Klee & Kandinsky
Zentrum Paul Klee
Monument im Fruchtland 3, 3000 Bern, Switzerland
Never before has such an outstanding selection of works from these two masters ever been united in one exhibition.
Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky – they are considered to be the “founding fathers” of “classical modernism” and their artists’ friendship to be one of the most fascinating of the twentieth century. Their relationship was shaped by mutual inspiration and support, but also by rivalry and competition – a combination that spurred both of them on in their artistic work. The exhibition “Klee & Kandinsky” traces the eventful history of this artistic relationship over the long period from 1900 to 1940 for the very first time. It draws attention to parallels and similarities as well as differences and distinctions, with an emphasis on their personal and artistic dialogue at the time of the “Blue Rider” and the Bauhaus. The exhibition was created in cooperation with the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau Munich, where it will be presented from 21 October 2015 to 24 January 2016.
“I can dimly recollect Kandinsky and Weisgerber, who were fellow students of mine. […]. Kandinsky was quiet and mixed the colours on his palette with the greatest diligence and, so it seemed to me, with a kind of studiousness, peering very closely at what he was doing.”
Paul Klee, Autobiographical text for Wilhelm Hausenstein, 1919
“[…] I served Beauty by drawing her enemies (caricature, satire).”
Paul Klee, Diaries I, 1901
“In your works, I sense primeval, bygone things wedded with mystical vibrations of spiritual possibilities for the future.”
Alfred Kubin to Wassily Kandinsky, 5.5.1910
Wassily Kandinsky moves to Munich in 1896 and studies at Anton Ažbe’s private school of painting from 1897 to 1899, and, starting in 1900, at the Kunstakademie (Academy of Fine Arts) in Munich with Franz von Stuck. Paul Klee arrives in Munich in 1898 and initially attends the drawing school of Heinrich Knirr. Beginning in 1900, he also attends Stuck’s painting class, but without getting to know Kandinsky better.
The Blue Rider
“Kandinsky wants to organize a new society of artists. Personal acquaintance has given me a somewhat deeper confidence in him. He is somebody and has an exceptionally fine, clear mind.”
Paul Klee, Diaries III, 1911
“1906 […] I thought I had come into the clear in art when for the first time I was able to apply an abstract style to nature.”
Paul Klee, Autobiographical text for Wilhelm Hausenstein, 1919
“Kandinsky, Wassily – painter, printmaker and author – the first painter to base painting on purely pictorial means of expression and abandon objects in his pictures.” Wassily Kandinsky, “Self-characterisation”, in: Das Kunstblatt, 1919
Kandinsky is a painter from the beginning. The thirteen- year-younger Klee, in contrast, is a very talented draughtsman and assesses his painting abilities very self-critically. Starting in 1909, Kandinsky devises a revolutionary new pictorial language with his abstract, large-format paintings. In 1911, he establishes the artists’ association Der Blaue Reiter along with Franz Marc; he gets to know Paul Klee in the autumn of the year. In May 1912, Kandinsky publishes the Almanach Der Blaue Reiter, in which Klee is represented with a drawing.
“Color is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano, with its many strings. The artist is the hand that purposefully sets the soul vibrating by means of this or that key.”
Wassily Kandinsky, On the Spiritual in Art, 1912
“Polyphonic painting is superior to music in that, here, the time element becomes a spatial element. The notion of simultaneity stands out even more richly.”
Paul Klee, Diaries III, 1917
“In art, too, there is room enough for exact research, […]. What was accomplished in music before the end of the eighteenth century has hardly been begun in the pictorial field.”
Paul Klee, Exact experiments in the realm of art, 1928
The connection between music and painting is one of the central themes in the work of both artists. Kandinsky spoke of the “inner harmony“ of his pictures and published his stage composition Der Gelbe Klang (The Yellow Sound) in the Almanach Der Blaue Reiter in 1912. In 1928, he designed stage images for Mussorgsky’s piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition.
Klee, who himself played the violin superbly, developed his art through artistic analogies to musical structures. He considered his “polyphonic” (for several voices) paintings to be the highest level of this consonance.
“The students’ relationship to Kandinsky was very respectful. […] What he said was always insightful and more or less documented. In the case of Klee, in contrast, everything was always up in the air. You could make what you wanted of it.”
Gunta Stölzl, in: Das Werk, 11, 1968
“Kandinsky’s teaching: scientifically rigorous examination of colour and form. Example: seek the corresponding elementary colour for the three forms (triangle, square and circle). It was decided that they are yellow for the triangle, blue for the circle and red for the square; so to say, once and for all.”
Oskar Schlemmer to Otto Meyer-Amden, 21.10.1923
Paul Klee comes to the Bauhaus in Weimar in March 1921, Kandinsky in June 1922, after having had to leave Germany and return to Russia. As masters and teaching colleagues, they are the supporting pillars of the Bauhaus. Artistically, Klee’s work during the Weimar period is pluralistic and ranges from narrative scenes to nearly abstract works. Kandinsky, in contrast, strives for a “basso continuo” in painting based on fixed relationships of colour and form. Klee’s openness and individual design approach contrasts with Kandinsky’s rigorous, normative consistency.
“Kandinsky and Klee: the two artists […] have been named together more and more frequently. […] Since: is it supposed to be a mere coincidence that, in quiet, remote Dessau […] two creative spirits equally liberated from the burden of earthly problems – connecting East and West – live under one roof, or is it a wake-up call, a sign of what is to come?!”
Fannina W. Halle, in: Das Kunstblatt, 1929
“at the bauhaus, klee exuded a healthy, generative atmosphere – as a great artist and as a lucid, pure human being.”
