Paul Klee (German pronunciation: 18 December 1879 – 29 June 1940) was a Swiss painter of German nationality. His highly individual style was influenced by movements in art that included expressionism, cubism, and surrealism. He was, as well, a student of orientalism. Klee was a natural draftsman who experimented with and eventually mastered color theory, and wrote extensively about it. His works reflect his dry humor and his sometimes child-like perspective, his personal moods and beliefs, and his musicality. He and his friend, the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, both taught at the German Bauhaus school of art and architecture.
Early life and training
“ 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 born in Münchenbuchsee (near Bern), Switzerland into a musical family. His father, Hans Klee, was a German music teacher at the Hofwil Teacher Seminar near Bern. His mother, Ida Frick, had trained to be a singer. He was the second of two children.
My Room (German: Meine Bude), 1896. Pen and ink wash, 4 3/4 x 7 1/2 inches. In the collection of the Klee Foundation, Bern, Switzerland.Klee started young at both art and music. At age seven, he started playing the violin, and at age eight, he was given a box of chalk by his grandmother. Klee appears to have been equally talented in music and art. In his early years, following his parents’ wishes, he focused on becoming a musician; but he decided on the visual arts during his teen years, partly out of rebellion and partly because of his belief that modern music lacked meaning for him. He stated, “I didn’t find the idea of going in for music creatively particularly attractive in view of the decline in the history of musical achievement.” As a musician, he played and felt emotionally bound to traditional works of the 18th and 19th century, but as an artist he craved the freedom to explore radical ideas and styles. At sixteen, Klee’s landscape drawings already show considerable skill.
Around 1897, he started his diary, which he kept until 1918, and which has provided scholars with valuable insight into his life and thinking. During his school years, he avidly drew in his school books, in particular drawing caricatures, and already demonstrating skill with line and volume. He barely passed his final exams at the “Gymnasium” of Bern, where he qualified in the Humanities. With his characteristic dry wit, he wrote, “After all, it’s rather difficult to achieve the exact minimum, and it evolves risks.” On his own time, in addition to his deep interests in music and art, Klee was a great reader of literature, and later a writer on art theory and aesthetics.
With his parents' reluctant permission, in 1898 he began studying art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich with Heinrich Knirr and Franz von Stuck. He excelled at drawing but seemed to lack any natural color sense. He later recalled, “During the third winter I even realized that I probably would never learn to paint.” During these times of youthful adventure, Klee spent much time in pubs and had affairs with lower class women and artists' models. He had an illegitimate son in 1900 who died several weeks after birth.
After receiving his Fine Arts degree, Klee went to Italy for several months with friend Hermann Haller. They stayed in Rome, Florence, and Naples, and studied the master painters of past centuries. He exclaimed, “The Forum and the Vatican have spoken to me. Humanism wants to suffocate me.” He responded to the colors of Italy, but sadly noted, “that a long struggle lies in store for me in this field of color.” For Klee, color represented the optimism and nobility in art, and a hoped for relief from the pessimistic nature he expressed in his black-and-white grotesques and satires. Returning to Bern, he lived with his parents for several years, and took occasional art classes. By 1905, he was developing some experimental techniques, including drawing with a needle on a blackened pane of glass, resulting in fifty-seven works including his Portrait of My Father (1906). He also completed a cycle of eleven zinc-plate etchings called Inventions, his first exhibited works, in which he illustrated several grotesque creatures. He commented, “though I’m fairly satisfied with my etchings I can’t go on like this. I’m not a specialist.” Klee was still dividing his time with music, playing the violin in an orchestra and writing concert and theater reviews.