This curious personage, with four small spindly legs supporting a visage of stunned eyes and a quizzical smirk, or handlebar moustache, offers a satiric take on the work’s grim title. Inspired by a Zuni war god sculpture that Klee saw at an ethnological museum, Mask of Fear(1932) was painted on the eve of Hitler’s assumption of power in Germany.
The two sets of legs suggest that two figures might be supporting, and concealed by, this monumental carnival-style mask, an arrangement that might understood in light of Klee’s assertion that “the mask represents art, and behind it hides man.”
In Paul Klee’s painting, Around the Fish (1926), a garnished platter of fish is surrounded by a constellation of seemingly disparate elements — a cross, full and crescent moons, an exclamation point, a forked red flag — all hovering against a dark abyss.
Some of Klee’s iconography grew out of his teaching. The arrow, which he initially used as a teaching tool to indicate force and emotion for his students at the Bauhaus, here points confrontationally towards a stylized head, possibly alluding to human consciousness. Although they are often enigmatic, Klee believed his personal hieroglyphs and figurative elements had wider connotations: “The object grows beyond its appearance through our knowledge of its inner being, through the knowledge that the thing is more than its outward aspect suggests.”
Around the Fish is part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC and is currently on view on the 5th Floor, in Painting and Sculpture I, Gallery 7.