Klee left Germany in 1933, following Hitler's ascendancy to power, and settled in Bern, where he had grown up as child. He produced a prolific body of work during the final years of his life, even while he battled the symptoms of scleroderma, a terminal skin disease. The artist was initially bedridden, but he learned to cope with his condition by sitting at a large drawing table instead of standing at an easel (fig. 1). He produced 25 works in 1936, a number which quickly jumped to 264 in 1937, 489 in 1938, and over 1,200 in 1939. Klee wrote to his son Felix, "Productivity is accelerating 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 preponderate. Twelve hundred items in 1939 is really something of a record performance" (quoted in F. Klee, Paul Klee: His Life and Work in Documents, New York, 1962, p. 72).
The present work displays the concisely rendered graphic elements and simplified colors that comprise the formal vocabulary of the artist's late style. Klee has used strong black lines to structure an underlying field of irregular areas of flatly applied colors. Matthias Barmann has suggested that the artist's stylistic transition during this period stemmed in part from his declining health: "Tracing the effects of scleroderma and its specific symptoms is complex, since these, apart from affecting his work on the physiological level, had psychological repercussions even down to the emergence of certain stylistic characteristics. 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. Also the archaic traits of the 'bar-writing' characteristic especially of the very last paintings my have represented a productive reaction to his restricted mobility" (in Paul Klee: Fulfillment in the Late Work, Hanover, 2003, p. 15).
The title of the present work, which translates as "Besides a Little Man," confers a personal meaning onto this linear and colorful construction, and reflects Klee's translation of his graphic vocabulary into more emotionally descriptive compositions. There is indeed a small figure; he appears to sit on a stool and is encircled by the thick bridge-like arc that traverses the central part of the sheet. With the "little man" as a visual anchor, the rest of the composition suggests a domicile filled with furniture, seen as if rendered in an architectural plan. The composition becomes a kind of schematic for the artist's own world, in which he finds shelter within the protective enclosure of his family and home, which is also his studio, the realm of his creative imagination, which opens outward into the world. The title reinforces the idea that the small figure is not the sole subject of his work, but rather everything "besides" or apart from him as well.
Klee's creation of this safe and reassuring haven for both body and mind probably also reflects his response to the increasingly discouraging news coming from Germany. From his exile in Bern he could only look on in dismay when, in 1937, fifteen of his works were included in the infamous exhibition of "Degenerate Art," and more than a hundred of this works were removed from German museums in a massive purge of modern art. Despite all these difficulties Klee continued his daily routine and worked as hard as ever. Felix Klee has written:
"How in addition to this intensified work my father still found time to mount the pictures, frame them, letter them, mount the watercolors and the innumerable drawings on cardboard and keep account of them all with scrupulous exactitude is his oeuvre catalogue, look after his favorite cat Bimbo, read books, receive visits, listen to music, go on small trips and even write letters, remains a mystery to me. The last three years of his life must be compared to the eruption of a volcano" (op. cit., p. 73).
(fig. 1) Paul Klee in his Bern studio, 1938. Photograph by Felix Klee. BARCODE 26019246