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Paul Klee
High Spirits
Oil and coloured paste on paper on burlap

101 x 130 cm
Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern

Excerpt from Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern:

A figure leans far back – its three arms truncated like drumsticks – and balances precariously on one leg on the tightrope. Its facial expression is bold and decisive, the exclamation mark above the balancing act and red fields around the head and upper body accentuating the extraordinary moment.

In the large-format painting »Uebermut«, 1939, 1251 (PQu 11) [High spirits] Paul Klee returned to the theme of balance that he had dealt with theoretically and in his work, primarily in the 1920s. In his 1921 Bauhaus-period »Essays on Artistic Form«, Klee described the motif of the tightrope walker and balancing pole as the »most extreme realisation of the balance of forces«. Eighteen years later, that became a risky dance on the high wire – the tightrope walker and the tightrope, which, like a taut bow, stand up to the forces acting upon them. Below the tightrope walker, another small figure on a blue field of colour seeks to avoid tipping over and falling by clinging onto the short, pole-like extension of the rope. At bottom right, a third artiste appears on a unicycle.

Klee used the motif of the precarious balancing act in two earlier works, »Wieder kindisch«, 1939, 750 (NN 10) [Childish again], and »Blauer Tänzer«, 1939, 852 (UU 12) [Blue dancer]. In »Uebermut« it takes on a symbolic dimension: the figure of the tightrope walker and drummer becomes a metaphor for Klee’s own endangered artistic career. »Uebermut« could be read in the context of Germany’s invasion of Poland and as a parable on the »eternal drummer« Adolf Hitler and his »high-spirited« war. This is supported by the fact that »Uebermut« contains motifs from Francisco de Goya’s etching »Que se rompe la cuerda« from the »Los desastres de la guerra« series, which portrays the arrogance of the Spanish Church in the war against Napoleon – as well as motifs from Pablo Picasso’s 1937 cycle of etchings »Sueño y Mentira de Franco« (The dream and lie of Franco). Both show their subjects under attack – as overconfident tightrope walkers, proud before a fall.

See also: Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, »Short Guide«, 2005.


Paul Klee, German-Swiss, (1879-1940)
b. December 18, 1879, Münchenbuchsee, near Bern, Switzerland
d. 1940

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