With his lifelong passion for all forms of theatrical illusion and fantasy, from classical opera to circus and cabaret-style varieté, Klee populated his visual worlds with puppets, grotesques, marionettes, and masks, and with actors, musicians, dancers, acrobats, and other artists of the stage and circus ring. “Everything that reminds us of stage and scenery reaches deep into our souls,” he declared (quoted in The Klee Universe, exh. cat., Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 2008, p. 164).
In the present gouache, inscribed Daemonische Marionetten (Demonic Puppets), Klee summons forth five masked phantasms from a shadowy ground, their glowing eyes like will-o’-the-wisps punctuating the eerie darkness, to confront the viewer. The two largest bare their teeth in menace or Dionysian abandon, while the pair at the bottom right remains inscrutably impassive; the fifth throws up his stick-figure arms in a histrionic gesture of confusion or terror. The powerfully reductive, graphic mode of representation and the various whimsical touches–a tuft of hair on one phantom, a neatly buttoned shirt on another–evoke the imaginative realm of fairytales, in which the secret wishes and primordial fears of children find expression.
Klee’s interest in the expressive potential of puppetry, which gives Daemonische Marionetten both its theme and its title, first emerged in Munich during the mid-teens, when the artist and his young son Felix were regulars at the Auer Dult, a traditional local flea market. While Klee searched for painting supplies and frames, Felix would sit utterly entranced before Kasperl and Gretl (Punch and Judy) performances. For the boy’s ninth birthday in 1916, Klee made him a puppet theater and a set of eight hand puppets; some three dozen more puppets would follow in the ensuing decade. “Indescribably expressive, each single figure,” Lyonel Feininger recalled. “There was no end to the laughing and the enthusiasm when Felix gave a performance” (quoted in M. Plant, Paul Klee, Figures and Faces, London, 1978, p. 100).
At the Bauhaus during the 1920s, festivals and celebrations were an integral part of community life, from the Lantern Festival on the summer solstice to the Carnival at the end of winter. These festivities provided Felix an opportunity to develop his comedic talent as a puppeteer (he eventually made theater his career), while for Klee they were a rich source of visual stimuli. The present painting, for instance, with its black ground and bursts of color, evokes the sight of masks, costumes, and fireworks appearing unexpectedly against the night sky, generating a mood of revelry shot through with a frisson of fear.
Attracted to its mysterious mingling of slapstick and macabre, Rudolf Probst, director of the avant-garde gallery Neue Kunst Fides in Dresden, acquired Daemonische Marionetten from Klee in the same year the artist created it. The painting subsequently entered the collection of Helmuth Domizlaff, an antiquarian book dealer based in Munich.