© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2013


alea jacta

1940, 271 (L11)

Paste paint on hand-made paper, mounted on cardboard
Inv. No. 16735 (Städtische Galerie im Städelschen Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main)

34.2 × 21.5 cm

zur  Biographie

Klee produced alea jacta (The Die is Cast) in March 1940, after the war had begun and only three months before his death. As was his custom, he gave his drawing a poetic title. The Latin phrase »alea jacta« recalls not only Caesar’s well-known words, spoken when he crossed the Rubicon and recorded by Suetonius, but also those of the Humanist Ulrich von Hutten, »I dared all«, as he looked back over his life; he died in exile in 1523 on the island of Ufenau in Lake Zurich. Klee had emigrated back to Switzerland in 1933 after the National Socialists had removed him from his teaching post at the Düsseldorf Academy; he spent his last few creative years in his studio in Berne, seriously ill. Sensing that death was near, he chose this powerful quotation to correspond with the drawing’s content. The formal vocabulary possesses an intuitive but nevertheless carefully calculated quality which accounts for the dimension of destiny sensed in the work.


Klee presents his pictorial metaphors on a piece of hand-made paper that is obviously the worse for wear and that he has mounted on cardboard. Particularly given that the picture was executed around Easter-time, alea jacta makes one think of the custom of displaying the instruments of Christ’s Passion and Veronica’s veil in Swiss Good Friday processions. Associations with specific objects may suggest themselves to the viewer: these include a drum (seen from above) being beaten, though it might also be a clock pendulum still swinging, a banner or an axe, the view down on to a boat that links distant shores, and lastly, instead of the six pips on a die, a puzzling set of nine spots, a number that corresponds to the hierarchy of the angelic choirs. Without an obvious single meaning, but making a strong impression on the viewer, the black symbols are applied with a broad brush. In conjunction with the amorphous red patches whose colour evokes wounds, and with the paper that looks as if it might crumble, they create a tension which gives the drawing its special force and validity.


Paul Klee’s ability to penetrate the various facets of his existence as he shapes them into art is one of the characteristic qualities of his work. Taken to the ultimate limits in terms of form and content, this late drawing tells of the end of his quest to discover his own being. With the apparent primitiveness of its forms and its symbolic pictorial language, it can be read as the expression of man’s elemental creative powers. Klee’s interest in work produced by children and by outsiders to art is well known; his own works, however, unlike those of his Swiss contemporary Louis Soutter, are underpinned by an unremitting and critical awareness of the creativity of the individual.

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