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Staff Report

FRANKFURT, 22 September 2003 - The recently opened exhibition Paul Klee: 1933 is dedicated to Paul Klee’s (1879–1940) creative achievements in 1933, a year that was extremely difficult for the artist both professionally and personally. Only a few weeks after Hitler had become Chancellor of the Reich, members of the NSDAP searched the artist’s Bauhaus residence in Dessau. After Klee had been removed from office at the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts in April, he left the country towards the end of the year. The catalogue raisonné lists more works for 1933 than for any other year before though. The list also comprises a group of 246 drawings in which Klee relied on parody as his instrument for committing an extraordinarily complex and passionate reaction to the Nazi system to paper. Without offering any direct comment, the drawings revolve around demagogy, militarism, violence, anti-Semitism, and humiliation in the manner peculiar to the artist.

The exhibition presents a selection of more than 100 of these so-called revolution drawings to the public for the first time. A number of works in color from the same year rounds off the presentation.

Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt guest curator Pamela Kort notes in the catalogue, "Klee’s 1933 drawings present their beholder with an unparalleled opportunity to glimpse a central aspect of his aesthetics that has remained largely unappreciated: his lifelong concern with the possibilities of parody and wit. Herein lies their real significance, particularly for an audience unaware that Klee’s art has political dimensions."

1933 was a year that began with increasing personal reprisals for the 53-year old Paul Klee. On 17 March, SA men, under the command of a police officer, searched the artist’s Dessau residence in his absence, confiscating a lot of material. Since Klee was afraid to be arrested, he immediately left the country and stayed in Switzerland for some weeks. Only legal interventions by Swiss friends ensured that this incident had no serious consequences. After Klee had been disparaged as a "cultural Bolshevist" and a "Galician Jew" by the National Socialists in the press and in official letters, the measures reached their peak when the artist lost his professorship at the Düsseldorf State Academy of Fine Arts at a minute’s warning on 21 April, being informed of his removal in a telegram. Klee, who had commuted from Dessau to Düsseldorf for almost two years after his teaching post had been cancelled at the Bauhaus in Dessau in 1931, had only recently rented a house with his wife in Düsseldorf. The moved goods arrived on 26 April, i.e. five days after his dismissal from office. Together with his wife, Klee spent the following months in Düsseldorf without a job, mainly fending for himself although he was in touch with some colleagues and Walter Kaesbach, the Director of the Academy of Fine Arts, who had been removed from office as well. In December 1933, Klee found himself compelled to leave Germany for good. He emigrated to Bern, his home town, where he and his wife found shelter with his father in his parents’ house. Due to the ostracizing in Germany, the approval of his application for naturalization in Switzerland was delayed, and Klee did not live to see the permission granted until his death in 1940.

Paul Klee: Mask Red Jew, 1933
Paul Klee: Mask Red Jew, 1933
Photo courtesy of Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt

Despite these turbulences, Klee’s production from this year comprises more works (482) than any annual production before. It includes a large group of 246 drawings taking up a special position within the artist’s oeuvre because of its unusually realistic figurative motifs and the lines’ density and excitement. The drawings, most of which date from between May and September 1933, represent the largest cohesive group of pictures produced by Klee within a single year. Except for a few drawings he gave away as presents to collectors he was close to, he kept all works his whole life long, carefully entering each drawing in his catalogue raisonné. Only once, in the summer of 1933, he showed several of the works to Walter Kaesbach, who had originally invited Klee to teach at the Düsseldorf Academy, and to the Swiss sculptor Alexander Zschokke, his colleague there. Since then, only single works from the group were presented to the public on very rare occasions – without a reference to the fact that they are part of the so-called revolution drawings in almost all cases. In summer 1945, when the danger was over, Zschokke referred to a map of drawings by Klee dealing with the "National Socialist revolution" in a Swiss radio program. Three years later, he described the drawings of 1933 and Klee’s state of mind at the time when the artist had presented the works to him and Kaesbach in the Swiss magazine DU. For a long time, it was completely doubtful which drawings Klee might have shown to his colleagues. Some people even thought that the drawings had not survived.

It was only in 1984 that a majority of these 1933 drawings could be identified in the holdings of the Paul Klee Foundation at the Kunstmuseum Bern. In addition to various loans from numerous public and private collections, a selection of more than 100 pencil and grease pencil drawings will now be presented to the public for the first time. It will be the first show highlighting Klee’s largest cohesive group of works and exploring the long overdue question concerning the drawings’ historical and political significance.

With their subtle commentaries on the Nazi regime, the drawings offer both an astounding source of pictures and a fascinating insight into Klee’s production process: the works’ aesthetical potential clearly comprised the foundations for the half-figurative, serial approach developed by Klee from 1937 on that was to become characteristic of his late oeuvre. Most works do not make any direct statements on National Socialism but, many under the guise of funny titles and compositions, rather relate to serious political issues such as education, militarism, violence, humiliation, and persecution. The unusually realistic, almost antiquated and illustrative style of representing figures also deals subtly with the artistic form of expression that had the regime’s blessings by parodying it.

Paul Klee Tragodia 1933
Paul Klee: Tragodia 1933
Photo courtesy of Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt

Besides the selection of "revolution drawings," the show also comprises 15 paintings and works in color by the artist which also date from 1933, among them pieces with such unequivocal titles as Mask Red Jew, The Contrary Arrow, or Deleted from the List. In light of the partly grotesquely comic drawings which have been largely unknown so far, the historical commentary of these more familiar works also gains surprisingly powerful contours.

After having been presented at the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, and at the Kunstmuseum Bern, the exhibition will be shown at the Hamburger Kunsthalle from 11 December 2003 to 7 March 2004.

A catalogue Paul Klee: 1933 has been published by Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, Helmut Friedel with essays in German by Pamela Kort, Osamu Okuda, and Otto Karl Werckmeister, plus a chronology by Stefan Frey and Andreas Hüneke. 328 pages, Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Cologne.

Paul Klee: 1933 will be on view at theSchirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt until 30 November 2003.

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