Paul Klee’s work is incredibly varied—it doesn’t fit into any one school or tradition, although Klee was, at times, friends with German Expressionists, an admirer of Cubism, and taught at the famous Bauhaus school of architecture. If you’re looking for one of those unifying, defining moments in Klee’s career, though, you could do worse than the paintings the artist made after his 1914 trip to Tunisia.
Klee was born on December 18, 1879, in Münchenbuchsee, near Bern, Switzerland. His parents were both musicians and wanted their son to follow in their footsteps. Although he instead became a visual artist, Klee played the violin for most of his life, often using the instrument as a warm-up for painting.
His education in drawing and painting took Klee to Munich in 1898, and he returned to the German city after visiting Italy and spending time in his native Switzerland. It was while in Germany that Klee fell in with Der Blaue Reiter, an expressionist group founded by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc.
Kandinsky and Klee would become lifelong friends; their mutual influences are visible in each other’s work. Klee’s interest in Cubism, which Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque were producing at the same time in Paris, put him on the precipice of abstraction, but a trip abroad took him right over the edge.
In 1914, Klee and his artist friends August Macke and Louis Moilliet visited Tunisia. Klee wrote how he was enamored with the quality of the light in North Africa. His watercolor in The Met collection, Hammamet with Its Mosque, seems to capture the transition itself—containing both representational and abstract elements. It’s not a stretch to consider it the forebear to the paintings that followed.
Granted, an artist as mercurial and curious as Klee kept exploring other approaches to painting. While reminiscent of Braque’s early, Impressionistic rooftops, his famous painting Temple Gardens has a touch of surrealism, with one side cut off and switched to the other. This luminous work has inspired a selection of items in The Met Store.
Klee continued working, exploring line drawings and prints in addition to paintings. With a sense of wonder and often an impish sense of humor, the artist built a varied and influential body of work until his death in 1940. The marks of his travel-borne education would never disappear.
With Heinz Berggruen’s gift of ninety Paul Klee works in 1984, The Met has become an important center for the study of this artist.