tann to the Stuttgart Conservatory in Switzerland to study piano, organ, violin and singing. 

Klee and his older sister Mathilde were encouraged by their parents to be creative from a young age. Naturally, Hans and Ida particularly encouraged their children to develop their musical talents. The family moved to Bern in 1880, after Hans had been teaching music at Bern State Seminary in the small village of Hofwil near Bern for several years. When he was seven, Klee began taking violin lessons at the Municipal Music School, and his talent was so impressive that he was invited to play as a member of the Bern Music Association. 

Although Klee showed a natural aptitude for music, he was also drawn to art. As a child he received art lessons from his maternal grandmother Anna Catharina, who taught him drawing and colouring, and by the time he was a teenager Klee felt that art was the right path for him. This went against his parents’ wishes, who had been encouraging him for years to have a career as a musician. Klee’s decision to pursue art was in part because he felt restricted by the traditional works of the 18th and 19th centuries that he most often played. 


Abstract artist Paul Klee early works
The Signatories to the Window (The Artist at the Window) by Paul Klee (1909)


While he did enjoy and appreciate the works of classic composers such as Mozart and Bach, for Klee, art had a freedom that he felt he could never have with music and it seems he was apprehensive about the state musical careers in general: “I didn’t find the idea of going in for music creatively particularly attractive,” he commented, “in view of the decline in the history of musical achievement”. 

Klee began drawing and sketching, many of which demonstrated substantial skill by the time he was sixteen. His schoolbooks were full of drawings, mostly caricatures of his classmates and teachers. It is evident that Klee’s preoccupation with art, as well as his extensive reading of literature, distracted him from his academics because he barely passed his final exams.


Art School: Munich Academy of Fine Arts


Klee’s artistic career began when he was accepted a private school in Munich, Germany in 1898/1899. The well-respected school was run by Heinrich Knirr, an Austrian-born German painter renowned for his domestic genre scenes and portraits; his most famous painting is the official Adolf Hitler painting commissioned for 1937 and Knirr is the only artist to have painted the dictator from life. 


After completing his compulsory education, Klee began studying art under the instruction of Franz von Stuck, a German painter, sculptor, architect and printmaker best known for his ancient mythology paintings. While Klee’s knack for drawing only improved, he found himself at as loss when it came to applying colour. He seemed to lack a natural eye for it and lamented that “during the third winter I even realized that I probably would never learn to paint”. Historians have speculated that Klee’s youthful wandering eye for artists’ models and lower-class Munich women in bars (in 1900 he had an illegitimate son who sadly died several weeks after he was born) distracted him from really flourishing at this point in his career. 

Upon completing his Fine Arts degree in 1901, Klee and his friend Hermann Haller travelled extensively around Italy and France, studying the works of classic painters in every city they visited. Although inspired by what he saw as the optimism of colour infused into these works of arts, his own lack of an instinctual understanding of colour application disillusioned him. He was all too aware of the pessimistic aesthetic of his own black-and-white drawings, many of which were satirical and grotesque. 

Alongside playing the violin in a local orchestra and writing theatre and concert reviews, Klee took art classes when he returned to his parents’ home in Bern, and by 1905 he had developed several experimental techniques. One of his most enduring works from this stage of his career is an etching of his father, Portrait of My Father (1906), which he created by using a needle on a blackened plane of class. In the same year Klee married Lily Stumpf, a Bavarian pianist who gave piano lessons and performances while he tended to their home in Munich, looked after their son Felix who was born in 1907, and practiced his art after trying and failing to become a magazine illustrator. His first exhibition in 1910 displayed various works of zinc-plate etchings, which he fondly titled ‘Inventions’. 

"The Portrait of my Father" by Paul Klee

Portrait of My Father (1906) by Paul Klee 


1910s: Klee’s development as an Artist


Klee’s ‘Inventions’ exhibition gave him a new lease on life. Klee gained several valuable relationships at the start of this decade, including Alfred Kubin, who encouraged Klee’s tendency for the absurd and would become one of Klee’s first collectors, the art critic Wilhelm Hausenstein, and contemporary artists including Wassily Kandinsky. He was a foundation member and later manager of the Munich Artists Union in 1911, and by the winter of 1911 he had joined Kandinsky and Franz Marc’s editorial team for their almanac Der Blaue Reiter. Klee deeply valued his friendship with Kandinsky, later remarking that he “came to feel a deep trust in him. He is somebody, and has an exceptionally beautiful and lucid mind”. 

Klee took part in numerous exhibitions over the coming years, including one at the Galerie Goltz where seventeen of his graphic works were displayed, and at the Herwarth Walden’s gallery Der Sturm and at the Erster Deutscher Herbstsalon (the first German autumn salon) in Berlin. He also published writings on art history. 

The exhibitions helped Klee fully understand the application of colour in art and he embraced new, modern theories of colour. He greatly admired the vibrant Cubism work dominant in Paris and abstract art which he saw as “pure painting”. These works inspired him to experiment with watercolours and he soon began to incorporate solid blocks of colour into his work. After visiting Tunisia in 1914, Klee became infatuated with country’s quality of light. This was his breakthrough: “Colour has taken possession of me,” he declared, “Colour and I are one. I am a painter”. 


When he returned home, Klee applied his newfound understanding of colour to his art and he soon produced pure abstract work characterised by coloured triangles and circles. Art historians associate this work with Klee’s musical background, arguing that Klee’s colour palette denotes a musical key, essentially creating a harmony of colour. It was a wholly unique perspective that only Klee could create. 

