Paul Klee - 20th C. & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Wednesday, November 13, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Lily Klee, Bern (by 1940)
    Klee-Gesellschaft, Bern (by 1946)
    Curt Valentin (Buchholz Gallery), Berlin & New York (acquired by 1950)
    Acquired by Hans and Florence Knoll from the above in 1951

  • Literature

    Will Grohmann, Paul Klee, New York, 1954, no. 61, pp. 199, 413 (illustrated, p. 392)
    James Smith Pierce, Paul Klee and Primitive Art, New York, 1976, p. 166, note 42
    Michèle Vishny, "Paul Klee and War: A Stance of Aloofness", Gazette des Beaux-Arts, December 1978, pp. 238, 243, note 17
    The Paul Klee Foundation, ed., Paul Klee: Catalogue Raisonné, 1919-1922, vol. 3, Bern, 1999, no. 2605, p. 263 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Paul Klee
    The Titan of Modern Art

    An artist who truly defined the 20th century, Paul Klee expanded the field of art marking in ways that reverberate into the present day. As an artist, teacher, writer and thinker, Klee led the way for modernism through some of the most epochal moments of history – from World War I to the Weimar Republic, from the golden years of the Bauhaus to the Nazi era and World War II. Created between 1918 and 1935, the present grouping of works from the Collection of Florence Knoll Bassett capture the remarkable breadth, radical experimentation and inventiveness with which Klee pushed his practice into new creative heights throughout these tumultuous decades.

    Last known to have been exhibited in public nearly 100 years ago, Ostern from 1918 is an exquisite picture that perfectly encapsulates Klee’s distinctive graphic idiom. Klee, who once famously declared that “a drawing is simply a line going for a walk”, embraced an intentionally child-like style of drawing in constructing his fantastical symbolic worlds. The delicately drawn cross and lamb evidence Klee’s exploration of religious imagery at the time, a preoccupation begun around 1913 that would culminate most famously in Angelus Novus, 1920, which Walter Benjamin interpreted as “the angel of history” gazing at wreckage of the past. Klee created Ostern in the very year World War I was coming to a close, yet none of the epoch’s suffering and destruction surfaces in the poetic image. This sense of detachment is characteristic for Klee, who often kept an emotional distance to the harsh realities of his time. Klee had been an established member of the avant-garde group Der Blaue Reiter when the war broke out in 1914. He would come to lose fellow Der Blaue Reiter artists and friends August Macke and Franz Marc in battle while posted to airfields behind the lines, but rather than address these harrowing experiences, Klee instead retreated into his mythical universes of pure line and color.

    Created in 1921 during the early Weimar Republic period, Der Exkaiser as such takes a unique position as one of the few works with which Klee explicitly addresses contemporaneous political events. In a body of work largely encompassing abstract landscapes, portraits, and still lifes, it is one of only five works satirizing Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last German Emperor and King of Prussia who was abdicated shortly before Germany’s defeat in World War I. While Klee obliquely parodied figures of power in a small number of other works too, Der Exkaiser is one of the few instances where Klee allowed for a strikingly close resemblance with the emperor, as seen in the pointed helmet finial, mustache and Iron Cross. Despite the gravity of the subject matter, Klee embraces satire and humor as the means of expression for the modern age — an inheritance from his early years as a a satirical illustrator. Der Exkaiser is notably one of the few works in which Klee fuses social commentary with his early Bauhaus techniques, as evidenced in the luminous field of orange and ochre rectangles. Created the very year he began teaching at the Bauhaus, it beautifully exhibits Klee’s increasing preoccupation with the interaction of colors.

    Stoppelfeld, 1925, is a quintessential example from Klee’s Bauhaus period that perfectly captures the tension between figuration and abstraction at the heart of much of Klee’s work. While evocative of a field, as the title suggests, the watercolor and ink composition also operates as an abstracted landscape teeming with symbols and beautifully demonstrates the central role of color and line in Klee’s picture theory. Klee would teach at the Bauhaus until 1931 when he moved to join the faculty of the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, only to be removed from his position in 1933 when a Nazi newspaper denounced him as subversive and, erroneously, as Jewish. With the Nazis' rise to power and fascism rearing its head, Klee returned to his native Switzerland where he would continue to create works such as Lucia even after he began suffering from a debilitating illness in 1935. Executed in 1937, just three years prior to Klee’s death, Lucia belongs to a group of abstracted portraits characterized by a remarkable economy of line that speak to Klee’s dialogue with Pablo Picasso’s art.

    Making their way from Europe to esteemed New York gallerist Curt Valentin, who specialized in artists deemed to be “degenerate” by the Nazi regime, these key works were acquired by Florence Knoll Bassett and Hans Knoll in the early 1940s. Remaining in this revered collection for nearly 80 years, each example provides intriguing insights into key moments of Klee’s artistic practice. While characterized by a variety of subject matter and approach, together they capture the pioneering singular vision of one of the titans of modern art.

Making Modern: Property from the Collection of Florence Knoll Bassett


Der Exkaiser

signed "Klee" lower right; inscribed "SKl" left of artist's mount; titled, inscribed and dated "1921/14 Der Exkaiser" center of artist's mount; further titled, inscribed and dated "1921/14 Der Exkaiser" on the reverse
oil transfer, watercolor and gouache on paper laid on artist's mount
image 10 1/2 x 8 1/4 in. (26.7 x 21 cm.)
overall including artist's mount 14 3/8 x 11 1/4 in. (36.5 x 28.6 cm.)

Executed in 1921.

$250,000 - 350,000 

Sold for $250,000

Contact Specialist
John McCord
Head of Day Sale, Morning Session
New York
+1 212 940 1261

20th C. & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 13 November 2019