Klee left Germany in late 1933, soon after Hitler's ascendancy to power, and settled in Bern, where he had lived during his youth, although he did not have Swiss citizenship and would not succeed in obtaining it. Events of the day notwithstanding, Klee produced an enormous body of work during the final years of his life, all the more astonishing because he was also contending with the symptoms of scleroderma, a terminal skin disease. The artist was initially bedridden, but he learned to cope with his condition and resumed work by sitting at a large drawing table instead of standing at an easel (fig. 1). He produced only 25 works in 1936, but this number quickly bounded to 264 in 1937, 489 in 1938, and over 1,200 in 1939. Klee wrote to his son Felix: "Productivity is increasing in range and at a highly accelerated tempo; I can no longer entirely keep up with these children of mine. They run away with me. There is a certain adaptation taking place, in that drawings predominate. Twelve hundred items in 1939 is really something of a record performance" (F. Klee, Paul Klee: His Life and Work in Documents, New York, 1962, p. 72 ).
Der Gelb-Grüne (The Yellow-Green Man) displays the succinct graphic elements and simplified colors that constitute the signature formal vocabulary of Klee's late style. The man's visage and expression have been composed from the most basic signs that one can devise for a face. Miró had been a dedicated maker of pictorial signs since the early 1920s; Matisse and Picasso would eventually take similar steps toward sign-making in their late oeuvre. Rudimentary graphic elements structure the image of the yellow-green man by forming bold, arching arabesques, cutting through and dividing the linen ground into zones of yellow, reddish-ochre, olive and gray. Matthias Bärmann has observed, "His reduced, sign-like repertoire gave Klee, who was aware of how little time remained to him, a spontaneous outlet for his enormous creative urge" (Paul Klee: Fulfillment in the Late Work, Hannover, 2003, p. 15). Even while his work had moved towards an increasingly abstract, universalized and minimalist means of expression, Klee did not pass up the opportunity here to insert a specific humorous touch that animates the image: the man winks at his viewers, as if in possession of some special and pertinent knowledge, to be shared in a time of adversity.
Klee made increasing use of pastel during the final years of his life, as Degas had done in his late work. In 1937 he wrote his wife Lily, "I did pastel drawings to my heart's delight. I am doing some more, along with mounting and doing the accounts" (quoted in ibid., p. 73). Working with pastel is in effect drawing in color--color more brilliant than oil paints and even watercolors could produce. For Klee, who was in his art first and foremost a consummate draughtsman, pastel combined drawing and painting in one activity, and also had the advantage of being physically less demanding than oil painting, enabling him to conserve his strength.
The political news coming from Germany was unrelentingly discouraging, and revealed a growing wave of sinister intent and actual persecution that reached into all corners of society. The ostracism of undesirable artists was well underway. Klee learned in 1937 that fifteen of his works had been included in the infamous exhibition of "Degenerate Art," and more than a hundred others were being removed from German museums in an all-out purge of modern artists. Despite the events of the day, and the crisis he faced in his health, Klee continued his daily routine and worked as hard as ever. Felix Klee, as he pondered his father's prolific production during this period, later wrote: "The last three years of his life must be compared to the eruption of a volcano" (op. cit., p. 73). The Paris dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who by way of a contract with the artist in 1933 became Klee's exclusive agent for sales, declared: "this late production added a note of grandeur, not hitherto discernable, to Klee's work. Thus the hero triumphs over evil" (Paul Klee, New York, 1950, p. 14).
(fig. 1) Paul Klee painting in his studio in Bern, 1939. BARCODE 24409568