It’s a very strange feeling when you discover that an artist you admire had the same disabling illness as you have, especially when it’s relatively rare, not to mention impossible to describe succinctly. Paul Klee — though it wasn’t diagnosed until ten years after his death in 1940 — had Scleroderma, an autoimmune condition that can be utterly debilitating. I have wanted to write about Scleroderma and its affect on my life and work for some time but I never thought I would be doing so with reference to Paul Klee!
Paul Klee in 1911, photographed by Alexander Eliasberg
In essence, Scleroderma in all its forms is a chronic circulatory and connective tissue disorder in which the body’s defences attack its own organs and tissues. The Raynaud’s & Scleroderma Association website describes it thus:
‘Scleroderma is an uncommon disease of the immune system, blood vessels and connective tissue. In this condition the skin, usually of the hands and feet, becomes stiff, tight and shiny. As a result of changes in these three areas, the body produces too much collagen. Collagen, which is the major protein of the connective tissue, binds the body together and is found in the skin, blood vessels, joints and internal organs, such as the kidneys, heart, lungs and bowel. There are several types of collagen and different forms are found in different parts of the body. They are produced by cells called fibroblasts. When fibroblasts produce too much collagen it results in fibrosis, i.e. thickening.
In addition to affecting the fingers, the fibrosis may spread to other areas and organs of the body. The arms, face, trunk and legs may be involved and movement of the limbs may become limited.’
Paul Klee as a soldier in 1916
Paul Klee was born into a musical family in Münchenbuchsee, Switzerland, in 1879. His talents were such that he could easily have pursued music instead of art but he found the musical milieu at that time ‘restrictive’ and was increasingly drawn to the world of art, even though his parents wanted him to follow a musical path. “I didn’t find the idea of going in for music creatively particularly attractive in view of the decline in the history of musical achievement.” (Wikipedia) He was a leading force in most of the prevailing movements such as Cubism, Expressionism and Surrealism, as is clear from even a cursory look at his work. He created a vast array of watercolours, etchings and paintings during his life.
Flower Myth 1918
I’d like to take up his story from 1931. Having taught at the Bauhaus for ten years he went on to teach at the Düsseldorf Academy. But everything came to an end in 1933 when a newspaper denounced him: ‘Then that great fellow Klee comes onto the scene, already famed as a Bauhaus teacher in Dessau. He tells everyone he’s a thoroughbred Arab, but he’s a typical Galician Jew.’ Wikipedia
His home was ransacked by the Gestapo and he was fired by the Düsseldorf Academy. He and his family fled to Germany the same year and returned to Bern in Switzerland.
Red balloon 1922
While Paul Klee coped with the rarest and most severe form of Scleroderma, ‘diffuse systemic sclerosis (dss)’, I have ‘limited cutaneous systemic sclerosis’ (lcSSc). At the age of fourteen, I was diagnosed with the circulatory condition Raynaud’s Phenomenon, which in rare cases can be an indicator of a propensity to develop the far more complicated Scleroderma, as it was in my case. At twenty-one, soon after I had left drama school, the thrilling diagnosis was amended to C.R.E.S.T. Syndrome, as lcSSc was then known. Many of the symptoms are common to all forms.
Klee’s illness first became apparent — persistent bronchial catarrh — in 1935. He was constantly tired and that is one of the less painful things I have to contend with; a lack of energy has a serious affect on one’s life, especially if you’re in your twenties or thirties and expected to be as bright as a button. This is not so marked now that I’m in my late fifties!
Tale à la Hoffmann 1921
Changes to the Klee’s skin and underlying tissue all over the body followed. Where he and I differ is that his hands were apparently unaffected. He had no problem painting and drawing. I, on the other hand (no pun intended!) have major problems with my fingers, which have become curled and distorted so that while I have always been able to touch-type, I can now only use two fingers on my left hand, three on my right, and my thumbs. This varies depending on swelling and infection, as well as the time of year.
Ad Parnassum 1932
Whatever else Klee might have endured previously, living in Germany in the late 1920s and early ’30s would have been terrifying and shows just how the body can be adversely affected. I have decades of experience to show the direct correlation between life events, my reactions to them, not to mention the cruel reactions of others, and the consequent changes to my entire body. In other words, both physical and emotional pressure exacerbates all types of Scleroderma.
Paul Klee and His Illness: Bowed But Not Broken by Suffering and Adversity
by Hans Suter
In the introduction to his book (above) about Paul Klee and Scleroderma, Hans Suter writes:
‘This star teaches bending’ is the telling title of a work on paper which Paul Klee completed in the year of his death. This brilliant artist lived the last few years of his life in Bern, but they were years which were overshadowed by a dark star. In 1935 Klee suffered a variety of setbacks and became seriously ill. Although he never recovered from this illness, he always maintained his love of life, facing his suffering with a trenchant ‘so what?’ But by 1940 he had to accept that there was no hope of a cure or any improvement in his health. The star had taught him to bend to the blows of fate.’
Klee’s grandson, Alexander Klee, who is now patron of The World Scleroderma Foundation, has this to say in the preface to Suter‘s book:
‘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.’
The World Scleroderma Foundation writes:
‘Although human suffering is universal, not all of us are gifted with the creative talent to express such emotions; we are therefore grateful to Hans Suter for this splendid book in which we share this anguish through the eyes of a creative genius, Paul Klee. In one of his last pictures, ‘Tod und Feuer’ (Death and fire), one sees the tight, ashen face of the scleroderma sufferer facing his imminent demise.’
Death and Fire 1940
‘If only the enigma of death were not so ambiguous! No less so is the enigma of life, for one has to wonder what beauty and splendour can be found in the torments of recent times.’ Paul Klee, 1938
Take care and keep laughing!