Paul Klee’s Kettledrummer

Paul Klee, Kettledrummer, 1940, Colored paste on paper on cardboard, 13 1/2 x 8 1/4 in. Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Switzerland

“I philosophize about death that perfects what could not be completed in life.”—Paul Klee

Kettledrummer, one of the last works Klee painted before his death, is the culmination of a series of at least five images he explored on the drum motif. The kettledrum may serve as a visual metaphor for death, recalling its role in Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, K. 626, which the composer left unfinished on his deathbed. Klee had heard the piece performed while he was living in Dessau several years earlier. In a letter to his wife, he proclaimed, “The work is good even where Mozart’s hand is missing…But undoubtedly Mozart himself would have pushed it forward to some further development.”

Unlike the artist’s earlier monochromatic variations on the motif, Kettledrummer combines thick black lines overlaid on roughly brushed washes of red. Klee used a graphic shorthand to suggest the upward and downward thrust of the mallets against the drum, symbolized by the lines ending in circular forms. At the top, Klee playfully inscribed an eye within the arched line and black dot that denotes the fermata (musical sign to indicate a pause).

This work is on view in Ten Americans: After Paul Klee through May 6, 2018.