Paul Klee, a discreet giant of modernism



Paul KLEE was a brilliant and unclassifiable artist who produced nearly ten thousand artworks reflecting a broad range of talents and interests including music and abstract signs. The Pompidou Centre in Paris is organising an exhibition entitled Paul Klee, L’ironie à l’œuvre with 230 paintings, sculptures and drawings (6 April – 1 August 2016), many of which have been lent by international collections, the Zentrum Paul Klee and private collections, and half of which have never been exhibited in France.

This retrospective is particularly welcome as Paul Klee has not been the subject of a major retrospective in France for 47 years. The most recent Parisian retrospective took place at the National Museum of Modern Art in 1969, and before that, there was one in 1948. The Pompidou Centre exhibition will be organised under seven theme headings to highlight the different stages of Klee’s artistic development. The exhibition’s trajectory opens with his early satirical work and continues onto Cubism, Mechanical Theatre (dada), Constructivism (the Bauhaus years), Looking back (1930), Picasso (Klee after Picasso’s Zurich retrospective in 1932), his crisis years (between Nazi politics, war and disease)… with the ensemble seen from the consciously chosen perspective of an ever-present irony in his work. Indeed, Klee admitted that irony served his work, saying notably “I contribute to beauty by drawing its enemies.”

Short biography…

Born in 1879 near Bern in Switzerland to a family of musicians, Paul Klee moved to Munich in 1906 with his wife Lily, a pianist. After several years of studies and introspection, he joined the Blaue Reiter group. He travelled to Paris in 1912 and to Tunis in 1914. In October 1920, Walter GROPIUS invited him to teach at the newly-founded Bauhaus school in Weimar. In 1933, after being being driven from his teaching job by the Nazis, he took his family to Switzerland. Considered a ‘degenerate artist’, 17 of his works were included in Munich’s notorious Degenerate Art exhibition in 1937 and 200 of his works were confiscated from German collections. But he never stopped creating satirical and irreverent work directed against the last years of the Weimar Republic. Towards the end of his life, despite a debilitating medical condition, he still managed a prolific output (producing over 1200 works in 1939). He died in Switzerland aged 60 (in 1940) leaving behind one of the most important bodies of work of the 20th century, but one that is still relatively unknown in France.
One could argue that Klee’s relatively small fame compared with contemporaries like Picasso, Kandinsky and Delaunay stems from his own deliberate and ironic elusiveness. Klee remained relatively detached from the major artistic currents of his day. Naturally he was affected by the creative revolutions of his era, namely Cubism, Dadaism, Abstraction and Constructivism… but he didn’t adhere to any particular movement. He played with and integrated certain ideas that interested him, subverting others with humor and elegance. Preferring transgression to imitation, he used to say I am my own style.

Paul Klee on the art market

Being one of the unavoidable free spirits of modernism and having influenced many artists (including ZAO Wou-Ki), Paul Klee’s core market is in New York which accounts for 39% of his auction turnover, followed by London (34%). European countries consume fewer Klee works than Switzerland (10%) where he lived and created fervently for seven years. Nevertheless, when not sold in prestige UK and US sales, his more important works tend to sell in Paris rather than in Switzerland. Klee’s Swiss auction record is approximately $1 million for a 1922 drawing 26 centimetres tall (Galerie Kornfeld Galerie & Cie in Bern on 6 June 2008). His all-time auction record was set by a painting that fetched nearly $7 million in London in 2011 (Tänzerin, 1932, 66 x 56 cm, Christie’s, 21 June 2011). His works on canvas represent the smallest fraction of his market: 8%, versus 48% for his drawings.
Our figures show that Klee’s market is currently more active than usual, almost certainly stimulated by the Centre Pompidou exhibition. At London’s early February 2016 sales, Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams offered 14 of his works. Of these, 12 drawings changed hands for sums ranging from $27,000 to $384,000, depending on size. These results brought Klee’s drawings closer to the results usually generated by Kandinsky drawings, even if Klee’s overall price growth has not kept up with Kandinsky’s (+20% in 10 years, versus +140% for Kandinsky). As we speak, a wide range of Paul Klee prints are available on the auction market at prices below $5,000 (prints account for 42% of his auction transactions). In fact, Klee’s prints have become a specialist market with some fetching more than his drawings. In 2005, a superb print dated 1904 entitled Ein Mann versinkt vor der Krone, Invention 7 fetched $117,900 at Bern’s Kornfeld Galerie & Cie, a record that has not been beaten since.
For a more affordable work by Paul Klee, the German auctioneer Doebele will be offering a small 1920 lithograph on 30 April 2016, estimated just $510. However, at this price, the work is not signed by the artist …(Riesenblattlaus, Lithograph, 13.8 cm x 6 cm, Doebele – Kunstauktionen).