Paul Klee

Ships in the Dark


Paul Klee 1879–1940
Original title
Schiffe im Dunklen
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 427 × 590 mm
Lent from a private collection 2011
On long term loan


Ships in the Dark is an oil painting on panel by the Swiss-German artist Paul Klee. In a rhythmic linear structure, it captures the rocking forms of boats depicted in bright colours across the centre of the composition, a series of interlocking triangles forming their sails. The vessels are echoed in more ghostly forms below and above to the left. The upper centre of the composition is occupied by a blue moon. However, the emphasis towards the picture plane means that all of these elements collide on the surface without suggesting any illusionistic depth. Klee’s warm colours are offset and strengthened by the contrast with the darkness in which they are embedded.

Ships in the Dark is the most complex of three works of closely related subject matter that Klee made in 1927. The artist was careful in applying his own, slightly esoteric, numbering system to his works, and this links Ships in the Dark thematically to Four Sailing Ships as well as two works he called Departure of the Ships, both 1927 (both private collection; see Paul Klee: Catalogue Raisonné 1999, pp.108–9). All use the rocking rhythm that closely resembles Klee’s diagram of ‘an active line, limited in its movement by fixed points’ that appeared two years earlier in his Pedagogical Sketchbook (Klee 1968, p.18). This book incorporated teaching notes for the introductory course which Klee taught at the revolutionary Bauhaus art school in Germany. Klee’s diagram shows that the line ricochets at an angle when it hits a point, in much the same way as it is developed more formally in Ships in the Dark.

The painting was almost certainly made in response to Klee’s Mediterranean holiday in 1927, of which the watercolour Seaside Town in the South of France 1927 (Tate T06795) is also a record. With his wife on a cure, Klee travelled alone to Porquerolles, near Toulon, in July 1927 and then on to Corsica for two weeks. Taken up with his painting, he extended this trip into early October, missing the beginning of the Bauhaus term. The substantial medium and support of Ships in the Dark – oil on panel – may indicate that it was completed on his return, either in his studio at the Bauhaus or in Munich, where he retained a studio despite his professorship in Dessau.

Further reading
Paul Klee, Pedagogical Sketchbook, trans. by Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, London 1968.
Paul Klee: Catalogue Raisonné, Vol.5, 1927–1930, London 1999, p.109.
Paul Klee: The Nature of Creation, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 2002.

Matthew Gale
January 2011

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Display caption

A series of interlocking triangles form the sails of a group of boats strung across this canvas. The surging line suggests a gently rocking, wave-like motion. This rhythmic composition recalls a diagram by Klee in his teaching notes for the Bauhaus art school in Germany. He noted it showed ‘an active line, limited in its movement by fixed points’. The nautical imagery also seems to draw upon Klee’s recent trip to the south of France and Corsica.

Gallery label, April 2021

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