PAUL KLEE (1879-1940)
PAUL KLEE (1879-1940)
PAUL KLEE (1879-1940)
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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more Visionary: The Paul G. Allen Collection
PAUL KLEE (1879-1940)

Die Schlange auf der Leiter

PAUL KLEE (1879-1940)
Die Schlange auf der Leiter
signed 'Klee' (lower right)
oil, watercolor and pen and ink on paper laid down by the artist on board, nailed down by the artist on a stretcher and in the artist's frame
11 3/4 x 18 7/8 in. (29.8 x 47.8 cm.)
Executed in 1929
With Alfred Flechtheim, Berlin and Düsseldorf (1930, until at least 1932).
With the Mayor Gallery, London (circa 1933-1935).
Peter Watson, London and Paris (acquired from the artist, May 1939).
Confiscated from the above by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg and transferred to the Jeu de Paume (ERR no. Watson 3) (1 January 1941).
Intended for transfer to Nikolsburg, Moravia (1 August 1944).
Recovered by the French Resistance, and restituted by the Commission de Récupération Artistique to Peter Watson, London and Paris, (29 December 1945, until at least 1954).
Philip Granville Modern Paintings, London (until 1955).
Berggruen et Cie., Paris (1955, until 1956).
Galerie Beyeler, Basel.
Harold Diamond, New York (until 1971).
Berggruen et Cie., Paris (acquired from the above, 1971).
Private collection, Paris (acquired from the above, 1971).
Private collection, London (acquired from the above); sale, Christie’s, New York, 12 May 2016, lot 48C.
Acquired at the above sale by the late owner.
R. Vitrac, "A propos des oeuvres récentes Paul Klee" in Cahiers d'Art, Paris, 1930, no. 6, p. 301 (illustrated).
C. Zervos, Histoire de l'art contemporain, Paris, 1938, p. 404 (illustrated).
W. Grohmann, Paul Klee, New York, 1954, p. 416, no. 289 (illustrated, p. 238).
C. Kröll, Die Bildtitel Paul Klees: eine Studie zur Beziehung von Bild und Sprache in der Kunst des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts, Bonn, 1968, p. 70.
M. Huggler, Paul Klee: Die malerei als blick in den kosmos, Frauenfeld, 1969, pp. 109, 221 and 254, no. 13 (illustrated).
C. Müller, Das Zeichen in Bild und Teorie bei Paul Klee: Dissertation, Technische Universität Munich, 1979, p. 127 (illustrated).
A. Janda, "Paul Klee und Nationalgalerie 1919-1937" in Akten, Dresden, 1986, p. 49.
O. Okuda, Paul Klee, exh. cat., Kunsthalle Bern, 2000, p. 226 (illustrated).
The Paul Klee Foundation, ed., Paul Klee: Catalogue Raisonné, 1927-1930, Bern, 2001, vol. 5, p. 405, no. 5096 (illustrated).
Düsseldorf, Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen, Paul Klee, June-July 1931, p. 11, no. 75.
Berlin, Galerie Alfred Flechtheim, Paul Klee: Neue bilder und aquarelle, November-December 1931, no. 1.
Oslo, Kunstnernes hus, Nyere tysk kunst: maleri og skulptur, January 1932, no. 86.
Copenhagen, Den frie udstilling, Nyere tysk kunst, May 1932, no. 99.
Berlin, Preussische Akademie der Künste, Herbstausstellung, October-November 1932, no. 94.
Berlin, Berliner Secession, Frühjahrs-Ausstellung, May-July 1933, no. 35.
London, The Mayor Gallery, A Survey of Contemporary Art, October 1933, no. 18 (dated 1932).
Kunsthalle Bern, Paul Klee, February-March 1935, p. 5, no. 45.
Kunsthalle Basel, Paul Klee, October-November 1935, p. 5, no. 36.
Kunstmuseum Luzern, Paul Klee: Fritz huf, April-June 1936, p. 4, no. 32.
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Brought to you by

Max Carter
Max Carter Vice Chairman, 20th and 21st Century Art, Americas

Lot Essay

Painted in 1929, Die Schlange auf der Leiter (The Snake on the Ladder) showcases the integral role played by the natural world in Paul Klee’s artistic vision, as he sought to explore the intricate, mysterious relationship that exists between nature, the cosmos, and creative inspiration in his art. Klee believed that by reaching down into nature the artist was able to absorb impressions of the world, which could then be channeled into a subjective artistic vision that expressed the inherent truths of the universe.
Comparing the source of an artist’s creative impulse to the growth of a tree, Klee explained: “From the root the sap flows to the artist, flows through him, flows to his eye. Thus he stands as the trunk of the tree. Battered and stirred by the strength of the flow, he molds his vision into his work” (quoted in E.-G. Güse, Paul Klee: Dialogue with Nature, exh. cat., Saarland Museum, Saarbrücken, 1990, p. 26). However, as with the tree, the resulting image could not be an exact reflection of its source material. Rather, the “crown” of the tree must diverge from the pattern of its roots and develop its own identity, allowing a space for the artist’s creativity to blossom in a new, subjective manner. In this way, Klee believed that the impressions absorbed by the artist could lead to a new vision of the world, one which offered access to different realities and revealed more than just the visible, surface impressions of nature.
Klee explores this idea in Die Schlange auf der Leiter, creating a fantastical, dreamlike image filled with sources drawn from his careful observation of the natural world. The serpent of the title ascends a steep ladder to rise above an ethereal, fictitious planet, watched by a row of archetypal plant forms, while a series of curious objects – including a crystal, an egg and two undefined geometric shapes – appear to float in the space surrounding them. The unexpected juxtapositions that occur between these objects imbue the scene with an otherworldly quality, while the ambiguity of their connections heightens the sense of mystery within the composition. Klee may have drawn inspiration for this painting from the varying landscapes and terrains he encountered on his travels abroad, particularly those from his sojourn in Egypt at the end of 1928, where he journeyed from Cairo and Alexandria, to Luxor, Karnak and Aswan. Indeed, his friend and biographer, Will Grohmann, has described Klee’s time in Egypt as “the greatest single source of inspiration in his later years” (Paul Klee, London, 1954, p.76). He was fascinated by ancient Egyptian culture, particularly the symbolic power of hieroglyphs, as well as the rich rhythms of the landscape and the contrasting profiles of the barren dessert and the fertile agricultural lands of the Nile basin.
Although his artistic output was limited during the trip itself, Klee spent his time storing up impressions of this enchanting environment, which he then recalled from memory for use in his drawings and paintings. The impact of Egypt gradually expressed itself in his compositions of 1929, and in Die Schlange auf der Leiter the rich tones of the color palette and the prominence of the serpent in the composition, show the influence of Klee’s experiences in this ancient land. Snakes held an important place in Egyptian mythology and culture, occupying a liminal space between benevolent protector and dangerous monster, and after his journey the reptile came to feature in several of Klee’s compositions. By entwining the creature in the rungs of the ladder here, the artist adds a sense of whimsy and playfulness to this enigmatic painting, evoking the childhood board game of snakes and ladders.

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