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 Heinrich Kley  (1863 - 1945)

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Lived/Active: Germany      Known for: magazine illustration, industrial scene, landscape, portrait painting

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Ad Code: 3
Heinrich Kley
from Auction House Records.
Centaurs and Children
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

1863 - 1945
by Donald Weeks

The answer to "what is art?" is a very personal one.  Paintings and artists fall into many categories and, as people, no two are alike.  Yet the main function of any artist, in any art form, is to communicate. A nd when it comes, artistically, to the technical form of graphic art, the artist is at his best as a draftsman. The greater the draftsman, the more the artist can suggest with the least number of pen strokes.  He knows beforehand where each line will touch the paper and why. Each line and dot will convey large areas of figure or scene, and the true artist/draftsman can relate his imagination to the viewer. Add to this one other quality the rare attribute of satirical humor and you have one of the greatest draftsman of this century: Heinrich Kley.

Heinrich Kley was first introduced to the American audience by the then new Coronet Magazine in three consecutive issues in 1937.  A few of his satirical line drawings were reproduced.  In its introduction to Kley, Coronet said that he had "died in a mad house a few years back." In 1937 Kley still had eight years to live, and he had never been in a mental institution.

Kley was born April 15, 1863, at Karlsruhe, Germany, and there studied art at the Karlsruhe Akademy under Ferdinand Keller for five years beginning in 1880, then continuing under C. Frithjob Smith in Munich.  He did his first small illustration work in Karlsruhe, turning to painting, doing landscapes, interiors, portraits and still life subjects.  Between 1888 and 1894 he sent paintings to exhibitions at the Munich Glasspalace and Sezession. During the same time he created two murals, "Einweihung des rom. Merkuraltares" and "Spazierfahrt Kaiser Wilhelms I," for the main hall of the Reichspostgebaude in Baden Baden.

With the turn of the century, Kley changed his material and approach to art subjects using the matter of modern industrial life.  The very special appeal this held for him can be seen in his work of that period.  Blast furnaces, tunnel construction, ship docks, huge construction scaffolds and machine filled factory interiors took shape in his oils, water colors and drawings.  And each picture showed the most careful observation of all the technical detail.  Perhaps the best known of that period of Kley's works is Tiegelstahlguss bei Krupp.  He did architectural paintings of building exteriors in Old Munich, Nuremberg, Bruchsal, Dresden, the harbor of Kiel, Paris, Ostende, and the picturesque island of Helgoland in the North Sea.  In 1903 he contributed a painting, Darstellung des Heidelberger 'Sommertagzurges', for part of the decoration of the new Town Hall in Karlsruhe.  In 1908 he moved to Munich, and at the same time he began to limit himself almost entirely to pen line drawing.  Those capricious drawings with their sarcastic content were published mostly in Simplizissimus and Jugend and brought Kley immediate fame.

Book illustration began for him in 1886 with a single page (204" x 6" and folded) illustrated album, Jubilaum der Universitat Heidelberg.  Drawn when he was 23, it is reminiscent of Beardsley in its scope at an early age.  This book shows a single historic procession passing through Heidelberg, from "Grundung der Universitat durch Kurfurst Ruprecht I" in 1386 to "Wiederherstellung fer Universitat durch Karl Friedrich von Baden" in 1803.  And at that age the illustration shows the beginning of the mastery of drawing animals.  Besides collections of his periodical art, Die Reisescgatten, Vergilis Aeneis Hetaerenbrieff, Der Herr der Luft and Streiszuge eines Kreuzvergnugten are books carrying his illustrations, showing the verve and masterful line technique in portraying fact and fantasy.

By the 1920s Kley had gone into commercial art.  The Heinrich Kley of the satirical line drawings lived hardly more than a decade. But his work was prolific and skilled. During that short period of time, Kley himself was silent.  He let his art speak for him, using his inward and fertile imagination.  His work touched all people; it was amusing, but it did not stop there. He preached two lessons: the inanities of mankind and the touch of a true draftsman.

For almost thirty years Kley's work has been known by some people in this country.  The humanized animals of Kley's pen can be seen in Walt Disney's The Dance of the Hours sequence from Fantasia.  His work as pieces of individual art have been sought by the appreciative few.  Much more recently his drawings have been incorporated into paperback cover designs, notably for Bantam Books.  His drawings have been used as illustrations in magazines.  Atlas and Motive are but two.  The Fillmore Auditorium of San Francisco used his art in a poster. Kley's art is known. Yet Kley the man is not known.

About 1920 the scene changed for him and he again changed his approach to art and subject matter and, in doing so, faded from the limelight of a specialized type of work into commercial art.  He lived in Munich during two world wars.  Many questions can be asked about his personal life.  But what would be the answers? Let only his art - his line drawing depicting the wit, humor, satire, imagination of an all knowing artist speak for him.  His line drawings show a clearness that is rare in the art of craftsmanship.  Even though the actual social and historical background of his drawings is lost to us today, they themselves are just as rare and as humorous. The timeless art of Heinrich Kley lives.


Intro. by Donald Weeks, 1968 Borden
The Vadeboncoeur Collection of Knowledge    Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. 1999
Used with permission of Jim Vadeboncoeur

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