In 1901, at the age of 21, Klee noted in his diary: "thoughts about the art of portraiture. Some will not recognize the truthfulness of my mirror. Let them remember that I am not here to reflect the surface (this can be done by the photographic plate), but must penetrate inside. My mirror probes down to the heart. I write words on the forehead and around the corners of the mouth. My human faces are truer than the real ones" (The Diaries of Paul Klee, 1898-1918, Berkeley, 1964, pp. 47-48).
Painted twenty-two years later, Komische Alte realizes this youthful ambition. Although Klee never became a portrait painter in the traditional sense of representing a real person, he was interested in pictorially realizing a role. In his discussion of Klee's figure paintings of the 1920s, Will Grohmann observes: "when the drama depends on a single figure the structure is more concentrated; that is, where Klee reduces the drama to a single character he simplifies the picture to an enigmatic minimum" (Paul Klee, London, 1969, p. 199).
In Komische Alte a lady wears an elegant lorgnette, its round glasses symmetrically reflecting an array of colors. A single red tear is rolling down her left cheek towards a butterfly-shaped mouth and curling locks resemble treble clefs. This is not a portrait of a specific individual but a character type that one might encounter at the opera.
All his life, Paul Klee felt the greatest passion for music, especially opera. As the son of a professional musician he played the violin every day, wrote musical criticism, and thought of music as a model for his art. His son, Felix Klee, records: "from his earliest youth Paul Klee was entranced by the theater. Perhaps what particularly struck him were the transformations, the changing appearances, the costumes and the sets. Certainly the theater was of the utmost importance to his work. However, Klee felt especially drawn toward opera. His preference for it may have been due to his pronounced musicality, to the many excellent performances under Mottl which he heard in Munich, or to opera's uniqueness as an art form...Klee was interested in all opera... (Paul Klee, New York, 1962, pp. 93-94).
Painted while Klee was teaching at the Bauhaus, Komische Alte fits stylistically and thematically into a profoundly imaginative series of figures and faces produced during the course of 1923. Sängerin der komischen Oper (1923, 118; The Paul Klee Foundation, no. 3212; fig. 2) for example employs a similar use of S-shaped spirals akin to the treble clef. The musical theme gives rise to form: spirals, loops and spindle shapes give an effect of flow and pause. Many of Klee's lectures focused on music in relation to art, in particular the ability of intersecting lines to create "structural rhythms." Klee felt that the interplay of lines, much like notes of music, held a spectrum of expressionistic possibility ranging from tranquility to turbulence.
Komische Alte represents a character type that can be described as elegant and cultured but also sentimental, comical and a little peculiar. Christina Thompson notes, "Klee's observations of the human psyche seldom appear as self-referential character studies in which the individual occupies the attention. Klee instead presents the human being as a creature perpetually in dialogue with his surroundings. As with everything else on earth, the human being can also only exist as a part of the greater whole" (The Klee Universe, exh. cat., Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 2008, p. 131). She continues: "Klee thereby presents us with character portraits, which in their ambiguity always keep an interpretative back door open" (ibid., p. 132).