When the Great War broke out in 1914, Klee did not immediately enlist. He remained indifferent until the deaths of his friends August Macke and Franz Marc, who died in battle. He expressed his feelings in various war-themed ink and pen lithographs before enlisting in early 1916. Klee continued creating art throughout the war, producing some of his best work; his use of watercolour on gauze and paper in Ab ovo (1917) is especially beautiful, as is his mixing of suppressed colour in Warning of the Ships (1917). 

Ab ovo by Paul Klee
Ab ovo (1917) by Paul Klee (via Wikicommons)


1920s: Bauhaus Master


Klee’s work did not go unnoticed. In 1919, he was signed by Munich gallery owner Hans Goltzand and became a member of Munich’s visual arts council and its Aktionsausschuss Revolutionäre Künstler (action committee of revolutionary artists). His dedication to dismantling traditional, realistic representation in art and embracing a modern, metaphysical style caught the eye of Walter Gropius, who appointed Klee to the Staatliche Bauhaus in Weimar.


It was this appointment that would make Klee an unforgettable figure in modern art. 

The Bauhaus Movement originated from within the Staatliche Bauhaus. It was grounded in the German principle of Gesamtkunstwerk, a work of art that uses all or multiple forms of artwork, an all-encompassing, total work of art. “Weimar was where Gropius laid the groundwork for Bauhaus to come”, Kelly Richman-Abdou explains, “it is where he established ideals that would be considered visionary for the time. Art, according to his manifesto and the program, should serve a social role and there should no longer be a division of craft-based disciplines”.

 The defining characteristics of the Bauhaus style, both in art and architecture, are reflective of the period it developed in, the 1920s. After the horrors of the Great War, people yearned for prosperity, freedom of expression, life without social or political limitations. Bauhaus was no different. It sought to change how people perceived art by emphasising functionality rather than ornamentation, asymmetry rather than symmetry, and simple, often primary, colour schemes It did not aim to represent reality but rather explorations not limited to the material, and instinctual, emotive responses to works of art. 

Bauhaus Weimar Exhibition Poster (1922-23) by Rudolf Baschant

Alongside Klee, the Staatliche Bauhaus had several contemporary artists in their employment during the 1920s, including Wassily Kandinsky, Johannes Itten, Lyonel Feininger, and László Moholy-Nagy. 

It was Klee and Kandinsky who really formulated the foundations of abstract art through their various lectures and practical classes, and their emphasis on art as an animated thing – Klee described drawing a line as “going for a walk” – infused their works and the works of their students with intense emotion. Klee produced many music-inspired pieces during his time at the Staatliche Bauhaus, with artwork full of musical elements such as rhythmic, classical score structures, and signs and symbols that suggested musical notes. 


1930s: Klee’s Last Decade 


Klee taught at the Düsseldorf Academy from 1931 to 1933, where he felt the “potency and force” of the Nazi party. Like many artists who went against conservative values at the time, Klee was attacked by a Nazi newspaper, who wrote “that great fellow Klee comes onto the scene, already famed as a Bauhaus teacher in Dessau. He tells everyone he’s a thoroughbred Arab, but he’s a typical Galician Jew”. 

Paul Klee "Why Does he run? (Was läuft er?)" etching

Why Does He Run? (Was läuft er?) (1932) by Paul Klee (via Wikicommons)


Klee’s art was deemed degenerate by the Nazi party and after his home was ransacked by the Gestapo, he was fired from the Düsseldorf Academy. His 1933 painting, a self-portrait entitled Struck from the List, memorializes the event: its monochromatic colour palate is melancholy and his use of lines signifies tears. The Nazi’s seized over 100 of Klee’s paintings.

Paul Klee "Struck from the List" 1933

Struck from the List (1933) by Paul Klee (via Wikiart)


1933 did not improve for Klee. Although he was creating many works of art – 500 in just one year - he began to experience symptoms of what would be post-mortemly diagnosed as Scleroderma, a cluster of autoimmune diseases that can cause changes in the skin, blood vessels, muscles, and internal organs. Sometime around 1933 or 1934, Klee had had art exhibitions in London and Paris – where he finally met Pablo Picasso – and he emigrated his family to Switzerland in late 1933.

Klee’s health fluctuated, as did his creative output; he created 25 pieces of art in 1936 but over 1,200 in 1939. His style changed as he grew older, incorporating thicker lines and less but larger colour blocks. He changed his colour palette regularly, alternating between optimistic and pessimistic. Towards the end of his life, his work reflected his pain; his 1940 painting Death by Fire contains a skull in the center with the German word for death, “Tod”, in the face. 

Paul Klee died on 29th June 1940 in Switzerland. His son Felix had the following quote inscribed on his father’s gravestone: “I cannot be grasped in the here and now, for my dwelling place is as much among the dead as the yet unborn. Slightly closer to the heart of creation than usual, but still not close enough”. 


Surrealist critic René Crevel proclaimed Klee “dreamer” who “releases a swarm of small lyrical louses from mysterious abysses”.

Speaking of what it is like to experience Klee’s work, French-American artist Marcel Duchamp said: “The first reaction in front of a Klee painting is the very pleasant discovery, what everyone of us could or could have done, to try drawing like in our childhood. Most of his compositions show at the first glance a plain, naive expression, found in children’s drawings. […] At a second analyse one can discover a technique, which takes as a basis a large maturity in thinking. A deep understanding of dealing with watercolours to paint a personal method in oil, structured in decorative shapes, let Klee stand out in the contemporary art and make him incomparable. On the other side, his experiment was adopted in the last 30 years by many other artists as a basis for newer creations in the most different areas in painting. His extreme productivity never shows evidence of repetition, as is usually the case. He had so much to say, that a Klee never became another Klee”.


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