Paul Klee: a question of nationality

by Thomas Kadelbach

Thomas Kadelbach, né en 1979. Après des études d'histoire et littérature française à Angers, Fribourg et Madrid, il collabore au projet de recherche FNS Les relations culturelles internationales de la Suisse, 1945-1990. Thèse de doctorat sur Pro Helvetia et l'image de la Suisse à l'étranger. Actuellement collaborateur scientifique à l'Université de Neuchâtel.
, Thomas Kadelbach, born in 1979. Studied history and French literature in Angers, Fribourg and Madrid. Research assistant in the SNSF research project Switzerland's International Cultural Relations, 1945-1990. PhD thesis on Pro Helvetia and the image of Switzerland abroad. Currently scientific collaborator at the University of Neuchâtel.

contemporary art

1974 was an outstanding year for the cultural impact of Switzerland in Australia. The Collegium Musicum, founded in Zurich by conductor Paul Sacher in 1941, went on a concert tour, which attracted considerable attention and enjoyed extraordinary success in Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney, and Adelaide. In the same year, the Australian public discovered the work of a painter, today considered the icon of 20th century Swiss painting: Paul Klee. In collaboration with the Australian Arts Council, Pro Helvetia organised exhibitions in Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide that attracted large crowds.

Although Klee became one of the leading ambassadors for the artistic creation in Switzerland in the 20th century, he did not always receive a warm welcome in his adoptive homeland. During the 1930s and 1940s, at the time of the Spiritual defence, his abstract works were rejected by the public and provoked sarcastic comments in the press. In 1940, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung associated them with schizophrenia. After a meticulous investigation in 1939, Klee’s application for naturalisation was rejected by police headquarters in Bern. He was considered a possible welfare case.

Initially also Pro Helvetia found it difficult to accept the artist, born in Münchenbuchsee, but citizen of Germany, as a representative of “Swiss art.” He died in 1940 in Locarno, Ticino, without ever having obtained Swiss nationality. In the eyes of those responsible for cultural policy in Pro Helvetia, Klee’s “Swissness” was no less in doubt than that of Russia-born, but naturalised composer Wladimir Vogel. The Federal Authorities adopted a similar position. In 1948, at the request of the Political Department, the Swiss Consulate in Los Angeles went so far as to intervene with The Los Angeles Times, who had described Klee as a Swiss painter.

Abroad, however, this position met with little sympathy. During an exhibition of Swiss contemporary art in Stockholm, the Swedish press poured scorn on it: We are looking for a name, the greatest name in Swiss modern art: Paul Klee. How could he have been overlooked, while a number of irrelevant artists were deemed worthy to represent their country? It is pathetic. And it is useless. After that, Klee’s international prestige prevailed over any reference to his origins.

First of all, it was Pro Helvetia’s foreign press news service, which discovered Klee’s potential for successful cultural propaganda. Klee’s return to Switzerland was used to illustrate Swiss hospitality during times of political intolerance in an article, published in 1955: In 1933, when the darkness of the Nazi era descended on Germany and there was no room for free spirits like Klee, he once again turned to Switzerland [...] He was confident to find a spiritual climate he had been familiar with since youth. This certainty and a growing public awareness concerning political matters contributed to giving him a sense of security.

Finally, in 1956, Klee’s paintings were included in an exhibition Pro Helvetia showed in Madrid and Barcelona, at the invitation of the Spanish Ministry for Education, which had explicitly asked for the consideration of paintings by the artist they regarded as Swiss. At last, in the winter of 1956, Klee started his posthumous career as an ambassador of Swiss culture, which would twenty years on take his work as far as Australia. (tk)

AFS E9510.6 1991/51, Vol. 76, 277, 352

Dreissiger Jahre Schweiz, ein Jahrzehnt im Widerspruch: Ausstellung Kunsthaus Zürich, 30.10.-10.2.1982, Zurich, Kunsthaus 1981


Paul Klee in Poland

Poster of a Klee exhibition in Poland, 2001

Swiss National Library, poster collection

The „poster-man“ of Swiss art

Paul Klee is frequently cast as the „poster man“ of 20th century Swiss art.

Paul Klee, Flotille am kalten Morgen, 1927

Article on Paul Klee at Sikart:

The Museum of Fine Arts Bern

Paul Klee in Spain

On December 5, 1956, an exhibition of contemporary Swiss art opens in Barcelona in the presence of the Swiss consul and representants of the city’s military and civilian authorities. It is the first time that Paul Klee is part of a Pro Helvetia exhibition abroad.

Swiss Federal Archives E 9510.6 1991/51, Vol. 352

Is Paul Klee a Swiss painter?

Is Paul Klee a Swiss painter? On the occasion of the exhibition in Madrid and Barcelona, the Gazette de Lausanne questions the painter’s nationality.

Gazette de Lausanne, 15./16.12.1956

Is Paul Klee a Swiss painter?

Pro Helvetia justifies Paul Klee’s contribution to the exhibition in Spain:

Inspite of our objections because of Klee’s nationality, Madrid insisted on his participation alongside the 25 painters who had been selected for the event. [...] Our foundation decided to at least partly comply with the request. Although it would have been easy to use  Paul Klee as the figurehead of the exhibition, we limited the choice of exhibits to 5 watercolours, whereas his Swiss colleagues are represented with oil paintings. His nationality is mentioned in the catalogue but he has been altogether omitted from the preface to avoid any confusion on the part of the Spanish public.

Gazette de Lausanne, 22./23.12.1956

From Hodler to Klee

In 1960, an exhibition of contemporary art in Switzerland mentions Klee for the first time in its title.

Swiss National Library


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