Klee’s interest in “automata” can be considered in connection with E. T. A. Hoffmann’s novel Die Automaten (The Automata) (1814) or Der Sandmann (The Sandman) (1817), which he enjoyed reading. Inspired by his wife Lily, Paul was also interested in the movements of celestial bodies as well as astrology and appropriated their foundations.
Provenance: Paul Erich Küppers, Hanover (on commission); Bachrach (-1939); Galerie Rosengart, Luzern (1939-41); Lily Klee, Bern (1941-46); Klee-Gesellschaft, Bern (1946-); The Mayor Gallery, London (-1955); Herbert Einstein, London (1955-); Lady Nika Hulton, London (1955-); Galerie Beyeler, Basel (-1979); Peter R. Borthwick, Vaucluse/London (1979-89); Sotheby’s, London, Impressionist and Modern Drawings and Watercolours, 5 April 1989 (lot 324); Galerie Jan Krugier & Cie, Geneve; Borthwick Collection, USA.
Exhibitions: Hanover 1919-20 (no. 47); London-York-Chicago 1955-56 (no. 13); Wuppertal-Rotterdam-Munich-Dortmund 1964-65 (no. 70, ill.); Zurich 1967-68 (no. 72, ill.); Basel 1973 (pp. 7-12, no. 12, ill.); Paris 1974 (no. 12, ill.); London 1975 (no. 2, ill.); Munich 1975 (no. 16); Saint-Paul-de-Vence 1977 (no. 15, ill.); Köln 1979 (no. 11, ill.); Munich 1979-80 (no. 356, ill.); New York-Cleveland-Bern 1987-88 (p. 143, ill.).
Bibliography: Rigopoulou 1983, no. 69, ill.; J. M. Jordan, “Klee’s Prints & Oil Transfer Works: Some Further Reflections”, in Annandale-on-Hudson 1983, pp. 87-105; Comte 1989, fig.; Catalogue raisonné 1998-2004, vol. II, no. 2018, ill.; The Cerruti Collection 2019, p. 38, ill. Sources: FK photo album, Felix Klee photo album no. 29, p. 3, photo SFK FK 142-C; mention in the list (of works by Paul Klee) of Rolf Bürgi to W. Hadorn, SFB Ko 1376.
Paul Klee grew up in Bern in a family of musicians and he himself became a particularly talented violinist, so much so that for a long time he was undecided whether to pursue a career as a musician or a painter. From 1912 he was one of the protagonists of the Der Blaue Reiter group and from 1914 he was one of the main European artists to develop abstraction, with a particular focus on line and colour, using techniques inspired by graphics and linked to improvisation, intended to reveal the essence of things. In 1916, during World War I, Klee, a German citizen, was drafted into the military. In works of this period, a certain motif with columns of a temple is frequently found, which is reminiscent of ancient ruins and at the same time alludes to the destruction caused by the war.
The composition of the present work is determined by a circular movement in which a group of elongated capitals gradually shifts and overlaps from back to front and from left to right. The space depicted is marked by two large pillars framing an arch, in the middle of which a tower divides the composition into two worlds: the left part represents the night world dominated by the crescent moon, coloured with a cool blue main tone. The right part is covered with warm tones. The ruler of the day world, an anthropomorphic figure of the sun, radiates light, but is placed on the side of the composition so that only half of his face can be seen at the right edge of the picture. Here the transition from day to night is expressed along with the circular movement suggested by the composition of the picture. At the end of the movement is the anthropomorphic figure of the sun. In accordance with a counterclockwise progression, it seems that a birdlike automaton suspended upside down wants to convey something to a large automaton representing the main character. At the upper edge of the picture, a bundle of lines radiates from the nose of a second small automaton onto the head of the large automaton in the foreground; the beam emerges from his ear as if the small automaton were inspiring the large one.
Both the small and the large automata are regulated by “the laws of the celestial bodies” in that they cannot move independently but only with an automatic clockwork mechanism. In this sense, Klee here explored the theme of “helpless helpers” like in his angel figures, which Klee took up in his late work. Klee’s interest in “automata” can be considered in connection with E. T. A. Hoffmann’s novel Die Automaten (The Automata) (1814) or Der Sandmann (The Sandman) (1817), which he enjoyed reading. Inspired by his wife Lily, Paul was also interested in the movements of celestial bodies as well as astrology and appropriated their foundations. In order to understand this work from the contemporary cultural context, among other things, the fantasy novel Lesabéndio. Ein Asteroiden-Roman (Lesabéndio an Asteroid Roman), published by Paul Scheerbart in 1913, is of significance. Alfred Kubin, who was a friend of Klee, illustrated the novel with fourteen drawings. Walter Benjamin, who would later acquire Klee’s work Angelus novus (1920), wrote a book review about Lesabéndio. Ein Asteroiden-Roman. Klee, who had shared the zeitgeist with them, created an ambivalent mediator of the automata who on the one hand is regulated by “the laws of celestial bodies” in a helpless existence but on the other hand has been freed from the fallibility of human judgement. It can be said that we are dealing here with the figure of a new companion of humanity who is suitable for the era of World War I, with its mechanisation of war.
In 1989, Astrale Automaten was the last of Klee’s works to be purchased by Francesco Federico Cerruti [Ed.].