In November 1920, Klee received an invitation from Walter Gropius to become a master at the newly founded Bauhaus in Weimar; he left Munich two months later to join this dynamic community of artists, architects, designers, and craftsmen, with its rigorous interdisciplinary curriculum. Weimar had vast advantages for Klee: a steady income, a large studio for his exclusive use, and a rewarding forum to discuss and refine his ideas. Although his teaching responsibilities at the Bauhaus occupied only a small number of hours per week, they forced him to formulate a theory--consistent, communicable, and intelligible-- concerning the use of pictorial elements. Christina Thomson has written, "Klee's ten years at the Bauhaus, first in Weimar and after 1925 in Dessau, mark the zenith of his artistic production...[His] creative versatility makes it impossible to identify a specific 'Bauhaus' style in Klee's oeuvre; rather, the continuity in his work of the 1920s exists less at the level of style or motif than in the integration of a deeper theoretical component. Forced by his teaching responsibilities to thoroughly analyze and articulate his artistic practice for the first time, Klee now created art that entered into dialogue with its own theory: intuition met reason, analysis became inspiration, idea found new structure" (The Klee Universe, exh. cat., Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 2008, p. 254).
Schicksalstunde um dreiviertel zwölf is part of a group of whimsical compositions that Klee executed in Weimar, in which delicate, often child-like, line drawings are set either against an independent structure of color units or (as here) within a stained, translucent color field. These playful poetic fantasies were often drawn from the world of theater, ballet, opera, and fairy tales; Klee loved the comic operas of Mozart and was also drawn to the magical stories of the Romantic author E.T.A. Hoffmann, whose works were much discussed at the Bauhaus in the early 1920s. Although the present example does not appear to have a specific referent in the world of the stage, it boasts the same dream-like, semi-narrative character as Klee's explicitly operatic paintings. At the far right, a clock reads 11:45, its pendulum counting down the minutes until midnight, when the spell will presumably be broken; the clock serves as a harbinger of doom, as the title of the painting makes clear (Fateful Hour at a Quarter to Twelve). The conical shape with two balls in the upper zone of the painting repeats the swinging motion of the pendulum, while the moon to its right echoes the shape of the glowing clock face, suggesting a parallel between cosmic and earthly time. The fluid wash of reds and yellows in the background lends the scene an eerie, mysterious cast, as though the night sky were artificially illuminated. At the bottom left of the composition, a girl rushes away, past a house that seems to be on the brink of toppling over; perhaps she has just fled the building beside the clock tower, with its prominent red path leading to and fro. Klee explored many of these same pictorial motifs in two other compositions from 1922, both of which replace the nocturnal setting of the present painting with that of high noon--or rather, 11:45 a.m. (figs. 1-2). Will Grohmann has written, "We shall never know exactly which, or how many, of Klee's works allude to the opera. In Klee, the process of metamorphosis is so intense that origins are seldom apparent, the more so as in his method of work the associative elements often enter only after a picture has been started. The titles alone are not a sufficient clue. Operatic experiences were undoubtedly the inspiration of many other ballet-like figures--lovers and mourners, masked and unmasked; and many a landscape with moon and stars certainly descends from the realm of The Magic Flute and other fairy-tale operas" (op. cit., 1954, p. 247).
