The Good Life of Paul Klee

The Diaries of Paul Klee

edited with an Introduction by Felix Klee
University of California, 425 pp., $10.00

Paul Klee
Paul Klee; drawing by David Levine

The choice for him, Paul Klee said, had been smooth. At nineteen he decided “to study painting and devote my life to art.” Despite, he pointed out, the risk of such a career and the fact that every other one was open to him by virtue of his education. A few years later he re-stated his program in a diary entry beginning with the qualification, “First of all the art of life….” By a firm concatenation of will and luck, one is tempted to say: will imposed on luck, he succeeded. Klee had a good life, an artist’s life, the right life for himself, his work (they are inseparable); except for his early death—he died at the age of sixty-one—all went according to plan. A cheerful childhood in what must have been a pleasant and solid nineteenth-century home at Berne (Klee was born in 1879); Swiss mother, father a German teaching music at a college in Switzerland; classical education (he scraped through the exams), much music, some theater, journeys into the mountains. When it came to his art studies, the decision lay between Paris and Munich. Klee “felt more strongly drawn to Germany.” He spent three years in Munich going through the conventional art school mills, drawing, lifeclass, anatomy…He worked hard, built some friendships, got drunk, got involved with women. He had his year in Italy. (This rather stunned him.) Afterwards he settled down—first with his parents in Berne, then in Munich, later with the Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau—to a peaceful lifetime of etching and painting, to slow almost unhampered development. Recognition, success, did not come fast, but nor did it come too late and Klee seems to have been able to use it without allowing it to affect him. He was hard up during the early years, running out of cash at the end of a month, waiting for the remittance from home. It always came. The family saw him through; he was not much affected either by his relative poverty.

We met a few times in a pleasant little club and agreed about El Greco and the fact that we all had no money.

He was able to marry the woman he wanted—after a long engagement—and the marriage seems to have been a good one and it lasted. He had one boy of whom he writes with minute concern. He appears to have liked his role as a father, enjoyed his family life. His recreations were ample and rewarding: there was constant hearing and playing of music (Klee was the violin in many an amateur quartet); there were evenings of wine and friends, there were long summer months by Swiss mountains and lakes; Klee liked to cook, he fished. He was able to travel: he went to Paris, to North Africa. For the first thirty-five years of his life he was well served by his time. Later…

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