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Paul Klee and His Illness

By 14 Febbraio 2024Maggio 7th, 2024No Comments
Book Details
In 1933 Paul Klee’s work was branded as ‘Entartete Kunst’ (Degenerate Art) by the National Socialists and he was dismissed from his professorial post at the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts. This led him, together with his wife Lily, to return to his ‘real home’ of Bern. Here his avant-garde art was not understood and Klee found himself in unasked for isolation. In 1935 Klee started to suffer from a mysterious disease. The symptoms included changes to the skin and problems with the internal organs. In 1940 Paul Klee died, but it was only 10 years after his death that the illness was actually given the name ‘scleroderma’ in a publication about Klee. However, the diagnosis remained mere conjecture. Since his adolescence, the dermatologist and venereologist Dr. Hans Suter has been fascinated by Paul Klee and his art, and more than 30 years ago this fascination spurred him to commence research into the illness and its influence on the art of Paul Klee’s final years. It was due to Dr. Suter’s meticulous investigations that Klee’s illness could be defined as ‘diffuse systemic sclerosis’. In this book the author assembles his findings and describes the rare and complex disease in a clear and comprehensible way. Further, he empathetically interprets more than 90 of Klee’s late works. The point of view of a dermatologist renders a unique source of information. It provides, on one hand, new insights into everyday medical practices at the University of Bern in the 1930s, which will fascinate doctors and local historians alike. While, on the other hand, art historians and art lovers will be absorbed by the newly discovered links between Paul Klee’s work and his illness.


As the grandson of Paul Klee, faced with writing a preface to such a meticulously researched and written book and commenting on the tragedy contained in its pages, I find myself delving into a story that is really only relevant to me from a historical perspective. Sadly, I never had the chance to know my grandfather personally, but I have been able to draw on a whole latticework of personal memories. These memories are not directly linked to Paul Klee’s illness, but they are a product of my parents’ recollections and reflections on what they experienced. They were forced to stand by helplessly, watching and sharing in the artist’s inevitable decline towards death. As a child growing up, I was not really able to fully understand my parents’ stories and conversations about ‘Buzzi’. But I gained a realization of the mystery of death and the artist’s awareness of his own mortality, and this made an impression on me and preoccupied me during my formative years. For example, I was impressed by his determination to continue to achieve as much as his remaining time on earth would allow. Paul Klee still had so much more to say, and he knew it.
His later work, which was not only influenced by his illness, but which was done in defiance of that illness, is surely one of the most brilliant demonstrations of how suffering and sadness can be overcome through art and imagery, and in which, despite everything, irony can still shine through. I welcome this book as an important and sensitive contribution towards the appreciation of Klee’s later work.

Aljoscha Klee


This publication occupies a special place amongst the many scholarly works on Paul Klee, as it fills a big gap in the studies done so far on an artist who is considered so important in the artistic and intellectual history of the 20th century. The subject of his illness has been brought up regularly in discussions of his later work, but for the most part without any specialist medical knowledge. Conversely, medical studies on the final years of the artist, who died in 1940 aged 60, often suffer from a lack of accurate research into the fateful progress of his illness and from a lack of knowledge about Klee’s artistic work. The latter has only recently been catalogued in its entirety.
Hans Suter, who worked in Thun and its surrounding area as a specialist in dermatology and venereology, has been a collector and patron of the visual arts for decades. He began his research into the nature and development of Klee’s illness more than 30 years ago. The lack of a medical history and the fact that the artist’s death happened several decades earlier meant it was necessary to undertake extensive research. This was made particularly onerous by the fact that most of Klee’s doctors, friends and collectors, as well as those who witnessed his illness, had by then also died. The artistic and human isolation that Klee suffered in Bern even before the outbreak of his illness – he was forced to leave Germany in 1933 – complicated matters even more. The author meets these challenges with profound medical knowledge, a comprehensive study of relevant literature and original source material, careful historical research and interviews with Klee’s son Felix, other surviving contemporaries, and descendants of Klee’s circle.
Doctors and local historians will be fascinated by this book’s new insights into everyday medical practices in the university city of Bern in the 1930s, while art historians and art lovers will be absorbed by the newly discovered links and may make further links between the artist’s work and his illness.

Hans Christoph von Tavel

Paul Klee and His Illness