Fish Magic
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Paul Klee’s Fish Magic looks like a scene out of some aquatic wonderland – mesmerizing multi-colored fish against a dark inky backdrop.

In a body of work that includes over nine thousand pieces, Fish Magic is Klee’s largest painting. But it isn’t the only thing that makes Fish Magic stand out from the rest. In fact, each of his paintings have a unique style and approach, from the minimalist lines of Why Does He Run? to the colorful blocks of Static-Dynamic Gradation. He dashed from style to style as seamlessly as a fish swims through water, going between, and combining, Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, and more. 

Beginning in 1921, Klee acted as a faculty member of the Bauhaus school for ten years, where he taught students about the importance of analyzing fish tanks. Yes, really. In his home, Klee had a large aquarium filled with multi-colored fish, and it was the task of his students to observe their movements. Klee believed compositions were all about movement, and he also lectured his students about the importance of studying nature for artmaking. His fish fascination was strong for a decade or so. In the 1920s, he created several fish-focused paintings, including Aquarium (1927), and Around the Fish (1926). 

While some of us may have a plastic castle and treasure chest in our fish tanks, Klee throws in symbols of clocks, clowns, flowers, and the moon. For Klee, the clock (the only object caught in a fishnet) stands as a symbol for controlling time, so that he would have more of it to dedicate to painting. Beside it sits a shining moon, showcasing Klee's frequent desire to evoke cosmic elements in his paintings. Klee also glued a small patch of muslin in the center of Fish Magic, making it a collage of mixed materials. 

Louise and Walter Arensberg donated Fish Magic to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Before this, the painting hung in a guest bedroom in their Hollywood house, alongside Klee's Guest of a Landscape (1926), and Small Houses in the Garden City. When negotiating the relocation of their collection to the Philadelphia Museum, the Arensbergs were concerned about the proposed space for these works, writing: "We would like...a better setting for the Klees than the cribbed, cabined, and confined space to which you have allocated them," adding somewhat boastfully, " - in a room, by the way, which is scarcely more than one-half the size of our own bedroom."

Only a few years ago, as a push to bring art to young students, Fish Magic was reproduced and placed across several neighborhoods in Philly thanks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Inside Out program. Once it went outside a Glenside Dunkin' Donuts, and then at a high school in Strawberry Mansion. 



  1. Crimmins, Peter.“Museum encourages Philly students to ‘befriend’ art with donation of reproductions,” Whyy PBS, June 12, 2018. Accessed December 16, 2020.
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  3. Glenside News, Times Chronicle, “Photo gallery: Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Inside Out comes to Glenside,” Montgomery Media, October 11, 2017. Accessed December 16, 2020.
  4. Gottesman, Sarah, “How to be an artist, according to Paul Klee,” Artsy, December 21, 2016. Accessed December 16, 2020.
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  6. Helmke, Juliet, “6 Paul Klee masterpieces that reveal his eclectic style,” Observer, December 18, 2018. Accessed December 16, 2020.
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  9. Richman-Abdou, Kelly, “How music played a pivotal role in the colorful Avant-Garde direction of Modern Art,” My Modern Met, September 18, 2019. Accessed December 16, 2020.
  10. Taggart, Emma, “5 Paul Klee paintings that highlight his movement-bending art style,” My Modern Met, December 5, 2020. Accessed December 16, 2020.
  11. Richard Verdi, “Paul Klee’s ‘Fish Magic’: an interpretation,” The Burlington Magazine, March, 1974. Vol. 116, No. 852, pp. 147. Accessed December 16, 2020.
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  13. Wullschlager, Jackie, Paul Klee’s new show at Tate Modern, October 19, 2013. Accessed December 16, 2020.

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Here is what Wikipedia says about Fish Magic (Klee)

Fish Magic is a 1925 Surrealist painting by Swiss-German artist Paul Klee. The painting belonged to the collection of Walter and Louise Arensberg before being donated in 1950 to the Philadelphia Museum of Art where it is currently held.


Fish Magic is seen as an intermingling of aquatic, celestial, and earthly entities. The painting is covered by a delicate surface of black paint, under which lies a dense layer of multicolored pigments. The colorful figures were then scratched and scrawled out by Klee on the dark background. A square of muslin was glued to the painting in the center, giving the painting the sense of a collage. The painting's dark palette and the muslin's fragility create a mysterious and inky atmosphere.

Ker writes that "Fish Magic is set squarely within the tradition of German Romanticism, with its blend of fantasy and natural empiricism, of poetry and pragmatics." She points to the technique used to draw out the various fish, flora, human beings, and clock tower as "a sophisticated version of the games children play with wax crayons."

According to Ann Temkin, Fish Magic is a masterpiece in which the intellectual and imaginative forces of Klee's artistic gifts are reconciled, producing a "sense of magic". Specifically, Temkin points to the thin diagonal line extending from the middle right of the canvas to the top of the clock tower, writing that the "long painted line from the side seems ready to pull the [square of muslin] off to reveal something underneath."

Check out the full Wikipedia article about Fish Magic (Klee).

Comments (2)


I think this painting is so fascinating. I was drawn to this painting because I used to actually have a weird fascination with fish. When I saw "Fish Magic" I knew I had to check out this painting. Putting my curser over the painting it said "Fish are friends, not food." I thought this was hilarious as I took this quote from Finding Nemo and used this as my fish motto. There are a few random objects in this painting, and my eyes kept just wandering around. I loved the dark background. This helped the painting pop out to me in the sense that the objects and the fish stood out to me more. Of course bright colors against a dark background would do that! The way the artist paints reminds me a bit of chalk. There are a few smears of color that look like chalk streaks as well as the fish.


I really like this painting. It is not one I probably would have ever sought out because it is so random. I love the flowers throughout the painting. Simple daisies are my favorite flower and I think they were an excellent choice for this painting! The artist did a really good job with composition on this painting. I found my eyes never rested on one point because everything is spaced out just right. My eyes are constantly moving around to try to see all the components. I also really like the colors used. The bright colors against the contrast of the black create a cool effect and make the colors seem even more vibrant. I also like how the artist used some sort of smudging technique between the bright colors and the black to leave the color almost murky looking in some parts of the painting. This created a texture all of its own. I did not realize colors could create a texture!