Klee began teaching at Dusseldorf Academy in 1931. Two years later, he was fired under Nazi rule. The Klee family moved to Switzerland in late 1933. Klee was at the peak of his creative output during this tumultuous period. He produced nearly 500 works in a single year and created Ad Parnassum, widely considered to be his masterpiece.
Klee’s work evolved during World War I, particularly following the deaths of his friends Auguste Macke and Franz Marc. Klee created several pen-and-ink lithographs, including Death for the Idea, in reaction to this loss. In 1916, he joined the German army, painting camouflage on airplanes and working as a clerk.
While Klee was in Paris, he was able to access Post-Impresionism works of Paul Cezane and Vincent van Gogh. “Permit me to be scared stiff,” Klee said after seeing van Gogh’s paintings. Van Gogh influenced Klee’s use of color to express emotion, his simplified or distorted drawing, and his sacrifice of realistic illusions of depth to an emphatic surface pattern.
Kleee’s artistic breakthrough came in 1914 when he briefly visited Tunisia with August Macke and Louis Moilliet and was impressed by the quality of the light there. 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. Colour and I are one. I am a painter.” With that realization, faithfulness to nature fades in importance. Instead, Klee began to delve into the “cool romanticism of abstraction”. In gaining a second artistic vocabulary, Klee added color to his abilities in draftsmanship, and in many works combined them successfully, as he did in one series he called “operatic paintings”. One of the most literal examples of this new synthesis is The Bavarian Don Giovanni (1919).
Fenster und Palmen, 1914, watercolor on grounding on paper on cardboard, Kunsthaus Zürich, Zurich
First of all, the art of living; then as my ideal profession, poetry and philosophy, and as my real profession, plastic arts; in the last resort, for lack of income, illustrations.
Klee was left-handed but he could paint with both hands. Many of his Bauhaus students were so impressed by his artistic skills that they dedicated their own works to him.
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Klee’s mother, née Ida Maria Frick of Basel, and his German-born father, Hans Klee, were both trained as musicians. By Swiss law, Paul Klee held his father’s nationality; late in life he applied for Swiss citizenship but died just days before it was granted. A gifted violinist, he briefly considered music as a career, and between 1903 and 1906 he played occasionally in the Bern symphony orchestra. Klee was educated in the classical Literarschule (a literary secondary school) in Bern. As a youth, he wrote poetry and even tried his hand at writing plays. The diaries he kept from 1897 to 1918 are valuable documents rich with detailed accounts of his experiences and his observations on art and literature.
Klee caught up with the avant-garde in 1911, when he entered the circle of Der Blaue Reiter, an artists’ organization founded in Munich that year by the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky and the German painter Franz Marc. Kandinsky was then in the process of formulating his influential theory of abstract art as spiritual expression, and while Klee had only limited tolerance for his mysticism, the Russian artist, together with Marc, showed him how far abstraction and a visionary approach to content could be taken. Klee also came to know a wide variety of French Cubist painting from Der Blaue Reiter exhibitions of 1911–12 and from a visit he made to Paris in April 1912. He was especially impressed with the Orphic Cubism of the French artist Robert Delaunay.