The theatrical context of the present painting is reinforced by the inclusion of musical notation in the composition: the lines of a musical score on the tree-topped mountain in the foreground, which establishes a loosely Alpine setting for the dramatic episode; and the character '3/4' in the sky, which might make reference not only to the portentous hour and but also to three-quarter time (the time signature for a waltz). Music was an integral part of Klee's life from his earliest childhood. His father was a music teacher, his mother a trained singer, and he himself an accomplished violinist. Indeed, Klee's decision to become a visual artist rather than a musician was made only with great difficulty at the end of his secondary schooling. He came to see music as a model for his art and persistently sought to translate the temporal qualities of music into visual form. Many of his lectures at the Bauhaus centered on the parallels between music and color theory, in particular the ability of linear patterns and grids to create structural rhythms. In paintings such as the present one, the independent roles played by drawing and color have been likened to the relationship between the libretto and the score of an opera, which are connected but retain their own separate identities; just as the libretto is elevated by being set to music, so too does the abstract, colored ground imbue Klee's playful, representational drawings with new strength (see A. Kagan, Paul Klee: Art and Music, Ithaca, New York, 1983, pp. 95-121). This technique enabled Klee both to preserve the delicate, idiosyncratic character of his line and to sustain within himself a child's spirit of play. Andrew Kagan has explained, "Whimsy, fantasy, and playfulness were not merely personal indulgences for Klee; they also represented an aesthetic ideal. In his assessment of Mozart's achievement, Klee must have deduced thatan understanding of and occasional borrowing from the young child's aesthetic, is a critical factor in attaining ultimate things in art" (Paul Klee at the Guggenheim Museum, exh. cat, Guggenheim Museum, Soho, New York, 1993, p. 37).
Another key feature of the present painting is its creative exploration of architectural forms. Klee had been fascinated by architectural studies since the earliest days of his career; he wrote in his diary in 1902, "Everywhere I see only architecture, linear rhythms, planar rhythms" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., Berlin, 2008, p. 230). His experience at the Bauhaus, whose very name programmatically identified architecture as an avant-garde artistic principle, intensified the constructive tendencies in his work. In Schicksalstunde um dreiviertel zwölf, the clock tower alludes to traditional church architecture, while the two smaller buildings have the pared down, cubic forms of actual Bauhaus buildings. The mountain in the center resembles a man-made structure in its regularity, with the musical scores functioning as paths or steps leading to the top; the ziggurat-like edifice at the far left of the composition is crowned by the same spindly fir tree as the mountain itself, suggesting the way that humans imitate nature and adopt its structural laws as their own. Thomson has concluded, "Klee gives his architecture countless faces. He represents it in cities, villages, and houses; he piles it up into palaces, temples, and castles, concentrates it into urban bundles, blends it with natural landscapes, [and] transforms it into a stage... Klee causes real architectural forms to collide with invented or symbolic elements, mixing the familiar with the visionary and space with dream. The result is fantastical cities, castles in the air, and dream worlds that fuse into a singularly dynamic architectural cosmos: nothing is rigid and purely geometric; everything pulsates, swells, flows, hovers, or glows... Klee blurs the boundary between the built and the grown, the constructive and the organic. The unity of cultural and natural forms bears clear witness to the creation analogies and cosmic ideas that pervaded Klee's art" (ibid., pp. 230-231).
The earliest recorded owner of the present painting was the dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the sole agent for Klee's work in Europe from 1933 onward. The painting was included in a major exhibition at the Kunsthalle Bern in February-March 1935, just over a year after Klee fled Germany and returned to his native Switzerland, where he would remain until his death. In 1938, Kahnweiler granted exclusive rights to represent Klee in America to the dealer Karl Nierendorf, who had emigrated to New York from Berlin the previous year. Nierendorf explained to the collector Duncan Phillips, founder of the museum in Washington, D.C. that bears his name, "I made a contract with Klee such as no art dealer in the world would do. Regardless of what sales I might make, I guaranteed Klee an amount each year upon which he could live well and work without care for his material welfare" (quoted in Paul Klee, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1987, p. 101). The present canvas passed from Kahnweiler to Nierendorf around this time, and shortly thereafter was acquired by Phillips, who had begun collecting Klee's work in 1930 and redoubled his efforts in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The painting was also featured in a lavishly illustrated monograph on Klee that Nierendorf published in English in 1941, which marked an important step in establishing Klee's reputation in America.
(fig. 1) Paul Klee, Wintertag Kurz vor Mittag, 1922. Kunsthalle Bremen.
(fig. 2) Paul Klee, Das Gesicht eines Marktplatzes, 1922. Private collection.