Paul Klee (1879-1940)
Paul Klee (1879-1940)

Feier und Untergang

Paul Klee (1879-1940)
Feier und Untergang
signed 'Klee' (lower right); dated, numbered and titled '1920/200 Feier und Untergang' (on a strip of the artist's mount attached to the reverse)
oil and pen and India ink on paper laid down by the artist on board
15¼ x 10 in. (38.7 x 25.4 cm.)
Painted in 1920
Lily Klee, Bern (1940-1946).
Klee-Gesellschaft, Bern (1946).
Private collection, Bern.
Galerie Beyeler, Basel (by 1965).
Hasselblatt collection, Göteborg.
Private collection, Sweden; sale, Christie's, London, 23 June 1997, lot 29.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
W. Kersten, Paul Klee im Zeichen der Teilung, exh. cat., Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, 1995, p. 162, no. 18 (illustrated in a photograph of the artist's studio, p. 163).
The Paul Klee Foundation, ed., Paul Klee, Catalogue raisonné, 1919-1932, Bern, 2001, vol. 3, p. 244, no. 2547 (illustrated).
Basel Kunstmuseum, Ausstellung zum 10 Todestag, June-August 1950, no. 9.


In December 1918, a month after the armistice ending the First World War was signed, Klee was discharged from the German army and returned to Munich, the center of his pre-war activities. Over the course of the next two years, he significantly expanded his range of both subject matter and artistic media, and achieved his first real measure of fame for his work. In October 1919, he signed a three-year contract with the dealer Hans Goltz; the following spring, Goltz mounted a retrospective of more than 350 of Klee's paintings, drawings, and etchings, which represented something of a sensation in Munich. Soon after, two monographs on Klee were published, and the artist's own statement of his expressive aims appeared in the anthology Creative Credo. Finally, in November 1920, Klee received an invitation from Walter Gropius to join the faculty of the newly founded Bauhaus in Weimar; he left Munich two months later to join this exacting community of artists and architects. Will Grohmann has written, "If Klee, like Marc, had been fated to die young, what he produced before 1920 would still have made him not only one of the most inspiring, but also one of the greatest painters of the twentieth century. The period that preceded the Bauhaus is more than simply the foundation for his later work; it is a decisive section of Klee's art and of his century's... In the oil paintings of 1919 and 1920, mostly landscapes, Klee achieves a firmness of form and an objectivity of expression as never before. They comprise the most important works he produced before going to Weimar" (Paul Klee, London, 1954, pp. 152 and 182-183).

The present painting is part of a group of rhythmic, wooded landscapes that Klee made in 1920, the year after he first began working in oil. It is numbered 200 out of 234 works from 1920, suggesting that it dates to the autumn, following the artist's return from Possenhoffen on Lake Starnberg. The dominant red and brown tonalities reflect the colors of the fall foliage, while the title of the painting--Feier und Untergang (Celebration and Decline)--evokes the bounty of the harvest followed by the advent of winter. Blocks of flat color, familiar from the Orphist elements in Klee's pre-war work, serve as a unifying structure for the linear forms that comprise the landscape. The peak of the tree-topped mountain in the center of the composition is repeated in the triangular pediment immediately alongside it, suggesting a connection between natural and man-made creation. Klee was extremely sensitive to the timbre of various landscapes, and his diary repeatedly documents his response to the terrain; he also had assembled a diverse collection of botanical materials that he studied as a repertoire of forms. His goal, however, was not the mimetic translation of observed forms into art, but rather an analogy between nature and the artist's creative work, which in his view were subject to the same laws. He declared in Creative Credo, "Art is a likeness of the Creation. It is sometimes an example, just as the terrestrial is an example of the cosmic" (quoted in ibid., p. 181). Anke Daemgen has explained, "Klee's desire was to make works prompted not merely by the outward appearance of nature, but an art which, like creation itself, would emanate from an inner, life-giving creative process that in turn would remain vital within the work... The fascination with processes of change and metamorphosis, growth and movement that characterized all of Klee's work reached a climax in his artistic exploration of plants, gardens, and landscapes" (The Klee Universe, exh. cat., Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 2008, p. 206).

The present work, executed in oil on paper, was mounted by Klee on board; the artist then painted the border in red to echo the colors of the landscape. He reserved this treatment for the works that he considered the most successful--what he referred to as panel pictures, to differentiate them from drawings or colored sheets. Grohmann has explained, "Klee made very sharp distinctions; he demoted and promoted. When a picture was not capable of living a life of its own on the wall, it was stuck on white pasteboard and became a colored sheet. 'On white it sometimes looks all right,' Klee said of such cases. On the other hand, when a sheet was sufficiently vigorous, he mounted it on pasteboard or wood and turned it into a panel" (op. cit., 1954, p. 161).