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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Paul Klee (1879–1940)

With Heinz Berggruen’s gift of ninety works by Paul Klee spanning the artist’s entire career, the Metropolitan Museum has become an important center for the study of this German artist. Klee is known for his simple stick figures, suspended fish, moon faces, eyes, arrows, and quilts of color, which he orchestrated into fantastic and childlike yet deeply meditative works.

Klee was born in 1879 in Münchenbuchsee, near Bern, Switzerland, the second child of Hans Klee, a German music teacher, and a Swiss mother. His training as a painter began in 1898 when he studied drawing and painting in Munich for three years. By 1911, he had returned to that city, where he became involved with the German Expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), founded by Vasily Kandinsky and Franz Marc in 1911. Klee and Kandinsky became lifelong friends, and the support of the older painter provided much-needed encouragement. Until then, Klee had worked in relative isolation, experimenting with various styles and media, such as making caricatures and Symbolist drawings, and later producing small works on paper mainly in black and white. His work was also influenced by the Cubism of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, and the abstract translucent color planes of Robert Delaunay.

In 1914, Klee visited Tunisia. The experience was the turning point in his life and career. The limpid light of North Africa awakened his sense of color. During his stay, Klee gradually detached color from physical description and used it independently, which gave him the final needed push toward abstraction. The view of the mosque in Hammamet with Its Mosque (1914; 1984.315.4) demonstrates Klee’s path toward abstraction. By 1915, he had turned his back to nature and never again painted after the model. With abstracted forms and merry symbols, he expressed the most diverse subjects drawn from his imagination (1984.315.23), poetry, music (1984.315.36), literature (1984.315.26), and his reaction to the world around him (1987.455.1). His subjects reveal his impish humor (1987.455.7) and his bent toward the fantastic (1987.455.16) and the meditative (1984.315.54). Always preoccupied with the ring of words, titles played a major part in his work. Whether ironic, poetic, irreverent, deadpan, flippant, or—near the end of his life—melancholic, his titles set up the perspectives from which he wanted the works to be seen.

In 1920, Walter Gropius invited Klee to join the faculty of the Bauhaus. A school of architecture and industrial design operating first in Weimar (1919–25) and then Dessau (1925–32), it also included the study of arts and crafts. Nearly half of Klee’s some 10,000 works (mainly small-scale watercolors and drawings on paper) were produced during the ten years he taught at the Bauhaus, and they vary widely. Some relate to the subject of his courses, to his preoccupation with the relationship of colors, such as Static-Dynamic Gradation, produced in 1923 (1987.455.12). In the same year, Klee painted Ventriloquist and Crier in the Moor (1984.315.35), which, with its humor and grotesque fantasy, may strike many viewers as the quintessential “Klee.”

From 1931 to December 1933, Klee taught at the Academy of Fine Arts in Düsseldorf. When the National Socialists declared his art “degenerate” in 1933, Klee returned to his native Bern. Personal hardship and the increasing gravity of the political situation in Europe are reflected in the somber tone of his late work. Lines turn into black bars, forms become broad and generalized, scale larger, and colors simpler, as in Comedians’ Handbill (1938; 1984.315.57) or Angel Applicant (1939; 1984.315.60).