In the space of barely a decade, Paul Klee went from being one of the most celebrated artists of his generation to having his works forcibly removed from Germany’s very best museums. Nowadays, of course, he is heralded as a great. Klee is among the best-loved artists of the 20th century, with retrospectives in such museums as London’s Tate Modern and the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Today (Dec. 18), on what would be the German-Swiss artist’s 139th birthday, he is being celebrated with a brightly colored Google Doodle.
Klee’s works are variously described as expressionist, cubist, futurist, surrealist, or simply abstract. In the late 1930s, the Nazis had another word for his work: “degenerate.” Of the over 15,000 artworks purged from German museums under Hitler, more than 100 were by Klee, who had become a well-respected figure in the German art world. Those works deemed the most shocking were put on display in Munich in 1937 in an exhibition titled Entartete Kunst (“Degenerate Art”). Seventeen were by Klee.
By that point, however, Klee had long since left Germany and moved to Switzerland after being incorrectly “outed” as a “Galician Jew” by a right-wing paper and losing his teaching job at the Düsseldorf Academy, in 1933. (“It seems unworthy of me to undertake anything against such crude attacks,” he wrote to his wife at the time. “For even if it were true that I am a Jew and came from Galicia that would not affect my values as a person or my achievement by an iota.”) The move coincided with some of the most fruitful years of his career: he produced almost 500 pieces in 1933 alone.
In 1940, Klee died in Switzerland after developing the autoimmune disease scleroderma. In the course of his lifetime, he produced some 9,000 works of art, today in museums and private collections the world over. Reproductions of his work abound. He is heralded as a modern master and artistic trailblazer, who at once defied taxonomical categorization and set a richly colored example for hundreds of artists to come.