Painting the Invisible: Paul Klee (1879-1940)

The art of Paul Klee defies easy categorisation. During his career he experimented relentlessly with creating images in a wide variety of styles, some abstract, some less so. Visionary, subtle, whimsical, sometimes innocent, but always innovative, his prolific output has ensured that he remains one of the favourites of twentieth century abstract artists.

Revolution of the Viaduct
Revolution of the Viaduct, 1937

Early Years

Colour Shapes
Colour Shapes, 1914

Paul Klee was born in Switzerland to a German father and a Swiss mother, both of whom were musicians.  By the age of 11, he himself was an accomplished violinist and music was to remain important to him throughout his life.  However, encouraged to draw by his grandmother, Klee found the key to his own imagination.  He loved the process of discovery he found in drawing, of seeing recognisable objects emerge from his own imagination as he randomly made shapes on steamed-up windows or marble table tops.

Paul Klee was later to say  of his creative process that ‘it’s not about painting the visible but about painting the invisible’.

Musician to Painter

Neue Harmonie
Neue Harmonie, 1936


Although music was his main form of self-expression, he knew instinctively that art would provide him with a more challenging and satisfying outlet for his creativity.  Despite opposition from his parents who wanted him to pursue a musical career, when he finished school he moved to Munich to take lessons in drawing, eventually obtaining a place at the Art Academy.

Music remained central to his life and he continued to socialise with other musicians and attend concerts and musical soirees.  It was on one of these occasions he met his future wife, Lily Stumpf, a pianist and they married in 1906.

Klee was producing etchings and paintings on glass at this time and experimenting with the use of paint. Most of his output was made up of graphic design and illustration work but he was also preoccupied with colour and liked to experiment with a variety of tones of a particular colour in his drawings.


Paul Klee, Senecio, 1922
Senecio, 1922

Paul Klee and Lily had a son, Felix, who was born in 1907 and unusually for the time, Klee became his main carer, looking after all his son’s needs while his wife supported them financially by teaching music.  Some of Klee’s later work is often described as childlike and it is possible that this time spent with his young son gave him a unique opportunity to discover and share in the joy of art from the child’s perspective.  The innocence and simplicity of this art inspired him, as did much of the primitive art that was  fashionable and popular with collectors at the time.

A  Breakthrough

As Klee was working primarily as a graphic artist during this period he had little contact with other painters until, in 1912, he met Expressionist artists  Wassily Kandinsky, August Macke and Franz Marc.  He found in them kindred spirits with whom he could share his ideas.  The use of colour in painting was central to their discussions and through his association with them a new world opened up to Klee.  They travelled to Paris together and visited the studio of Robert Delaunay whose work had a profound influence on him.

Colour was the most important component of Delaunay’s paintings.  In his work, he explored his theories on light and colour.  Delaunay was an ideal source of inspiration for Klee and a significant catalyst in his development as a painter.  

Following the Paris trip, however, Klee felt frustrated by the lack of progress in his own work.  Determined to do something, he persuaded two fellow-painters, August Macke and his old friend, Louis Moilliet to travel with him to Tunisia and it was there that, finally, he had his breakthrough as an artist. 

Tunisian Gardens
Tunisian Gardens

The spectacular light and its interplay with the colours of the Tunisian landscape and architecture provided him with the key to his painting that he had been searching for.  He declared:  “Colour possesses me.  It will always possess me.  That is the meaning of this happy hour: colour and I are one.  I am a painter.”  In his paintings from this period, his work becomes more abstract as he uses blocks of colour and shapes to depict landscapes and buildings in the Tunisian light.

Success as an Artist

Just as this breakthrough came for Klee, the careers of Marc and Macke were tragically cut short when they were both killed in the First World War.  Klee himself was drafted into service but, thanks to the efforts of his father, he was stationed at a airbase and deployed to paint aeroplanes. He was able to continue his work as an artist and, despite the war, his work began to sell and was popular with collectors eager to spend cash earned from businesses supplying the war effort.   

The Bauhaus

In 1920 Klee received an invitation to teach at the Bauhaus, the radical, newly-formed school of arts based in Weimar.  He accepted the invitation and spent the next ten years teaching there alongside his friend, Wassily Kandinsky, and other distinguished artists of the time.   A respected and innovative teacher, Klee was committed to the aims of the Bauhaus but as a painter he was often frustrated by the demands and constraints of the teaching post and the time it allowed him to do his own work.

Fire in the Evening
Paul Klee, Fire in the Evening

Klee’s output was always prolific and his art spans a range of styles which makes it difficult to define.  Much of his work is abstract  but many of his paintings are also geometric and figurative.  He used symbols, signs and shapes and at other times worked solely with blocks of colour.  Some of his paintings are reminiscent of those of a young child and many of his works defy interpretation and in the spirit of true abstraction leave it to the viewer to take from them what they want. 

Challenging Times

The 1930s brought a time of considerable upheaval and distress to Klee and his family.  When the Bauhaus was forced to close in 1930, he took up a position with the Dusseldorf Academy but in 1933 was dismissed when the Hitler regime passed a law forbidding all ‘non-Ayrans’ from holding state jobs.  Klee and his family were eventually forced to relocate to Berne in Switzerland, the place of his birth. 

Park Bei Lu
Paul Klee, Park Bei Lu, 1938

The years that followed were trying ones for Klee. He fell ill with a progressive disease in 1936 and his application for naturalization in Switzerland (he held a German passport) was  complicated and made difficult by the fact that his art was associated with left-wing politics.  In conservative Switzerland, Klee’s work failed to be included in a major National Art Exhibition held in the summer of 1936 and was instead branded ‘degenerate art’ by the authorities.

The impact of this type of unwarranted criticism by the authorities at that time must have been unbearable to a man dedicated to his art and battling a serious illness.  Klee died on 29 June 1940 in Ticino in Switzerland where he had gone for further treatment of his illness.  Following his death memorial exhibitions were held in Berne and New York. In Berne, Klee’s painting entitled ‘Revolt of the Viaduct’ (1937) was exhibited for the first time.  In this painting, Klee’s viaducts refuse to submit and cooperate.  Instead they march alone, individually, breaking ranks and declaring their disdain for the conformity that has been forced on them.  It is a powerful comment on the challenges of the times he and his fellow artists lived through and a testament to the unique vision of Klee as a painter.