Paul Klee - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 16, 2017 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Hans and Erika Meyer-Benteli, Bern (until 1955)
    Berggruen & Cie, Paris (1955-1956)
    Baron Elie de Rothschild (acquired from the above)
    Thence by descent to the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Kunstmuseum Luzern, Paul Klee, Fritz Huf, April 26 - June 3, 1936, no. 102, p. 6

  • Literature

    The Paul Klee Foundation, ed., Paul Klee, Catalogue raisonné, vol. VI, 1931-1933, Bern, 2002, no. 5561, p. 95, 116 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    “…to work my way out of my ruins, I had to fly.
    and I flew. I remain in this ruined world only in
    memory, as one occasionally does in retrospect.
    thus, I am “abstract with memories.”
    - Paul Klee

    Exemplifying Paul Klee’s interest in art as a form of expression grounded in the subconscious and the mystical, Erinnerung an Erlittenes presents a surrealistic composition that hovers between figuration and abstraction. Executed in 1931, this is one of the last works conceived by the artist in the more constructivist style he had pioneered during his tenure at the famed Bauhaus over the course of the preceding decade, yet it is filled with the artist’s own capricious, poetic vision. This work whose title loosely translates to “Memory of Suffering” depicts a geometric configuration from which a semi-abstracted figure emerges, whose specter-like form presages that in Alberto Giacometti’s The Palace at 4 a.m., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and connects to the head of the larger chimera at center by the tumbling, spiraling accumulation of shapes. Meanwhile, the disembodied pair of schematic legs in motion to the lower right serves as a playful counterpoint to this massing of forms. Coinciding with his move to the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf faculty that same year, Klee created Erinnerung an Erlittenes at a creative peak that would give rise to his pointillist style of painting. The Düsseldorf period was short-lived, however, as Klee was removed from his position in 1933 when a Nazi newspaper denounced him as subversive and, erroneously, as Jewish, forcing him to return to his native Switzerland. Exhibited a few years later at the Kunstmuseum Luzern in Switzerland, Erinnerung an Erlittenes was one of the works that artist and publisher Hans Meyer-Benteli, together with three partners, purchased upon Klee’s untimely death in Switzerland in 1940. Since Klee held his father’s German nationality and died before his application for Swiss citizenship was granted, Meyer-Benteli’s intervention avoided Klee’s artistic inheritance from being returned to Nazi Germany, where his work, deemed “degenerate”, would have been destroyed. Erinnerung an Erlittenes then passed through the hands of the eminent art dealer Heinz Berggruen, widely considered as the greatest collector of Klee’s work, into the distinguished collection of Baron Elie de Rothschild.

    Erinnerung an Erlittenes beautifully encapsulates how Klee sought in painting what great composers such as Bach and Mozart had achieved in music. Developing from the highly expressive and symbolic abstract language he had created as an associate of the Blaue Reiter group alongside Wassily Kandinsky, Alexej von Jawlensky, Franz Marc and August Macke between 1911 and 1914, Klee’s theory of “pictorial polyphony” was vital to the Bauhaus’ formulation of numerous theories of abstraction. Driven by his search for higher polyphony, Klee embraced color, as opposed to just form, as the primary foundation of his art. This is evident even in the physical construction of this picture: presenting us with an enticing mise en abyme of color, Klee, characteristically experimenting with unconventional materials and painterly techniques, has superimposed differently scaled rectangles comprising the artist’s mount, the painted muslin cloth support and cardboard, one atop the other. By selectively covering muslin cloth with translucent layers of white and blue watercolor, Klee teases out form and line from the resulting negative spaces between the layers of color. The disorienting interaction between fore- and background is heightened by the subtle addition of delicately drawn lines, areas of blue and ochre shading and whimsical red and white impasto dots.

    The title of the work speaks to both Klee's continued psychological reckoning with the traumas of World War I, while also presaging what was to come in light of the increasing darkening political mood with the rise of the Nazi party in the early 1930s. Klee, who conveyed meaning through an often mercurial fusion of form and text, in this work evokes a passage from his statement of abstraction in 1915, which reads: “…to work my way out of my ruins, I had to fly./ And I flew. I remain in this ruined world only in memory, as one occasionally does in retrospect./ Thus, I am ‘abstract with memories’” (Mark Rosenthal, “The Prototypical Triangle of Paul Klee”, The Art Bulletin, vol. 64, no. 2, June 1982, p. 299). Just like Klee's iconic Angelus Novus from 1920, which Walter Benjamin eternalized as the “angel of history”, thrust into the future with his face turned toward the past, the fractured figures within Erinnerung an Erlittenes are caught between opposing directional forces. Erinnerung an Erlittenes demonstrates Klee’s emphatic return to the prototypical triangle, first appearing in such works as Niesen, 1915, Kunstmuseum Bern, and partly resurfacing here in reference to the ancient pyramids Klee had seen during his recent trip to Egypt. Here, the triangular forms infuse the geometric constellation with directional force and palpable velocity, while also functioning as the building block of the full-length figure. While the triangle represents many things for Klee it, above all, symbolizes the human spirit.

    Erinnerung an Erlittenes celebrates Klee’s ability to fuse the organic and the geometric, the figurative and the abstract, the personal and universal, the analytic and expressive within a profoundly harmonic whole. Within Klee’s far-reaching legacy, it is the very notion of color as the primary medium of an expressive pictorial language that set the stage for some of the most important developments in post-war art, permeating through Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square series, as well as the Abstract Expressionist movement at large.

Property from an Important Private European Collection


Erinnerung an Erlittenes

signed "Klee" lower right; titled, inscribed and dated "1931 R. 16 Erinnerung an Erlittenes" along the mount
oil and watercolor on muslin, laid down on card with gouache
image 14 3/4 x 20 1/4 in. (37.5 x 51.4 cm.)
overall including artist's mount 16 1/4 x 21 3/8 in. (41.3 x 54.3 cm.)

Executed in 1931.

$600,000 - 800,000 

Sold for $915,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 16 November 2017