Paul Klee (1879-1940) was one of the most inventive, prolific and individual artists of the 20th century. The son of a German music teacher living in Switzerland, he was taught to draw and paint by his maternal grandmother. He graduated from the Bern Gymnasium (secondary school) in 1898, the year his family moved to Munich, where Klee began his studies at the Munich Academy of Fine Art. In 1901-06 he traveled through Italy and visited Paris and Berlin, returning at intervals to Bern, where he played violin in the Bern orchestra. He returned to Munich in 1906 and married the Swiss pianist Lily Stumpf. In 1911 he met August Macke and Wassily Kandinsky, who was to become a lifelong friend. Through them Klee met Franz Marc and Alexei von Jawlensky, and joined in the 1912 Blaue Reiter group exhibition while working part time as an art critic. That year he also traveled to Paris a second time, saw Cubist works by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, first saw the satirical drawings of Daumier, and met French painter Robert Delaunay (1885-1941), who awakened Klee to symbolist ideas of color. He traveled to Tunisia in 1914 with Macke and Swiss painter Louis Moilliet, a childhood friend, a trip that permanently aroused his sensitivity to color. He returned to become a founding member of the New Munich Secession. Klee was profoundly affected by Franz Marc's death in battle in April 1916, the same month Klee was inducted into the German army, where he painted aircraft and worked as a paymaster's clerk. After the War, in 1919 Klee was given a major exhibition of 362 works by Munich art dealer Hans Goltz, which brought Klee immediate international critical notice. He was invited by Walter Gropius (1883-1969) to join the Staatsliche Bauhaus art school, where he was a "master of form" in the glass, mural and bookbinding workshops during 1921-24 (at Weimar) then 1925-31 (when the school relocated to Dessau). This was a decade of active exhibiting (in the Bauhaus festivals, in Paris and New York), extensive summer travels (to the North Sea, Sicily, Paris, Corsica, Egypt and several trips to northern Italy), and publication of his Pedagogical Sketchbook (1925), a condensed version of his Bauhaus design lectures. Unhappy with the direction the Bauhaus had taken, he resigned in 1931 to teach at the Düsseldorf Academy, but kept his residence in Dessau. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 Klee was classified as a "degenerate artist," suspended from teaching, ridiculed in the newspapers and harassed at home by the police; at year's end he moved with his family back to the safety of Bern. In 1935 he suffered the first symptoms of systemic scleroderma (a painful autoimmune disease that hardens the skin, joints and organs); the disease worsened over the next two years, and Klee traveled as far as Montana (USA) seeking a cure. As his health worsened, the political climate in Europe became more menacing, and he failed to obtain Swiss citizenship, he sank into despondency and his painting nearly ceased. However, in the summer of 1937 he was able to resume work, and his output increased to over 1,200 items in 1939 alone. But this was his final flowering. His father died in January, 1940; Klee died that summer at a hospital in Locarno, Switzerland at age 60.



In his early 20's Klee struggled with color: "in the realm of color I found it hard to progress." He took up etching in 1903, and spent more than three years (1908-11) working almost exclusively in monochrome watercolors, drawings and etchings, excluding color as a distraction. However, during a two week trip to Tunisia, he was deeply affected by the brilliant light and colors of the North African landscape. In his famous words, "Color has seized me. I no longer need to pursue it: it has seized me forever, I know. That is the revelation of this blessed moment. Color and I are one — I am a painter." He immediately brought color into his work and began exploring a variety of stylistic alternatives. Wind, in Marc's Garden (1914, 22x27cm) is a lyrical watercolor that shows Klee consolidating his new feeling for color within a simplified pattern of geometrical forms. (Through most of his career, Klee retained a strong interest in repetitive or gridlike patterns of brightly colored squares.) Evident too is Klee's method of producing color mixtures through overlapping transparent washes. The overall feel of the painting is quite similar to the style of Macke and Jawlensky at the time: the collegial support of Macke and Moilliet during the Tunisian trip, and of the Blaue Reiter painters in Munich, was every bit as important to his painting breakthrough as the revelatory light of Klee's beloved Mediterranean landscapes.