Wassily Kandinsky, bauhaus. zeitschrift für gestaltung, no. 3, 1931
“Yesterday was shaped by Kandinsky’s move. […] This departure is what proves something for me. […] It is a friendship that overcomes a number of negative items, because the plus side stands firm and, in particular, because there is a link to my productive youth.”
Paul Klee to Lily Klee, 11.12.1932
At the Bauhaus in Dessau, Klee and Kandinsky move closer to one another in the years 1925–1931/33. While a formalizing and geometricizing can be found in Klee’s work, Kandinsky loosens up the rigorous pictorial vocabulary in his work. And while the narrative element recedes in Klee’s work, in Kandinsky’s pictures, allusions to the figurative increasingly provide an additional content-related dimension. A true pictorial dialogue emerges, in which the two artists take up the same motifs or techniques and each translate them into their own language.
The first signs of the reduction of representation to square forms appear in Klee’s work from 1914, when he broke down motifs into geometrical colour fields. During his time at the Bauhaus he ceased to structure his colour planes on the basis of the impression of nature, instead developing purely abstract compositions.
Kandinsky did not paint pure square paintings. However the fundamental forms of the square, the triangle and the circle remain central pictorial elements in his work. With both artists the abstract geometric compositions can be seen as an engagement with the underlying painterly media of colour and form.
The depiction of movement was a central concern for both artists. Arrows and triangles indicate direction, rotation and diagonals produce an impression of impulsion and vibration.
The temporality of music and rhythm also play an important part in these ideas around movement with both artists.
The use of the spray technique in the work of Klee and Kandinsky can be seen in the context of discussions of mechanical means of representation at the Bauhaus. Towards the end of the Weimar Republic the spray technique became an important means of composition for Klee. Using a brush drawn over a sieve, or a pulveriser, he sprayed the picture surface with watercolour or gouache paint. Rather later than Klee, Kandinsky too used the spray technique. Klee connected the technique with figurative representations, while Kandinsky remained mostly abstract.
Constructive – Figurative
In the second half of the 1920s Klee and Kandinsky came surprisingly close to one another in artistic terms. Influenced by Constructivism, Klee increasingly turned to geometric forms and reduced narrative elements in his work. In contrast, figurative elements gained importance in Kandinsky’s work. Abstraction and figuration now no longer exclude one another in his work, but instead merge seamlessly.
Balance & Stability
For Klee, the state of equilibrium was a principle both of art and life. Figures such as the tightrope walker and other acrobats are symbols of the quest for a balance in existence. He connected balance not with rigid symmetry and pleasant harmony, but with the creative potential of a changeable state.
In contrast, tensions were at the centre of Kandinsky’s creative thinking. Many of his compositions and many of his picture titles refer to the juxtaposition of different things.
At the Edge of Nature
From the beginning of his career, the study of nature was the basis of Klee’s artistic work. But the copying of nature quickly lost significance for him, and made way for the exploration of natural fundamental structures and processes.
On the other hand Kandinsky saw art and nature as mutually exclusive opposites, and avoided any suggestions of natural phenomena. In certain phases of his work, however, he devoted himself more openly to nature. Finally, in the 1930s, the shapes of lower life forms become one of his most important sources of inspiration.
“We do not want to leave Germany forever. Something I would not be able to manage at all, since my roots sit too deep in German soil.”
Wassily Kandinsky to Will Grohmann, 4.12.1933
“Well, we will indeed see how things develop and what will become of our art! In any case, artists should remain apolitical and only think of their work and dedicate all their energies to this work.”
Wassily Kandinsky to Werner Drewes, 10.4.1933
“At the moment, an unpleasant feeling presses on my stomach, as though the new year of the unified, national Germany has assisted in the advent of an all too torch-parade-like sparkling wine bacchanal.”
Paul Klee to Lily Klee, 1.2.1933
In January 1933, the National Socialists seize power in Germany. This profound development had existential consequences for both Kandinsky and Klee: Klee is dismissed as a professor, Kandinsky sees himself confronted with the impending closing of the Bauhaus. Both artists also react to the National Socialist seizure of power artistically: Numerous works are characterized by a sombre colourfulness tending towards shades of brown. While the threat becomes concretely or symbolically tangible in Klee’s pictorial language, Kandinsky’s pictures remain completely abstract.
“It would be so nice to once again drink a cup of tea with you, as was so often and so pleasantly the case in Dessau. We frequently think of our former closeness, of watering flowers at the same time, of the bocce battles and – sad thought – of our collective complaints about the BH meetings. How far behind us all of that is!”
Wassily Kandinsky to Paul Klee, 16.12.1936
“Since not even sufficient time for my main business remains to me. Production is taking a larger magnitude at a faster tempo, and can no longer wholly keep up with these children. They issue forth.”
Paul Klee to Felix Klee, 29.12.1939
“Alors sempre avanti!”
Wassily Kandinsky to Paul Klee, 12.12.1939
After being conclusively dismissed – Klee from the Academy of Fine Arts in Düsseldorf, Kandinsky from the Bauhaus in Berlin – both artists left Germany in December 1933. Klee returned to his home city Bern, Kandinsky emigrated to Paris. Kandinsky was more intensely focused on a making new beginning than Klee, and quickly altered his style. The geometry of his time at the Bauhaus receded, making room for biomorphic figures. Their bright colourfulness conveyed optimism and a focus on going forward. After arriving in his old-new home, Klee, in contrast, initially reacted with irritation. Motifs of sadness and rootlessness represent this symbolically. His life was moreover determined by an illness that severely affected his energy to work from 1935 until his premature death in 1940. It was first starting in 1937 that he also found a new beginning and experienced, despite or perhaps because of the illness, a true creative frenzy.