Klee & Kandinsky

Joined at the Palette

Paul Klee facsimilie for Klee Story in Wednesdayjpg
An artist's representation of a pattern used in one of Paul Klee's most famous works, Landhaus Thomas R., from 1927. This is not a copy of the original. Montage created by Handelsblatt Global Edition.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The exhibit at Munich’s Lenbachhaus gallery showcases the symbiotic relationship shared by Bauhaus artists Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky.

  • Facts


    • Early 20th century Bauhaus artists Paul Klee was born in Switzerland, and Wassily Kandinsky was born in Russia.
    • Both men lived side-by-side with their families in Munich during the heyday of the Weimar Republic after World War I, a period of extreme artistic creativity in Germany and globally.
    • Both artists fled the Nazi regime, with Mr. Klee dying in Bern, Switzerland, in 1940, and Mr. Kandinsky in exile in Paris in 1944.
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Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, two of the early 20th century’s most influential Bauhaus artists, had an extremely productive, almost symbiotic relationship, with the two even living for a time side-by-side with their families in Munich as Germany fell to the Nazis.

This week at the Lenbachhaus art gallery in Munich, their unusual bond is explored in a new exhibit called Klee and Kandinsky. During the Weimar Republic, the two men – Mr. Klee, a Swiss native, and Mr. Kandinsky, who was Russian – shared ideas, theories and sources of inspiration as the men with families in tow helped revolutionize modern painting.

Looking back on that fertile period, Lily Klee, Mr. Klee’s spouse, wrote in 1937 to Nina Kandinsky: “And what all have we already been through together. Despite all the negative things, what rich years in Weimar and Dessau and, lastly, six years door-to-door. In spite of it all, tremendously alive years. And we with your husband already in Munich next door to each other in Ainmillerstrasse. All still young, in those incredible final pre-war years, when the world hadn’t yet been turned upside down.”

The Lenbachhaus exhibition is the first to focus on how the men influenced each other.

The last time the two Bauhaus masters saw each other was in February 1937 when Mr. Kandinsky visited a critically-ill Mr. Klee in Bern, Switzerland.

Mr. Klee died in 1940, only 60 years old. Mr. Kandinsky, 13 years his senior, died in 1944 while living in exile in Paris.

Before the war, they had lived close to each other in Munich’s bohemian Schwabing district, without ever having met, their art at that point very different.

Mr. Kandinsky was working with motifs from his Russian homeland and had started to incorporate Bavarian motifs. He was an industrious organizer of art associations and exhibitions.

Mr. Klee died in 1940, only 60 years old. Mr. Kandinsky, 13 years his senior, died in 1944 while living in exile in Paris.

Mr. Klee was working exclusively with graphic arts and needed years to overcome his self-doubt and find a way to his own artistic form.

Mr. Klee’s finely engraved folios seem to almost disappear from sight next to Mr. Kandinsky’s expressive paintings in the Lenbachhaus museum in Munich. The two painters first met in the fall of 1911.


wassily kandinsky work in düsseldorf exhibit in 2014 source dpa
A work by Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky on display at a gallery in Düsseldorf in 2014. Source: DPA


“The Blue Rider Almanac” was set to be published the following year, a work in which Mr. Kandinsky and his close friend, Franz Marc, summed up their new art movement and its theoretical principles.

Over time, Mr. Klee’s work gained in stature. Solo exhibitions of the two artists followed in the leading Berlin avant-garde gallery at the time, Der Sturm (The Storm). Then World War II tore apart the web of artistic ties, breaking the productive bond between the men.

The two artists began to work closely together during the founding of Bauhaus movement in Weimar after World War I.

Walter Gropius, the German architect and founder of the Bauhaus movement, appointed Mr. Klee in 1920 to the new art institute, and Mr. Kandinsky, a year later.

Up until 1931, when Mr. Klee moved to the Düsseldorf Academy, the two not only worked at the same institute but taught the same basic design class obligatory for beginners. In Dessau southwest of Berlin, where Bauhaus relocated after being driven out by the Thuringia state government in central Germany in 1926, the artists with their spouses moved into a semi-detached house that Mr. Gropius had designed for “masters.”

From that moment on until they fled Nazi Germany, they lived wall-to-wall, often using a direct passage through the cellar.

Mr. Klee didn’t sell his half of the duplex after moving to Düsseldorf and regularly made return trips to Dessau. This why his wife, Lily Klee, mentioned “six years door-to-door.”

Both artists lost their teaching positions in 1933 and left Germany during Adolf Hitler’s rise. Their encounter in Bern in 1937 was the only time they met while in self-imposed exile.

The Lenbachhaus exhibition in the Kunstbau section is a subterranean space above Munich’s Königsplatz subway station, which provides a visual overview of the Bauhaus period filtered through the relationship of two of its most successful adherents.

The two painters worked fundamentally differently and yet, amazingly, similarly.

The visually lush series of work by both men highlights their experimenting with airbrush techniques that were very popular in the late 1920s.

Mr. Klee, who found his way to color, and with it to painting, in 1914, gave free rein to his playful imagination. Mr. Kandinsky, who had achieved the basics of abstraction even before the World War I,  labored on a systematization of his medium.

If Bauhaus can at all be associated with the primary colors, red, yellow and blue, and the geometric forms of the square, triangle and circle assigned to them, then it was Mr. Kandinsky who axiomatically introduced them and continually explored them.

Mr. Klee, and it is fascinating to see this in Munich, follows the stimulus of his older friend and integrates the ideas to the extent he can in his finely-spun worlds.

A beautiful series of works shows the experiments of both artists with airbrush techniques that were being tried everywhere in the late 1920s. This corresponds to the tendency of Bauhaus during its Dessau-period to put mechanical processes before subjective expression, under the motto, “Art and Technique – a New Unity.”

Contemporary critics emphasize the big differences between the two artists.

Mr. Kandinsky’s work is invariably judged negatively as “harsh and without emotion,” even “unmusical” – Kandinsky the synesthete, of all people, who in 1928 created an abstract stage design for Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

Mr. Klee by contrast receives nothing but admiration.

Paul Westheim, the publisher of the German art magazine Kunstblatts, writes of Mr. Klee that in him lies “the magical in artistic vision, in the play of the lines, in the magic of color, in the miracle of creative fantasy.”

Mr. Klee abetted this view when he once said of his method of working that he is, in the end, the beholder and takes the gift it gives.

The visitor to the Munich exhibition is also given a gift of top quality works throughout by both artists from the collections of Zentrum Paul Klee museum in Bern, Switzerland, and the Lenbachhaus.

The exhibition concludes on a tragic highpoint, with Mr. Klee’s late work after the visit in 1937 of the friend he had missed for so long. Afterwards, Klee painted the largest formatted paintings of his entire oeuvre and, in 1939, his mystifyingly most productive year of all, soars to “High Spirits,” as he titles the abstract picture of a tightrope-walking stick creature on a multicolored background.

One should always be cautious in interpreting the titles of Mr. Klee’s pictures; he himself understood them merely as an indication of the direction he felt they were taking.

However, the title, together with the year it was created, 1939, stirs up the wretched fate of modern art in Germany.

Mr. Kandinsky, who was one to never give up, was able to reinvent himself in Parisian exile again, and found more abstract forms. But Mr. Klee, who described himself as being stunned when he was “stricken off the list” in 1933, found his home forever, so it seems, in a boundlessly liberated fantasy world, from which not even the Nazis could banish him.

The exhibit of works by Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky runs through January 24 at Lenbachhaus in Munich.


This article originally appeared in Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: gastautor@handelsblatt.com



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