The Musical Painter: Paul Klee

“One day I must be able to improvise freely on the keyboard of colors”

The Swiss city of Munich in the late 19th century developed a reputation for art that was second only to Paris. The master of Modernism, Paul Klee (1879 – 1940) was in middle of this artistic flourish. Born to a music teacher father and a professional singer mother, and an outstanding violinist himself, the young Paul Klee seemed destined for a career in music. But as things turned out, Klee decided to study fine art, probably inspired by the creative impulse which was brimming over Munich at the end of the 19th century. But though Klee never became a professional musician, music never completely left him. In a diary he wrote from 1897 to 1918, he recorded his thoughts and opinions about art and music, including the concerts and operas he regularly attended, the books he read and the artworks he admired.

Paul Klee, circa 1911

Klee’s compositions showed his considerable graphic skills in evoking moods or impressions, or to tell stories from his many travels. He regularly incorporated letters and numbers in his paintings, to form a complex language of symbols with rhythmical arrangements that show his musical roots. These symbols came from his unconscious mind and like his friend Wassily Kandinsky who sought to explore the mysteries of the divine through art, Klee’s painted harmonies and enigmatic symbols had spiritual meanings for him which he left for his viewers to decipher. As he famously said, “art does not reproduce the visible; rather it makes visible.”

Selected Works of Paul Klee


On a Motif from Hammamet, 1914. Tempera on board. 27 x 22 cm.

Juxtaposing squares and straight lines with curves, this work emerged from Klee’s understanding of the ideas of Cezanne, Delaunay, Picasso and Braque. It also shows his fascination with the idea of portraying a landscape from a distance.


Medieval Town, 1915. Watercolour on paper laid down on the artist’s mount
19.8 x 26.2 cm.

In the centre of Klee’s birthplace, Bern, is a medieval city built on a narrow hill and surrounded on three sides by the river Aare. This landscape lent itself to Klee’s faceted style of painting with soft patches of translucent colors.


The Interplay of Forces of a Lech River Landscape, 1917. Chalk, watercolor. 24.5 x 16.5 cm.

Painted in 1917, Klee wrote to his wife, Lily of this work: “… a light veil hung over the day, the light just as I like it, and I ventured out into the river’s flood plains.”


Senecio, 1922. Oil on canvas, 40 x 38 cm.

Klee often painted squares and circles in his colored geometric compositions. Here, however, he used them differently. “Senecio” is the name of a genus of plants, and this childlike image humanizes plant forms with geometric shapes.

Twittering machine, 1922. Watercolor and pen and ink on oil transfer drawing drawing on paper, mounted on cardboard. 64 x 48 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

This early painting clear shows Klee’s capacity for fantasy, for imagining things that have never been seen. Despite the delicate playfulness of this work, Klee spoke about the act of artistic creation very seriously. For him, it was a way of approaching the unseen and the creator of all realms. “My hand is entirely the implement of a distant sphere”, Klee said.


Tightrope Walker, 1923. Oil transfer, pencil and watercolor on paper. 48 x 32 cm.

In a lecture in 1921, Klee said, “The tightrope walker is a symbol of the balance of forces.” He painted this comical work partly to depict balance and partly to depict artists’ vulnerability in an erratic art world.


Pastoral (Rhythms), 1927. Tempera, 69 x 52 cm.

When the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York visited Klee in 1927, he said, “Nothing is more astonishing to a student of Klee than his extraordinary variety. Not even Picasso approaches him in sheer inventiveness.”


Conqueror, 1930. Watercolor. 42 x 34 cm.

Following Bauhaus principles, Klee focused on mathematical elements in this work, expressing his interest in theory but still showing his sense of humor by contrasting the ostentatious title with the elements within the watercolor.


Polyphony, 1932. Tempera on linen. 106 x 67 cm.

It is when Klee mixed his unique approach to color with his musical background that he was able to establish a style that was entirely his own. Some of his works – like Polyphony explores the rhythms of music through tonal blocks.

Tänzerin, 1932. Oil on canvas, 66 x 56 cm

Whimsical and Picasso-esque in its use of a double-face and a palette-shaped head, this painting depicts a dancer who is represented almost entirely by a single flowing graphic line. It was Klee who famously said that drawing was just ‘taking a line for a walk’ and in this work he demonstrates this principle in the simplest way.

Fire at Full Moon, 1933. Oil on canvas. 65 x 50 cm.

In ‘Fire at Full Moon’, Klee created a vibrant, mystical piece, expressing awe at the phenomenon of nature.


Insula Dulcamara, 1938. Oil on canvas. 88 x 176 cm.

Although Klee started this painting in 1921, he did not finish it until 1938. One of his largest work, it is created with hieroglyphs from his subconscious. The white face in the middle symbolizes death.

Red Waistcoat, 1938. Paste colors, waved. 65 x 43 cm.

Characteristic of Klee, this picture takes initial ideas from cubism, but then developed them in a new direction. Energy is created through bold lies and the spaces between them, both intentionally enigmatic.


Paul Klee (1879-1940), Angstausbruch III, 1939. Watercolour on prepared paper on card. 63.5 x 48.1 cm.
Paul Klee (1879-1940), ‘Übermut Exubérance’ (In High Spirits(, 1939. Oil and color on paper, 101 x 130 cm.

This painting (“In High spirits”) is not only one of Klee’s best known works but one where he combined his ideas on childish games together with the grave historical background of the time. Klee regularly chose the themes of balance and equilibrium, acrobatics and high spirits for his reduced form language of the last works of his life.

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