Painted in 1921, the year Klee joined the Bauhaus, Reifendes Wachstum ("Ripening Growth") brings together two of his principal concerns: botany and music. In 1918, while still in the Army, Klee wrote an essay to clarify his idea of art, stating, "Art does not reproduce the visible, but makes visible" (quoted in N. Guterman, The Inward Vision: Watercolors, Drawings and Writings by Paul Klee, New York, 1959, p. 5). He goes on to list potential pictorial themes and forms, "An apple tree in blossom, its roots, rising sap, its trunk, the cross section with annual ring, the blossom, its structure, its sexual functions, the fruit, the core with the seeds. A complex of stages of growth" (quoted in ibid., p. 6). Despite these tangible examples, Klee was not interested in imitating the outward appearance of nature. Instead he wanted to create an art that springs from an inner, life giving creative process, which in turn would be preserved in the work. As Anke Daemgen noted, "In his efforts to fathom the secrets of nature, Klee was striving for a new act of creation, an analogy between nature and the artist's creative work, which in his view were subject to the same laws. [...] The fascination with processes of change and metamorphosis, growth and movement that characterized all of Klee's work reached a climax in his artistic exploration of plants, gardens and landscapes" (D. Scholz and C. Thomson, ed., The Klee Universe, exh. cat., Ostfildern, 2008, p. 207).
In Reifendes Wachstum a floating progression of colors and geometric forms appear to move along the vertical axis in rhythmically structured clusters, overlapping in many layers and color values ranging from dark to light. Referring to another work with a botanical theme executed in 1921 and titled Pflantzenwachtum ("Growth of Plants") (fig. 1), Daemgen states, "Rectangles, triangles, circles and circle segments symbolize growth and the idea of an aspiring energy through their staggered, overlapping placement and the color gradations typical of this stage of Klee's work" (quoted in ibid., p. 208).
The present work was included in Klee's first major exhibition in the United States organized by the Société Anonyme in New York in January 1924. In its review of the show, The New York Times commented, "Paul Klee [...] builds with abstract form but understandably and musically. His scale is nearer the closer toned one of the East than ours of seven intervals, the forms are as easily related to music as his color. He directs the small colored forms, orders and arranges, and without the aid of a book of explanation, forgetting books, one is drawn out of one's self by the joyousness of the designs" (quoted in J. Helfenstein and E.H. Turner, ed., Klee and America, exh. cat., The Menil Collection and Neue Galerie, Ostfildern-Ruit, 2006, p. 33).
Music was an integral part of Klee's life: his father was a music teacher, his mother a trained singer, his wife Lily a pianist and he was an accomplished violist himself, who religiously attended concerts and the opera. While teaching at the Bauhaus, many of Klee's lectures centered on color theory through comparison to music, in particular the ability of intersecting lines to create "structural rhythms." Klee felt that the interplay of lines, much like notes of music, held a spectrum of expressionistic possibility ranging from tranquility to turbulence.
In his candidly titled Fuge in Rot ("Fugue in Red") (fig. 3) of 1921 Klee employs a color scheme and overlapping geometric forms analogous to those used in the present work. Andrew Kagan observed, "In 1921-1922 Klee flirted with a type of composition that he designated 'fugal' (for example, Fugue in Red). In these pictures, space is created by groups of spread stacks or 'decks' of flat, colored forms which diminish in size from back to front. The 'fugal' idea refers to the imitative successions in groups of similar forms, and to the temporal and spatial cadence created by the spread of the form stacks" (in Paul Klee, Art and Music, London, 1983, p. 66).
Paul Klee's Reifendes Wachstum is offered by an heir of the celebrated German art historian William R. Valentiner (1880-1958) who acquired the work from the gallerist Karl Nierendorf in the 1940s. Valentiner was a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1908-1914 and founded the journal Art in America in 1913. In World War I, he served in the German army under the Expressionist painter Franz Marc, and as part of the Novembergruppe met Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Georg Kolbe. During this period he also advised the Detroit Institute of Art on acquisitions and would be appointed its director in 1924. In 1935 Valentiner testified in the tax case of Andrew Mellon which led to the founding of the National Gallery. Two years later he established the popular magazine Art Quarterly. By 1946 he had become a co-director of the Los Angeles County Museum and, following a brief period of retirement, he was asked to develop and direct the J. Paul Getty Museum in Santa Monica in 1953.
Valentiner had met Paul Klee on a number of occasions and acquired four works directly from the artist when he visited his studio in March 1922. The following year, Valentiner organized the influential exhibition "Modern German Art" at the Anderson galleries in New York which included nine works by Klee, but also work by Lyonel Feininger, Erich Heckel, Emil Nolde and Max Pechstein. Valentiner described Klee as, "an artist as imaginative as he was ingenious, and unconsciously strong in his sensibilities" (quoted in, The Passionate Eye: The Life of William R. Valentiner, Detroit, 1980, p. 151).
Reifendes Wachstum marks an apex in Klee's varied and prolific oeuvre. While it pays homage to the natural phenomena of the land, it also moves with pulsating and rhythmic energy, its abstraction and expressionism both foreshadowing what would follow in Modern art history.