The Surrealists expressed their esteem for the work of Paul Klee in the early 1920s, from the very inception of their movement. André Masson and Joan Miró were familiar with Wilhelm Hausenstein's 1921 monograph on Klee, which strongly influenced the development of their painting from cubism to Surrealism. The poets André Breton, Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard owned paintings by Klee, although it was not until October 1925 that Klee received his first, full-scale solo exhibition in Paris, at the Galerie Vavin-Raspail. In 1929, on the occasion of the artist's 50th birthday, Will Grohmann published a well-received text on Klee, accompanied by homages from seven Surrealist painters and poets, in Cahiers d'Art.
By the mid-1920s Klee's methods and techniques had become so numerous and diverse that it seems remarkable that most were purely and uniquely his own, and that his pictorial language and subjects had become so idiomatic and personal that he seemed to owe very little to outside influences. He continued to expand on these processes by being openly receptive to both new and old kinds of art during his travels, and he broadened his ideas on perception and art-making in his classes at the Bauhaus. However, he was neither swept along nor unduly influenced by newer movements that were emerging around him. For these reasons, the Surrealist movement had less impact on his work than he had on it, even if one may relate aspects of his work to artists such as Joan Miró, André Masson, Max Ernst and Pablo Picasso. Surrealism provided an environment in which Klee's work was more widely appreciated, but it did little to alter his essential approach to painting.
Mordbrenner ("The Incendiary") is a good case in point, insofar as it reflects many ideas that were then current, but nevertheless remains an entirely personal and characteristic statement. One may observe residual traces of cubism and constructivism, the dark and haunted space of the Surrealist inscape, the impact of children's and outsider art, and similarities to modernist abstraction and sign-making. Yet the style and content is immediately recognizable as Klee, who had been working along these lines for almost two decades. Indeed, the subject of this gouache, the "incendiary"--the little personage whose head pokes up at lower left, and who has set off the smoky explosion within the machine--is perhaps the artist himself in his role as catalyst or agent-provocateur. The soldier carrying a spear at right attends to the disruption, but he is too late to do anything about it.
Klee is perhaps referring here to the growing political turmoil in Weimar Germany, and the increasing shift toward right-wing and fascist ideologies there and elsewhere in Europe. Dissention and disorder also plagued the Surrealist movement, and threatened to tear it apart--the rebel Georges Bataille might be cast as the incendiary, and the strict and dogmatic disciplinarian Breton as the soldier, who marches over to enforce his rule of law and order. Amid this growing chaos, Klee maintained and guarded his role as a significant outsider and a true independent, a stance that guaranteed his integrity both as an artist and a man of conscience.