By 1930, when he painted Herbstblätter Straus, Klee had arrived at the peak of his career. He enjoyed international status as a master of contemporary art and was a prominent representative of the Bauhaus, where he had taught since 1920, first at Weimar and then at Dessau. On the occasion of Klee’s fiftieth birthday in December 1929, the Berlin gallerist Alfred Flechtheim gave him a large retrospective, which then traveled to The Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Cahiers d’Art in Paris commissioned a massive volume of reproductions of his oeuvre; and he was fêted at the Bauhaus with an enormous package of gifts dropped by parachute from an airplane. According to Will Grohmann, “Klee was now one of the few artists in a position to decide the future course of art. Every exhibition of his was eagerly anticipated, and critics measured him by international standards” (Paul Klee, New York, 1954, p. 251).
In early 1930, Klee executed a number of works based on precise threedimensional studies consisting of interlocking planes of color. As is typical of Klee’s art, Herbstblätter Straus (Bunch of Autumn Leaves) depicts not the outward appearance of its subject (though this itself is discernible in the work’s harmonious but near-abstract patterning of color and form) but its inner nature or “essence” as Klee called it. As Klee had repeatedly taught his students at the Bauhaus, it was not the look of the object or its outer form that he wanted them to convey in their work, but its true self. As one of his students recalled, Klee “made us sense how life streamed through its main and subsidiary veins, how its form was determined by this and how the cellular tissue embroidered itself lightly and yet firmly like a net around the veins… we felt this so strongly that the pencil in our hands became heavy and we had to admit that the first thing we had to do was to learn to see before we could draw another line” (L. Grote, ed., Erinnerungen an Paul Klee, Munich, 1959, p. 64).
Like the similar work from this time, Belichtetes Blatt (“Illuminated Leaf;” The Paul Klee Foundation, no. 5030), in which Klee articulated the inner life force of a leaf seemingly radiating outwards, Herbstblätter Straus presents a pictorial combination of “outer form” and inner generative impulse. Outward appearance is here linked to “essence” in a masterfully eloquent form of visual poetics that, as Richard Verdi has pointed out, “could only have come from the mind of an artist deeply immersed in the workings of nature—one who, only a year later, offered the following advice to the teacher of a group of young art-students: ‘When they are ready to move onto higher things, guide your pupils towards nature—into nature. Make them experience it, how a bud is formed, how a tree grows, how a butterfly unfolds, so that they may become just as resourceful, flexible and original as great nature. Looking is revelation, is insight into the workshop of God. There, in nature’s womb, lies the secret of creation’” (R. Verdi, “The Botanical Imagery of Paul Klee,” E.G. Güse, ed., Paul Klee, Dialogue With Nature, Munich, 1991, p. 29).