Artists, most of the time, are born with a certain amount of talent and as their careers progress, they tend to discover their own styles, niches, and mediums. Although the talent is within them from birth, in order for an artist to become world-renowned, he or she has to explore new avenues in art that lift them above the other artists in the world, making them special and recognised.

Paul Klee is such an artist who made a name for himself in the arts-sphere for his uniqueness. Being a son to musician parents, Klee was born with a niche towards art and music. His father – Hans Wilhelm Klee – was a German music teacher who was talented at singing, piano, violin, and organ. He studied music at Stuttgart Conservatory where he met his wife – Klee’s mother – Ida Marie Frick who also was a singer and a musician. Klee was born on 18 December 1879 in Munchenbuchsee, Switzerland. Being teachers Klee’s parents moved around a lot, sometimes even between countries. In 1880 the Klee family moved to Bern in Germany where they eventually fine permanent residence.

At the young age of seven Klee received violin lessons at the Municipal Music School and soon it became apparent that Klee was not an ordinary seven-year-old with a violin under his chin. He was so talented that at the age of 11 Klee was invited to play as an extraordinary member of the Bern Music Association.

In his early years as a student Klee was keen on following music studies, mainly because his parents desired him to. However, as he reached his teenage years, Klee began to lose interest in music, mainly because the modern music lacked meaning for him and partly out of rebellion. In an interview he had 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.”  

Klee felt as if music lacked creative freedom for him to express himself freely and openly. He wanted to explore radial ideas in art and explore new avenues of art within himself. During his school years Klee began to draw, even in his school books. He was notable good in drawing caricatures.

With the blessing of his reluctant parents, Klee began to study art in 1898 as he joined the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. Klee was an excellent student at the academy and was known for his drawing skills but many were under the impression that he somewhat lacked a natural colour sense, which later on sort of became Klee’s identity.

After graduating from the academy with a degree in fine arts, Klee travelled around Europe with his friend Hermann Haller – a Swiss sculptor. He visited Rome, Florence, Naples, and the Amalfi Coast studying master artists of Italy and their Renaissance work. In 1905 he went to France to study art and also tried his hand at ‘etching’ while trying to find his own style.

He returned to Bern and married Bavarian painter Lily Stumph in 1906. They had one son and live in the suburb of Munich. Klee was spending most of his time at home keeling the house and tending to his art work while his wife gave piano lessons and occasional performances. For the next five years Klee progressed slowly as an artist but it all changed after Klee’s fateful encounter with Wassily Kandinsky.

During this time Klee’s graphic work was gaining popularity. Since Klee had troubles with natural colour selection, graphic art seemed to fit him perfectly and it provided Klee with the much-desired freedom to express himself and explore new avenues. Klee’s early graphic work was leaning towards sarcasm and absurdity and was popular among the masses. This graphic work gained quite a collector base and through those connections, Klee was able to join the artist group Der Blaue Reiter and meet Kandinsky. “I came feel a deep trust in him. He is somebody, and has an exceptionally lucid mind,” Klee had reportedly said about Kandinsky.

In the second exhibition organised by Der Blaue Reiter 17 of Klee’s graphic work was exhibited and through his association with Kandinsky Klee was able to open his mind to modern theories of colour. In 1912 he again went to France to study cubism and his trip to Tunis in 1914 proved to be the breakthrough Klee had wanted. He had discovered ‘colour’ in Tunis and upon return, Klee began to paint abstract paintings, which later on became his signature style.

Together with Kandinsky, Lyonel Feininger, and Alexej von Jawalensky, Klee founded Die Blaue Vier (The Blue Four) in 1923 and they exhibited and lectured in the USA. He also, in numerous occasions, exhibited in France and became an instant hit among French surrealists.   

Klee was known for panting in many different styles and yet creating his own unique style in every one of them. He is often associated with expressionism, cubism, futurism, surrealism, and abstraction. Despite following these styles, most of Klee’s work is hard to be classified under one or two styles. He created art in his own way and more than often combined many different styles into his work. He also used a multitude of mediums, often bouncing from spray paint, knife application, stamping, glazing, and impasto to watercolour, oil paint, and pen. His choice of canvas also differed from the conventional canvas to burlap, muslin, linen, gauze, cardboard, metal foils, fabric, wallpaper, and newsprint.

In 1935 Klee developed scleroderma – and autoimmune disease that affects skin as well as internal organs. The pain he endured due to the illness Klee transferred into his art. During his last years Klee drew 50 angels and one of his last paintings, ‘Death and Fire’ contained a skull and the German word for death. He died on 29 June 1940 in Muralto, Locarno, Switzerland.

(Translated by Sanuj Hathurusinghe)

By Chandana Ranaweera