To a casual observer, Paul Klee looks out from every photograph with a dour expression. He was German-Swiss, and he looks it. He had a penetrating stare, and he is always shown with his lips tightly pursed. Upon closer inspection, you begin to detect a hint of a smile behind the expression, an inner light, the look of a child.
Klee was born in Bern, Switzerland in 1879. His father was German, which would lead to trouble later in his life. Klee’s father was a music teacher who taught his son to play the violin well enough to become a professional musician. Klee had other ideas. He drifted into drawing and painting as his preferred method of self-expression. Klee was always drawing, and examples of his school exercise books show margins filled with unusual drawings, often erotic or satirical.
Klee dedicated himself to art, and moved to Munich, Germany in order to seek out the finest artists in Europe. At the time, only Paris could be considered a rival to Munich as a hub of artistic ferment. Klee spent three years diligently working as a classical artist, until a study trip to Rome led him to conclude that everything he was learning was, in his own words, “completely anachronistic.”
A Flight From Anachronism
It was then that Klee decided to rely on the free mode of expression he had enjoyed as a child to push his art further than he could as a classical artist. He worked as a satirical illustrator, examined Picasso’s Cubist paintings in Paris, and then traveled to Tunisia, where he discovered an approach to pattern and color he found invigorating and powerful.
The early part of the twentieth century was a time of great ferment in the arts, and Klee soon found friends in the modernist group led by Wassily Kandinsky. Kandinsky and Klee formed a bond that trumped their difference in age and temperament. Kandinsky was much older and more gregarious. Klee was always described by his friends as reserved and contemplative, but with an abiding sense of humor.
World War I intervened, and the feeling of change in the air turned to one of dread. Some of Klee’s friends from Munich perished in the trenches, and Klee spent the war as a clerk in the army. After the war, a kind of anarchy ruled the streets, and Klee drifted in and out of revolutionary cultural changes.
Klee found his footing again in the 1920s. He taught for ten years at the influential Bauhaus, where every form of craft and fine art was brought together with the idea of unifying them into a single industrial design ethos. The personalities of the teachers and students were too strong and varied for any sort of single theme to emerge, especially since the radicalization that followed the war limited consensus. Klee avoided the inevitable squabbles, and he was known for quietly sitting in the corner, smoking and thinking deeply, and then delivering his lectures on abstract art without ever looking at the students.
Klee rejected making slavish pictorial copies of people, things, and the natural world. He dwelled on seeing the world in myriad ways, used powerful colors, bold design, and substituted symbols for forms to achieve his abstract art.
Klee’s believed that children had the innate ability to produce untutored representations of the world that weren’t yet bogged down by conformity, and he strove to express himself with the same vigor and freedom. His use of intense color is also very childlike, as anyone that has let a toddler pick out his or her own clothes will recognize. He also used heavy, simple lines and bright colors taken from North African sources, which he admired for their unstudied, powerful application.
Stranger in a Strange Land
Klee found it increasingly difficult to live in Germany with the rise of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialists, who declared Klee’s art to be degenerate. He fled to Switzerland. By this time, he was suffering from scleroderma, a chronic and progressive disease that slowly hardens the skin and internal organs. Because he had a German father, Klee’s request for a Swiss citizenship was delayed, and he died in 1940 in Locarno while waiting to find out if he would be deported back to Germany.
Hitler’s love of a brutal style of classical sculpture, painting, and music was the antithesis of Klee’s world of childish wonder and rejection of slavish conformity. Klee died without knowing just how discredited his nemesis would become, and how revered Klee would be in the abstract art community in the 75 years since his death.
Hints of Klee in Los Angeles Abstract Art
Los Angeles abstract artist Diana Hobson uses the same appreciation for the unconstrained expression of a child in her painting New Shoots. It’s inspired by her grandson’s wild dance moves and freewheeling ninja kicks. Free expression is the key to any abstract art, and Diana is able to capture the same spontaneity and brashness in bold lines and vivid colors on her canvas. Geometric patterns provide a solid underpinning for frolicking, sinuous lines that mimic the movements of a free spirit, and they are brought forward from the background in the composition to intimate movement in three dimensions.
It is difficult to unlearn things. Many artists like Paul Klee and Diana Hobson must work diligently and think deeply about how to unshackle their observations of the world from the rigid orthodoxy of everyday cultural expectations, so they can produce the forms, symbols, and energy that capture the essence of an idea or a moment in time.
Comedian’s Handbill by Paul Klee, 1938. The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1984; The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Used courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
New Shoots by Diana Hobson. Copyright Diana Hobson. Used by permission.