Klee was drafted into the German infantry reserves in 1916 at the age of thirty-six. After going through basic training he was about to be sent out to the front as a foot soldier, but was reassigned to a position at an airfield in Schleissheim near Munich. This transfer was the result of an unwritten decree saving talented young Munich artists from being sent to the front. It took the deaths of several of Klee’s contemporaries such as Franz Marc and August Macke for this intervention by the Bavarian government to occur. By January of 1917, Klee found himself settled in a desk job at the paymaster’s office of the military flying school in Gersthofen. He would remain in that post until he was demobilized in 1919.
Despite the “safe” assignments, Klee was nonetheless greatly affected by his new surroundings, as would become evident in the noticeable shift in the style, methodology and materials he employed in the creation of his works during this time. He ceased working with oil on canvas during the war years, instead focusing his efforts on watercolors and drawings executed on paper and scavenged bits of airplane linen. Referred to as Blätter, Klee’s process for these works involved covering the supports with a thin coat of plaster before applying watercolor, creating a light-reflecting effect akin to gouache. Klee employed this method equally on paper and on cloth, as is seen in the present work and a closely associated work from 1917, Speil der Kräfte einer Lechlandschaft (fig. 1). Klee himself wondered what connection could be drawn between his art and the changes the war imposed on his life. In a letter to his wife on 9 September 1917 he asked “If I’d calmly gone on living, would my art have shot up so fast as in the year 16/17?” (quoted in A. Bourneuf, Paul Klee, The Visible and the Legible, Chicago, 2015, p. 13).
The war-era Blätter works would mark a major turning point in the artist’s career. They were first exhibited in February 1917 at Herwarth Walden’s Galerie der Sturm in Berlin and the glowing critical reception was a breakthrough for the artist commercially. In his review of the show, art critic Theodore Däubler called Klee “the most important painter of the expressionist tendency.” He went on to say “his exhibition is really staggering; it is unbelievable how much he has deepened and developed just recently” (quoted in ibid., p. 16).
(fig. 1) Paul Klee, Speil der Kräfte einer Lechlandschaft, 1917. Galerie Rosengart, Lucerne.