A Brief History of Bauhaus Master and Father of Abstraction Paul Klee
These symbols marked some of the first efforts in the 20th century to embed spiritual content and the subconscious into abstract art. In turn, they inspired both Centre Pompidou in “L’ironie à l'oeuvre” (“Irony at work”). What follows is an exploration of the many influences and aftershocks of the artist’s strange and singular work.
Why does his work matter?
In the early 1900s, Klee radically broke with a millennia-old tradition in art: the faithful representation of objects and environments from the real world. Along with
This interest was galvanized with the onset of World War I and the deaths of his peers Présentation du Miracle. Kandinsky’s manifesto “On the Spiritual in Art” (1911) served as Der Blaue Reiter’s sacred writ and inspired not only Klee’s early paintings but also his own seminal text, “Creative Credo” (1920), whose punchline, “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible,” influenced both his contemporaries and his Surrealist scions.
It also caught the attention of
It was this sense of magic, embodied in works like Image Tirée du Boudoir (1922) and Klee’s use of spontaneous or “automatic” drawings as the basis for his paintings, that caught the eyes of Surrealists, who included Klee’s paintings in their first group exhibition in 1925.
What inspired him?
Klee was a voracious reader and lover of music (he was also a beautiful writer and a gifted violinist). Even when filled with squares and rectangles, his paintings—like Redgreen and Violet-Yellow Rhythms (1920)—pulse with rhythm motivated by the modulations of Mozart and Bach, or the cadence of poems by Apollinaire and Rilke, another close friend of Klee’s. He was also interested in the art of children and those suffering psychological disorders, which he regarded as pure forms of expression (he believed they had the “power to see”), and the hieroglyphs of African languages and art. A 1914 trip to Tunisia with Macke and Louis Moilliet deeply affected Klee, inspiring his rich color palette and distinctive language of mystical symbols (glowing stars and suns, topsy-turvy checkerboards, disembodied heads) that he would evolve over the course of his career.
Klee also came of age during a time of groundbreaking experimentation in art across Europe. When he relocated to Munich in 1898 at the age of 19 to study painting, artists were beginning to move away from representing what they could see, and beginning to paint psychologically charged subject matter (
Perhaps his greatest inspiration and ally was Kandinsky, a godfather of abstraction, as well as the Munich-based group’s other members, Macke, Marc, and Paysage près de E. (en Bavière) (1921) and Senecio (1922)—paintings that quote the fractured perspective and prismatic forms of the Spanish master. (Klee respected Cubism, but also sought to veer away from what he considered its lack of vitality.)
He also looked to
Why are we still talking about him?
Klee was one of a group of artists in the early 1900s who indelibly changed the course of modern art and influenced generations of artists. His place in the art-historical canon ensures we’ll be talking about him for decades to come. What’s more, though painting was declared dead following its prominence in the mid-20th century, the medium surged to the forefront of contemporary art again years later and is now back in vogue, as is art created by “outsiders.” Klee’s interest in the subconscious and those deemed insane—and his work’s engagement with these ideas—resonates with today’s fascination with art created by those outside of the establishment, including disabled people and practitioners of occult traditions.
Alexxa Gotthardt is a contributing writer for Artsy.