By: Diana Malkin

From childhood to adulthood, we look at a painting and think to ourselves, “I can do that.” Well guess what, you did not do it… and honestly, most of us probably cannot create at the level of Picasso, Matisse, or even lesser-known, but influential artists like Paul Klee did. One of Klee’s works, Fire at The Full Moon, may summon those similar thoughts, but here is why you should reconsider them: 

Paul Klee was a Swiss artist born in Münchenbuchsee, 1879. Highly individualistic and experimental, Klee explored expressionism, cubism, and surrealism. He was close friends with Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian abstract painter, where they taught at the Bauhaus school of art, design, and architecture in Germany. Klee wrote about his artistic experiments with color; those writings were later published as Writings on Form and Design Theory (Schriften zur Form und Gestaltungslehre). Klee’s works are believed to reflect his dry humor and childlike perspective because of his ideologies, displayed through ranging colors. 

During his early years, he followed his parents’ wishes of becoming a musician. However, he felt limited to eighteenth and nineteenth-century traditional pieces. Klee thought that painting was more freeing and it allowed him to explore radical ideas and styles. By sixteen, he was drawing landscapes and showing considerable skill. Klee continued painting and received a Fine Arts degree from the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. In 1916, he was conscripted as a Landsturmsoldat (soldier of the reserve forces in Prussia or Imperial Germany), where he lost two close friends in battle. He continued painting through those difficult times and eventually returned to a teaching post in the Academy of Art in Stuttgart. Klee gained exposure by securing a three-year contract with a dealer named Hans Goltz. The dealer’s influential gallery gave Klee commercial success and major exposure. While his reputation grew, he taught at the Bauhaus and traveled the world to exhibit his works. Around 1933, Klee was diagnosed with scleroderma (an autoimmune disease that affects the skin) which caused a slow and painful death in 1940. 

The year 1933 was a monumental time where Klee produced an abstruse work called Fire at The Full Moon. It was created during a period of socio-political unrest across Europe in relation to the succession of Hitler as German Chancellor. This colorful and “simple” work reflects 20th-century modernism and early 20th-century abstract works. The cubist painting consists of a geometric tapestry with heavy colored blocks representing vast fields of countryside. A large yellow sun dominates the vibrant landscape overhead the top left-hand corner. A bright red cross in the top right of the frame has the dual purpose of representing The Red Cross (inverse of the Swiss flag) while also standing apart as a large “headstone”, signifying death. While working on this piece, Klee worked with the group, Der Blaue Reiter or “The Blue Reider”, to master color and engage in artistic theory (color theory includes the principles regarding color mixing and the visual impact of color combinations). Klee admired children’s art and wanted his own style to be similarly unaffected. His dream-like paintings made him popular with Surrealists, but he never officially became one. Like Fire at The Full Moon, Klee’s later works consisted of thicker painted surfaces and simplified compositions with less precise line-work. Unfortunately, he suffered at the hands of Nazi soldiers who ransacked his house. Klee eventually lost his job and suffered from the fatal disease, scleroderma. 

While looking at the painting, most people would know none of that information without learning about Paul Klee’s life – and that is a ridiculous expectation. However, can we truly evaluate any art without knowing the full context of the work? We cannot, because art is inherently personal and it has meaning even if the work’s purpose is to serve no meaning. Fire at The Full Moon is a work that falls into that ambiguous category of abstract art that can be difficult to understand. Unlike the Mona Lisa or paintings with obvious subject matters, we are left with two ways to look at this painting: knowing about Paul Klee’s past with Nazi Germany and his struggle with an incurable disease OR having no prior knowledge about it… and most people relate with the second. These two understandings of the paintings are differentiated with what we know and what we see. 

Undoubtedly, the work holds great historical significance and references to Klee’s Swiss roots, but what about its form and effect on the viewer? In person, one can see the thick paint and layered tones which evokes a somber tone. The thick paint actually humanizes the painting and reminds us that the work was in fact a blank canvas at one point. Our eyes are drawn to the red cross and the vibrant sun (which is the only circular shape in the piece) because they do not follow the other blue and purple tones of the painting. Fire at The Full Moon is confusing and possibly unnerving because of the dark blocks of black that seem almost infinite. Even Klee said, “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.” and “One eye sees, the other feels.” It is clear that he wants the viewers to feel the art, not just see it. Klee believes that art can make us see and it is more than a type of expression, it is a fundamental aspect of understanding human emotion. After all, the most meaningful art connects to human experience. This work subtly achieves that notion and reminds us about the ambiguities of art. Paul Klee’s work, Fire at The Full Moon, is a hidden gem and an early 20th-century masterpiece.