Klee moved freely between figuration and abstraction, and much of the playful quality in his works arises in his skillful flirting with the line between the two. He ransacked conventional symbol systems — pictographs and perspective diagrams, graphs and cartoons — as iconic material for his art. His constant format was the captioned drawing, the title neatly printed at the bottom of the page, with a sardonic humor that recalls character studies of Honoré Daumier. Evening Separation (1922, 34x24cm) is obviously in the landscape tradition, a slice of horizon at the close of day. But the drawing includes through its symbolic content a web of related interpretations. In his often incomprehensible Pedagogical Sketchbook, Klee struggled to link abstract symbols to natural processes. He describes the arrow (a symbol that appears frequently in his works) as an icon of energy, physical effect, and spiritual yearning: "The father of the arrow is the thought, how do I expand my reach? Over this river, this lake, this mountain? ... It is the contrast between power and prostration that implies the duality of human existence. Half winged, half imprisoned — this is man! Thought is the mediary between earth and the universe. So the two arrows might symbolize a variety of oppositions: the upward radiating but dying light of the sun and the descending gradations of night, spiritual ascent and physical decline, perseverence and lethargy, creativity and dogma, the present and the future. In many watercolors from his Bauhaus years, Klee accented through distinct banding the subtle mixing effects possible with overlapping watercolor glazes: here he uses them to analyze, almost as a musical scale, the color transition between warm orange and cool blue, Klee's symbols for changing heat or energy. Other resonances appear in the word usually translated as "separation" (Scheidung), which in German means "dissolution," "judicial separation" or "divorce." Light and dark can be creatively joined only when both are present; their separation ends the possibilities born of their combination, and dissolution assumes the meaning of death. But judicial separation gives each power its domain, allowing a creative boundary between them: it recalls the Biblical parting of night from day as God imposed his laws on the universe. Klee's playful mastery often appears in the precision of his ambiguities.

Across Klee's total output of nearly 9,000 works, it is somewhat unusual to find watercolors that are simply painted on paper. Klee was an extraordinary technical innovator, and much of his focus was on creating new grounds or supports that would give his paintings unusual qualities of texture and color. He painted watercolors on oil or chalk grounds applied to fabric or cardboard, painted within oil transfer drawings applied to paper, sprayed watercolors around stencils, combined oil and watercolor in the same work. Diana in the Autumn Wind (1934, 62x48cm), a painting from his first year of exile in Switzerland, shows him solving the problem by texturing the paper with overlapping thatches of brushstrokes. The figure — we assume it is a figure from the legs and white head — has unfolded into a pattern of overlapping sheets, as if torn apart by the wind or opening voluntarily to its energy. The large areas of gray within the figure result from the complementary antagonism of red and green, or orange and blue, symbolic in this context of the transition between summer and winter, growth and harvest, maturation and decline. But is the figure releasing its warmth to the wind, leaving a gray husk, or absorbing the autumnal colors? The symbol of the arrow has been removed; direction and cause, action and effect no longer matter. The Pedagogical Sketchbook seems to be describing this ecstatic, balanced state when it says: "Kinetic coordination is an intricate task and demands a concept of advanced maturity. As norm for such a composition we may postulate: a harmonization of elements toward an independent, calm-dynamic, and dynamic-calm entity." In that light, this might be Klee's self portrait in the autumn of his life, calmly embodying through his art the dynamic mysteries of the world.

An excellent overview of Klee's work is the New York MOMA's exhibition catalog Paul Klee: His Life and Work edited by Carolyn Lanchner (Hatje Cantz, 1987). The compact Paul Klee by Susanna Partsch (Taschen, 1993) summarizes the diversity of Klee's work with many watercolor examples. Paul Klee: Painting and Music (Prestel, 1997) by Hajo Düchting is an intriguing study of Klee's theories of color composition.