In December 1933, Paul Klee and his wife Lily returned to Bern--bringing the artist back near his birthplace of Münchenbuchsee--where he remained until the end of his life in 1940. Klee had a fulfilling and successful career as both an artist and teacher at the Bauhaus from 1920-1931, followed by a brief teaching post at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. By 1933, Klee became a target of the Nazi campaign to expose and obliterate the "degenerate" art of the avant-garde. While his exile in Bern was initially met with despair and a decrease in artistic output, by 1937 Klee regained his creative drive and embarked on one of the most prolific periods of his life--creating some 264 works in 1937, 489 works in 1938, and over 1,200 works in 1939. While he approached the end of his life and failing health, Klee experienced a reinvigoration and energy that resulted in some of the most interesting and reflective works of his career. Will Grohmann discusses this fruitful period:
The last three and a half years of Klee's life form a single period. Despite some resumptions and continuations of earlier concepts, the last act of the drama opens clearly and portentously now, as with a roll of drums. It would be a mistake, however, to see everything in terms of the artist's impending death...At the conclusion of most artists' lives we find a concentration on a few themes and forms of expressions. With Klee, on the contrary, there is a broadening of the flow...There are a great many new conceptions and advances in many directions, but gay and ironical works are almost completely lacking. Klee's humor which had always been musical and Mozartian, becomes still more detached and philosophical and approaches the tragic (in, Paul Klee, Stuttgart, 1954, p. 325).
In the present work, Klee depicts Mary Magdalene as she was known prior to her conversion, a woman sinner and prostitute in her garish attire. The instruments of sin--the large dangling earring, brightly painted face and flowing yellow tresses--represent the incentives of vice used to lure men and enslave their souls. This literal depiction in bright, bold and melodious colors lures the viewer just the same to this endearing and captivating depiction. Religious references were prevalent in Klee's late works and in painting the saint prior to her becoming a symbol of repentance for the vanities of the world, we see Klee's own contemplative penance.
In discussing the outpouring of works from 1937-1938, Grohmann states: "Klee now returned to gouache, which he had already used before on occasion. He employs it as a thick impasto or thinned out, and the likes to combine with oil, tempera and watercolor, so it is easy to see just how the surfaces obtained in this way were produced...The cipher-like pictures painted with these techniques in 1937 and 1938 can be classified in three groups. In the first the symbols, mostly embedded in a bright gouache ground, maintain their former size and degree of emphasis; in the second they are black, heavy as bars, and considerably larger than before; in the third they have brightly colored halos, a pictorial effect that lends them a spezial emphasis. These distinctions may seem superficial but they really go beyond mere technicalities because the meaning of the symbols varies with their character" (in ibid., pp. 326-327)