Paul Klee was a Swiss German artist who was best known for his works in art movements such as Expressionism, Cubism and Surrealism. Klee’s works are famous for reflecting his dry humor as well as a childlike perspective that allows them to defy easy categorization.
Today, Google Doodle celebrates Klee’s career on what would have been his 139th birthday. According to Google, the Doodle was designed as an homage to Klee’s 1928 work “Rote Brücke”, or “Red Bridge”, which transforms the rooftops and arches of a European city into a pattern of shapes and contrasting hues.
Here’s what you need to know about Paul Klee:
1. He Was Going to Pursue a Career In Music Before He Took Up Painting as a Teenager
Paul Klee was born on December 18, 1879 to Hans Wilhelm Klee and Ida Marie Klee, née Frick. Both of his parents were prominent figures in the music world, with his father being a German music teacher and his mother being a popular Swiss singer. As such, Klee was encouraged to pursue music from an early age. According to Encyclopedia Britannia, he proved to be a gifted violinist and even played with the Bern symphony orchestra for a brief time.
However, being a musician didn’t appeal to Klee’s sensibilities. “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,” he wrote in a journal at the time. He went on to explain that he felt trapped by the emotional boundaries of the eighteenth and nineteenth century composers, and yearned to create in a looser, more interpretive medium.
It was only after Klee’s parents discovered his talent for landscape drawings and artwork that they allowed him to pursue a career in an applicable field. With their reluctant support, he graduated from the Literarschule in 1898 and was admitted to the prestigious Munich Academy the following year. Klee made his public debut as an artist at the 1907 exhibition of Inventions in Frankfurt and Munich. The exhibition was largely ignored, however, and he had to earn a living by writing reviews of art exhibits and concerts and providing illustrations for journals and books on the side.
2. He Fled Germany Once Hitler Took Over & Lived the Rest of His Life In Switzerland
Klee’s artistic breakthrough came in 1914 when he adopted a more abstract style. “Color has taken possession of me; no longer do I have to chase after it, I know that it has hold of me forever,” he wrote. “Color and I are one. I am a painter.” He went on to create a series he called “operatic paintings”, including “In the Style of Kairouan” and “The Bavarian Don Giovanni”, that have since gone on to become some of his most popular.
Klee was affiliated with a group of German artists known as “Der Blaue Reiter”, or “The Blue Riders”, during this same period. While the group lacked a manifesto, their widely held belief was to express spiritual truths through their art and to embellish the connection between the spiritual and symbolic associations of color. He was also a teacher of art and design at the Bauhaus from 1921 to 1932 and the Dusseldorf Academy in 1933. His position at the latter was cut short when Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany.
The Bauhaus closed down under the Nazi regime, and while the Gestapo reportedly searched Klee’s home, the artist was cleared of any subversive suspicion. Despite being cleared, Klee moved to his birth country of Switzerland, where he lived for the rest of his life and continued to create.
3. His 1932 Work ‘Ad Parnassum’ Is Considered to Be His Masterpiece
As one of Klee’s largest works of art, 1932’s Ad Parnassum remains his masterpiece. According to the Paul Klee website, the painting was influenced by the trip that he took to Egypt in 1928, and is made up of a color field of individually stamped dots that are surrounded by likewise stamped lines. The resulting image is a mosaic that vaguely resembles a pyramid.
The book Techniques of the Great Masters of Art breaks down the significance of Ad Parnassum on Klee’s career and abstract art as a whole. “From 1923 Klee created a series of imaginative color constructions which he called ‘magic squares’ in which he applied his theories. This series came to a conclusion in 1932 with Ad Parnassum,” the book states. “Klee likened each element in the painting to a theme in a polyphonic composition. He defined polyphony as ‘the simultaneity of several independent themes’.”
“In addition,” the book added. “Each artistic element in Ad Parnassum is itself a distillation of several ideas and personal experiences. For example. the graphic element illustrates the gate to Mount Parnassus. the home of Apollo and the Muses, and also may refer to the Pyramids which Klee saw in 1928, and to a mountain near Klee’s home.”
4. He Produced An Estimated 9,000 Drawings & Paintings During His Lifetime
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Klee was a tireless creator who amassed over 9,000 works of art during his lifetime. In 1933, the year he chose to leave Germany and relocate to Switzerland, he produced nearly 500 works. A debilitating illness (more on that below) would briefly derail Klee’s routine, to the point where he only produced 25 works in 1936, but his shift to a simpler and larger design enabled him to increase his output. Klee used heavier lines and geometric forms with fewer blocks of color, and three years later, he produced a career high 1,200 works.
Among the few works that Klee didn’t consider to be part of his catalogue are several hand puppets made for his son Felix Paul between 1916 and 1925. Felix was the only child that Klee had with his wife Lily Stumpf, who was a Bavarian pianist. Britannica reports that Strumpf’s piano lessons were the main source of income during the first decade of their marriage, when Klee was struggling to gain notoriety for his work.
Felix would go on to be the founder of the Paul Klee Foundation, which his son Alexander took over after his death. “After the death of my father, it was important to continue his work; we always worked together,” Alexander told Swiss Info. “He was a very good father, who told me: ‘when I go, you will take over’.” We are creating something new and no one knows exactly how it will be, whether it will be right or not, but we will find a way.”
5. He Died from An Illness Known as Scleroderma & Was Granted Swiss Citizenship Posthumously
Despite his prolific output, Klee suffered from serious bouts of illness throughout his life. He first took ill during the summer of 1935, which at the time was thought to be caused by a lesser ailment, but it was later recognized that he was suffering from a condition known as Scleroderma. Scleroderma is an affliction by which the body’s connective tissues become fibrous. Klee found the debilitating side effects of the illness and created work until only a few months before his death June 29, 1940.
Despite having been born in Switzerland, the book The private Klee: Works by Paul Klee from the Bürgi Collection reports that Klee’s work was considered too revolutionary by the Swiss authorities, and they refused to grant him citizenship during his lifetime. They eventually granted his request six days after his death. The words on his tombstone are largely considered to be be Klee’s artistic credo: “I cannot be grasped in the here and now, For my dwelling place is as much among the dead, As the yet unborn, Slightly closer to the heart of creation than usual, But still not close enough.”