How Paul Klee remained creative until the end
On the anniversary of the artist’s death, we look back at how Klee didn’t let illnes or Nazism degrade his talents
Artistic careers are often unstable, yet few talented artists could have had borne quite the same tribulations and remained as productive as the Swiss painter, illustrator and educator, Paul Klee, who died on this day, 29 June, in 1940.
Looking back on his life and influence, from today’s vantage point, Klee appears to have achieved everything an artist could hope for. He created a huge number of works - perhaps as many as 9000 - pioneered the development of modernist painting, taught at the most influential school of his day, the Bauhaus and befriended like-minded artists, including Kandinsky and Picasso.
After a difficult start, he also enjoyed commercial success and international acclaim - MoMA organised a solo exhibition to mark his 50th birthday. As a theoretician, Klee was also first class; we still use his phrase ‘taking a line for a walk’ to describe certain approaches to drawing, and in some senses Klee pre-empted contemporary thinking on synaesthesia, with his musically-led approach to colour theory. However, few of us would trade places with Klee during the final decade of his life.
Having taught at the Bauhaus from 1921 until 1931, Klee transferred to the Düsseldorf Academy. He hoped the new job would help him land a professorship. However, the 1930s did not bring greater success, but instead marked the beginning of his decline.
During the first few years of that decade the Nazi Party gained greater power within Germany, and greater influence over the German art world. In 1932 the Bauhaus was forced to close, and the following year Klee himself came under the Nazi party’s scrutiny. His home in Düsseldorf was searched, he was incorrectly denounced as Jewish by a right-wing newspaper and ultimately he was suspended from his teaching post.
Klee fled to Switzerland with his family, hopeful that having been born in the country, he could safely claim asylum. This was not quite so straightforward; the Swiss authorities, perhaps wary of the Nazis' attentions, allowed Klee to stay, but did not grant him citizenship until after his death.
Klee’s health began to deteriorate around this point. He had difficulty in swallowing, he suffered problems with his internal organs, and rough patches appeared on his skin. Medical professionals have retrospectively diagnosed him with scleroderma, a chronic, potentially fatal, autoimmune disorder. However, no doctor at the time was able to identify this disease, and Klee languished in a country less sympathetic to his talents, suffering from a little-understood illness, while the spectre of National Socialism spread across Europe.
Under such circumstances, an artist’s work might have been expected to degrade. However, Klee remained remarkably creative right until the end.
“Almost alone he never succumbed to pressure to repeat himself or to the forces that make for decline in famous artists,” writes Douglas Hall in our classic Colour Library Series edition. “His whole late work was a manifesto and act of bravery, for it was far less easily acceptable than what had gone before. Above all it is by his intellectual capacity that Klee dominates his contemporaries, none of whom, not even Sandusky, could think through the full implications of what they were doing as he could. Many talked about a new relationship between art and nature; only Klee actually tried to define it, and with considerable success. At a time of uncertainty and loss of direction in art he is a source of confidence and admiration.”
Despite his death, that source remains with us, in his work. For more on Klee’s colour theories get Chromaphilia; for more on the lives of slightly more successful art-world émigrés get Émigrés; and to see many more of his works get our Paul Klee Colour Library book.