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 fact, for Klee, the theatre was not merely a simulation of life, but life simulated art in the theatre of humanity played out all around him in real time as a continual performance of everyday life.
Klee’s interest in the expressive potential of puppetry 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 theatre and a set of eight hand puppets created from the Blaue Reiter Almanac; some three dozen more puppets would follow in the ensuing decade until 1925 with varying themes such as family members, village people, heroes and villains. '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).
Drama Aktschluss (Drama, End of Act) is part of a group of whimsical compositions that Klee executed in the early 1920s, in which delicate, ostensibly naïve, line drawings are set either against an independent structure of colour units or (as here) within a stained, translucent colour field. These playful poetic fantasies were often drawn from the world of theatre, ballet, opera, and fairy tales; Klee loved the comic operas of Mozart and was also drawn to the magical stories of the Romantic author E.T.A. Hoffmann, whose works were much discussed at the Bauhaus in the early 1920s.
A playful, musical rhythm is inherent within Drama Aktschluss (Drama, End of Act), the puppets and props dancing atop the animated line as if notes on a musical score, choreographed in their performance of life. Music had been an integral part of Klee's life from his earliest childhood, his father a music teacher, his mother a trained singer, and he himself an accomplished violinist. Indeed, Klee's decision to become a visual artist rather than a musician was made only with great difficulty at the end of his secondary schooling. He came to see music as a model for his art and persistently sought to translate the temporal qualities of music into visual form. Many of his lectures at the Bauhaus centred on the parallels between music and colour theory, in particular the ability of linear patterns and grids to create structural rhythms. In works such as Drama Aktschluss (Drama, End of Act), the independent roles played by drawing and colour have been likened to the relationship between the libretto and the score of an opera, which are connected but retain their own separate identities; just as the libretto is elevated by being set to music, so too does the abstract, coloured ground imbue Klee's playful, representational drawings with new strength (see A. Kagan, Paul Klee: Art and Music, New York, 1983, pp. 95-121). This technique enabled Klee both to preserve the delicate, idiosyncratic character of his line and to sustain within himself a child's spirit of play. Andrew Kagan has explained, 'Whimsy, fantasy, and playfulness were not merely personal indulgences for Klee; they also represented an aesthetic ideal. In his assessment of Mozart's achievement, Klee must have deduced that an understanding of and occasional borrowing from the young child's aesthetic, is a critical factor in attaining ultimate things in art' (Paul Klee at the Guggenheim Museum, exh. cat, New York, 1993, p. 37).
Although the title of the present work makes the correlation clear, many works from Klee’s oeuvre inherently display the core influences of theatre and music on the artist without necessarily alluding to it in the title, as Will Grohmann has written, 'We shall never know exactly which, or how many, of Klee's works allude to the opera. In Klee, the process of metamorphosis is so intense that origins are seldom apparent, the more so as in his method of work the associative elements often enter only after a picture has been started. The titles alone are not a sufficient clue. Operatic experiences were undoubtedly the inspiration of many other ballet-like figures - lovers and mourners, masked and unmasked; and many a landscape with moon and stars certainly descends from the realm of The Magic Flute and other fairy-tale operas' (op. cit., 1954, p. 247).
An oil transfer drawing of the exact same composition resides in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, showing the artist’s exploration of this subject in the technique he devised in 1919, displaying a darker, more muted palette. Howardena Pindell explains the technique: 'In Klee's innovative method, tracing paper was transformed into a type of carbon paper by painting one side with printer's ink or oil paint. The drawing (or model of a drawing) would be placed on top and meticulously traced with a needle. Simultaneously a piece of drawing paper or lithographic transfer paper would be placed under the painted surface to receive the drawing. The pressure of his hand left an impression of the weave of the paper, making visible the paper's surface qualities (Klee could intentionally rub the surface or accidentally transfer surface texture 'monotypically' to the paper)' (Paul Klee Centennial: Prints and Transfer Drawings, exh. cat., New York, 1978.).
The present work was first held in the collection of Emmy 'Galka' Scheyer, the German-American artist and art dealer who founded the art collective The Blue Four in 1924, comprised of Klee, Kandinsky, Feininger and Jawlensky, promoting the artists’ work in America with the first exhibition at Charles Daniel Gallery, New York, in 1925. Since being exhibited in Hollywood in 1930, Drama Aktschluss (Drama, End of Act) remained in American collections until the 1970s whereupon it returned to Europe in the 1970s by ownership of Berggruen & Cie, Paris, entering the present family collection in the 1980s where it has remained for over 30 years.