Dr. Michael Baumgartner from Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern has confirmed that the verso of this work is by the hand of Paul Klee and that it was possibly painted circa 1910.
Klee painted this hillside townscape, at once whimsical and haunting, in 1920, the year in which he achieved his first real measure of fame. In October 1919, he had signed a three-year contract with the well-established avant-garde dealer Hans Goltz; the following spring, Goltz mounted a retrospective of more than 350 of Klee’s paintings, drawings, and etchings, which represented something of a sensation in Munich. Soon after, three monographs on Klee were published, and the artist’s own statement of his expressive aims appeared in the anthology Creative Credo. Finally, in November 1920, Klee received an invitation from Walter Gropius to join the faculty of the newly founded Bauhaus in Weimar. He left Munich two months later to join this exacting community of artists, architects, craftsmen, and designers.
“The year 1920 marked the first high point of Klee’s career,” Christine Hopfengart and Michael Baumgartner have written. “After the self-questioning during his time in Bern and the financial hardships and initial disappointments in Munich, this breakthrough signified the definitive end of an exhausting lean period. He himself spoke of the ‘long years of ice’ that had at last melted away” (op. cit., 2012, p. 100).
A key aspect of Klee’s art at this time was the creative exploration and reinterpretation of architectural forms. “Everywhere I see only architecture, linear rhythms, planar rhythms,” he wrote in his diary (quoted in The Klee Universe, exh. cat., Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 2008, p. 231). In Zerstörtes Dorf (Destroyed Village), Klee has depicted a cluster of pared-down, rectilinear structures (not unlike the actual buildings of the Bauhaus), which slant and skew as though threatening to collapse, reflecting the artist’s fascination with processes of change and metamorphosis. The angles of the buildings are echoed in the sloping lines of the enveloping landscape, suggesting a unity of natural and man-made forms, while the dominant browns and reds of the painting are the colors of autumn, the season of decline. Although the candle near the center of the canvas has been extinguished, the painting continues to glow with a diffuse and mysterious white light. “Klee causes real architectural forms to collide with invented or symbolic elements, mixing the familiar with the visionary and space with dream,” Christina Thomson has explained. “The result is fantastical cities, dream worlds that fuse into a singularly dynamic architectural cosmos: nothing is rigid and purely geometric; everything pulsates, swells, flows, hovers, or glows” (ibid., pp. 231-232).
Klee gave the present canvas (which, intriguingly, has an earlier painting by Klee of a female figure on the verso) a prominent place in a photograph of his Munich studio that he took in 1920, featuring a crowded display of his most recent oil paintings. “The photograph conveys an image of industrious seclusion and playful imagination,” Hopfengart and Baumgartner have noted, “telling – not without some pride – of the successful construction of an artist’s life” (op. cit., 2012, p. 98).
This painting previously belonged to Rolf Bürgi, a close friend and advisor to the Klee family, whose mother Hanni had been the artist’s most enduringly loyal collector. Rolf Bürgi was instrumental in facilitating Klee and his wife Lily’s emigration from Nazi Germany in 1933, and after the artist’s death he administered his estate, preventing its dispersal as German war spoils and establishing the Paul Klee Foundation.
Klee’s studio in Suresnes Castle, Munich, 1920, with Zerstörtes Dorf at the bottom right on the wall of paintings. Photograph by Klee.