Bern Feature


Paul Klee: Bern's Artistic Son

It's ironic that Expressionist painter Paul Klee (1879–1940), one of Switzerland's most prolific and talented artists, wasn't a Swiss citizen during his life. Though he was born near Bern and spent most of his life in the country, his nationality was determined by the lineage of his father, who was German.

Born into a family of musicians, Klee filled his schoolbooks with caricatures and images copied from magazines. At age 19 he left Bern to study drawing in Munich, but he couldn't support himself with his art and returned to his parents in 1902. Four years later he had saved enough from his work as a violinist with the Bern Music Society to marry pianist Lily Stumpf and move to Munich, where they lived until 1926.

A trip to Tunisia in 1914 clarified Klee's artistic calling. "Color has taken possession of me," he wrote, upon encountering desert light. "I am a painter." His signature became color—rendered in oil, watercolor, ink, or all three—and almost childlike paintings with a highly developed sense of poetry, music, and dreams. Recognition followed in the 1920s, with exhibitions in Paris and New York and a teaching position at the Bauhaus from 1921. In 1933 the Nazis labeled him a degenerate, his academic position in Düsseldorf was terminated, and he and Lily moved to Switzerland. The apartment they took the following year in Bern's Elfenau district became his studio for the rest of his life.

In 1935 Klee began to show symptoms of severe fatigue and what was misdiagnosed as the measles turned out to be scleroderma (determined after his death). He continued to paint, however, and produced more than 1,000 works the year before his death in the Ticino, where he had gone to convalesce. His ashes are buried in Bern's Schosshalde cemetery, next to today's Zentrum Paul Klee.

Updated: 2013-09-05

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