Paul Klee in Bern
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Born in Münchenbuchsee, just north of Bern, on December 18, 1879, Paul Klee is perhaps the best known of all Swiss artists, his attractive, dream-like works filled with allusions to music and poetry and suffused with an endearing humour and humanity. Art historians have a great deal of difficulty classifying his work, since his unique style takes in elements of primitive art, cubism, surrealism, naïve art and expressionism. Klee was a major influence on the abstract expressionist movement and on non-figurative painting of all kinds in the second half of the century.

His family was very musical, and it was only after a great deal of hesitation that Klee gave up developing his early proficiency on the violin to enrol in the Munich Academy of Art in 1900. There he met the pianist Lily Stumpf, playing duets on violin and piano with her. Shortly afterwards Klee toured Italy, finding particular pleasure and inspiration in Byzantine and early Christian art. He made many sketches, ink drawings and etchings during this period, two of the most famous of which, from 1903, are Virgin in a Tree and Two Men Meet, Each Believing the Other to Be of Higher Rank.

In 1906 Klee and Stumpf married and settled in Munich, at that time a dynamic centre for avant-garde art. There, Klee met the painter Wassily Kandinsky, starting a lasting friendship; on Kandinsky’s urging, Klee joined the expressionist circle Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), and in 1914 journeyed to Tunisia on a trip which was to change his life. “Colour has taken possession of me,” he wrote. “No longer do I have to chase after it, I know that it has hold of me forever. Colour and I are one. I am a painter.” The same year, the Sturm gallery in Berlin staged a joint exhibition of Klee and Chagall.

After the Great War, Klee taught at the famous Bauhaus school in Germany, alongside Kandinsky and the architect Walter Gropius. In 1931 he moved to the Düsseldorf Academy, but after Hitler’s rise to power, the Nazis condemned Klee’s art – which by now was using delicate, ethereal colour harmonies in subtle, semi-abstract figurative compositions – as “degenerate”. Klee fled back to Bern just before Christmas 1933, continuing both his painting and his elaborate ink drawings based on fantasy imagery. He soon, however, developed a crippling disease of the skin and muscles, which affected his ability to work and would eventually kill him. After 1935, his style changed to incorporate thick, crayonish lines and blocks of muted colour in a set of increasingly gloomy musings on war and death. Picasso visited the sick artist late in 1937, as did Braque. Following a giant retrospective of 213 later works at the Zürich Kunsthaus early in 1940, Klee died on June 29, in hospital in Locarno.

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