Each week, we bring you the backstory of a work featured in our collection, written by a member of our curatorial team.

Forest Witches, Beyeler Foundation, Basel, Switzerland

“The more horrifying the world becomes, the more art becomes abstract.” — Paul Klee

by Haley Temin, Associate Curator

As a child, the world is filled with endless wonder and discovery, ultimately masking us from the chaos and problems that consume our lives on a daily basis. We try and preserve this blissful ignorance for as long as possible, but unfortunately there comes a time when the sheltered world we once lived in is finally exposed to reality. This week we have witnessed unfathomable tragedies that have tested humanity and stripped us of our sense of safety and well-being. With the emphasis on recent tragic events, it is ever more important to maintain the age of innocence and the ability for expression.  

The featured gallery this week is that of Paul Klee, known for his child-like and playful compositions—a direct reaction to the world around him. Born into an eccentric family of musicians, Klee craved the ability to express himself and found that art allowed him the freedom to explore his style and voice his radical views and beliefs. In 1914, he took a trip to Tunisia, Africa, an experience that was a turning point in both his life and career as an artist. This trip gave Klee the final push towards abstraction that inspired thousands of his works and left a remarkable, powerful legacy.

Most known for his simple stick figures, fish, moon eyes, faces, arrows, and quilts of color, Klee was inspired by his own childhood and the creativity that develops in that time. He believed children have an artistic ability that can teach us a lot more about the world simply through their innocence. For Klee, the colors and merry symbols inspired by children’s artwork represented the optimism and nobility in art and hoped to relieve the pessimistic nature expressed in other works. In 1949, Marcel Duchamp commented on Paul Klee’s art: “The first reaction in front of a Klee painting is the very pleasant discovery, what everyone of us could or could have done, to try drawing like in our childhood. Most of his compositions show at the first glance a plain, naive expression, found in children’s drawings. At a second analyses one can discover a technique, which takes as a basis a large maturity in thinking.”

Paul Klee’s work conveys more than just stick figures and quilts of color. Living through both world wars, Klee had a dark sense of humor that showed within his works. But through his satire, he taught himself to see the world from a higher point of view. He used his art as a means of expression—to make sense of the world at a time where horrific tragedies surrounded him. His fantastic abstractions, expressing the most diverse of subjects was deliberate and exactly the way Klee wanted humanity to view the world. He embraced a childlike perspective through his art but was also able to share his beliefs and maturity of thought through his technique. We can learn a thing or two from Paul Klee.