Paul Klee: 5 Paintings That Show His Mastery of Making the Complex Simple

His unique combinations of simplistic forms created a final works that are more than the sum of their parts.

Renown abstract artist Paul Klee lived and breathed creativity. He was the son of a German music teacher and Swiss singer, he was an accomplished violinist in a symphony orchestra before he left a mark on the cubism, surrealism, and expressionism styles of art. Tuesday, Google celebrated his crosscutting contributions to the art world with a Google Doodle.

Klee’s background in the auditory arts gave him the unique ability to imbue the minimalist shapes he used in his work to take on life. His use of colors in his pieces give onlookers a sense of setting, temperature, mood. While his unique combinations of simplistic forms create a final work that is more than the sum of its parts.

Speaking during an ArtFund video (see clip above) about a 2014 Klee exhibition at London’s Tate Modern gallery, art historian Rosie Rockel describes Klee’s style of “using rectangles as a basic building block, which he combined like musical notes, to create a harmony of colors.”

Here are five of his most famous pieces that exemplify the simplistic style he’s still famous for 139 years after his birth.

5. Paul Klee: “Red Bridge” (1928)

On the left is Paul Klee's original painting and on the right is the homage paid to it by Google.

Tuesday’s Google doodle is a riff on Klee’s 1928 painting “Red Bridge,” where he reimagined the arches, bridges, towers, and spires of classic European architecture as a series of rectangles, triangles, and circles.

Klee’s work is defined by his signature method of taking often complex subjects — like the human face, cities, and animals — and breaking them down to their simplest form, all while still making it clear what he is depicting.

4. Paul Klee: “Senecio” (1922)

Paul Klee

Senecio, the Latin word for “old man,” is one of Klee’s most recognized paintings because of its vivid colors and his creative use of simple, geometric shapes. He melds together triangles, rectangles, and circles to give the impression that the man pictured is raising his eyebrow while distinct color separation animates otherwise lifeless shapes.

Klee produced hundreds of portraits during his prolific career and often experimented with his style. His work ranged from pencil drawings, color splashes, or watercolor paintings. However, the color and shape techniques used in “Senecio” would go on to mature in his later work.

3. Paul Klee: “Castle and Sun” (1928)

Paul Klee

“Castle and Sun” is a perfect example of how the geometric pattern placement and use of bright colors Klee experimented with in “Senecio” flourished six years later. By primarily using rectangles and triangles, he creates a warm city scene being illuminated by the sun that hangs in the upper-right of the painting.

“Senecio” had slightly muddled color distinctions, but here Klee opts for much harsher lines to create a feeling of depth while using two-dimensional shapes. He comprehensively recreated the complexity of a city using the simplest forms available to him.

2. Paul Klee: “Cat and Bird” (1928)

Paul Klee

That same year, Klee produced yet another one of his most iconic pieces, “Cat and Bird.” This painting is a callback to the coloration and geometric techniques he used in “Senecio” while being clearly distinguished from “Castle and Sun.”

Klee captures cats’ oftentimes aloof nature by perching a bird on its head. Both animals are abstractly depicted using the same geometric patterns as “Senecio,” but can easily be distinguished because of the color division he created using oil and ink.

1. Paul Klee: “Twittering Machine” (1922)

Paul Klee

While being vastly different from the aforementioned works “Twittering Machine” is the clearest example of Klee’s musical background. The piece fuses nature and machinery. Mechanical birds stand atop of what seems to be both a laundry line and crank of a music box.

Klee breathlessly captures how instruments attempt to recreate the sound of nature using human-made machinery in symbolic and slightly uncomfortable way.

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