In 1937, Coronet magazine introduced Americans to the work of Heinrich Kley with three special issues featuring Kley’s wildly imaginative drawings of cavorting beasts and naked nymphs, of dancing alligators, wicked demons and lusty satyrs. Coronet readers easily believed the magazine’s report that the creator of these bizarre images had “died in a mad house.”The truth was more interesting.
Kley was still alive. He had never been in a “mad house.” Instead, he began and ended his career in relative obscurity as a conventional commercial artist who drew unremarkable pictures of industrial scenes. Photographs of Kley suggest a respectable middle-class banker—the last kind of person you’d expect to harbor devilish fantasies. Yet, starting when he’d already reached middle age, he became internationally famous for his cavalcade of subversive images drawn with an uncanny quicksilver line. He prospered for several years, then abruptly withdrew from the public eye and spent his last years working quietly in a more conventional commercial art style. A book of his drawings published by Dover Publications in 1960 could not even confirm when, or if, Kley had died. It explained, “Kley’s death has been reported many times, so that it is not certain just when he actually did die.”
Kley was born in Karlsruhe, Germany, in 1863. He was formally trained as a painter and graduated from the art academy in 1885. The following year he married Theophanie Krauter. His first attempts to find work as a traditional painter met with little success, but in 1901 his fortunes began to change. He received an important commission from the Krupp steel foundry for a series of illustrations to publicize their industrial operations. Kley’s work on this project led to further commissions from Krupp, as well as from other manufacturing clients.
In his spare time, Kley entertained himself and his new bride with a series of personal drawings. He promoted factories by day, but at night he’d draw a giant demon looming over industrial buildings or vandalizing a factory by placing a hand over the smokestack to fill the building with smoke. He drew his wife standing nude in the middle of their apartment, picturing himself decorating her with flowers. He filled sketchbooks with grotesque drawings of anthropomorphized animals and satirical sketches of government officials and clergy. He drew bodily functions and Roman orgies and comic scenes with mythological characters.
Kley didn’t share these personal pictures with clients. He was modest and had little aptitude for self-promotion. Even in later years, after he became famous, he would try to avoid the press, saying, “I’ve already shared where I was born and in what year. I don’t think you need to know much more about me.”
Word of Kley’s private drawings eventually leaked out to friends. In 1908, when the artist was 45, a friend showed one of Kley’s sketchbook to the publisher of Simplicissimus, a popular graphic arts magazine. The publisher, Albert Langen, recognized Kley’s hidden talent and hired him immediately to draw for the magazine. As Langen predicted, Kley’s drawings were a hit. Within a year Langen published Skizzenbuch, a separate book containing 100 of Kley’s pen-and-ink drawings, which was followed a year later by a second book, Skizzenbuch II. Kley’s drawings soon appeared regularly in the art magazine Jugend and the newspaper Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, as well as in Simplicissimus. His numerous private sketchbooks provided him with an ample inventory to satisfy this demand, but he also produced new work quickly. In 1910 a gallery began exhibiting Kley’s original drawings for sale and they were snapped up by collectors.
His newfound success enabled Kley to move from his home town of Karlsruhe to the city of Munich, where artists such as Kandinsky, Klee and the “Blue Rider” modernists were working. He continued to draw for popular magazines, but also prospered as a book illustrator, and worked with a gallery owner to publish a series of art albums. He went on to become one of the most influential draftsmen of his generation. In 1964 Walt Disney proclaimed, “Without the wonderful drawings of Heinrich Kley, I could not conduct my art school classes for my animators.” The strong influence of Kley is apparent in Disney films, such as Fantasia, which featured anthropomorphic animals. His influence is also clear in the work of illustrators that included Frank Frazetta, and cartoonists such as Walt Kelly.
In 1914, at the beginning of World War I, Kley ceased working for most of his magazine clients and kept a low profile. After the war, he resumed work as an illustrator, but it wasn’t the same. Kley’s wife passed away in 1922, and the following year, with the collapse of the German economy, Kley lost his life savings. In 1933 the Nazis took over, causing Kley to shrink once again from public life. The Nazis destroyed the printing plates for his earlier drawings, and placed his work on their “List of Harmful and Unwanted Writings.”
At the end of his life Kley was listed in local directories simply as a “commercial artist.” He died in Munich on February 8, 1945.
Kley’s success was attributable to a combination of factors. He had a vivid imagination for symbolism and allegory. Working in a field where photo reference was impossible (there were, after all, no photos of dancing elephants or flying witches to copy), Kley was largely dependent on his own imagination. He also had an unorthodox sense of humor. He possessed great technical skill; his fluid line was lively and spirited, and his style came across as genuine in an era when other artists had polished and refined much of the character out of their line work. Apparently, Kley’s art was as spontaneous as it looked. Despite the complexity of his pictures and the difficulties of imagining animals performing human roles, it appears that Kley worked directly in ink, rarely drawing preliminary sketches or pencil studies before applying pen to paper. For the most part, Kley drew without models. (This practice also contributed to his startling productivity.)
Finally, it should be emphasized that Kley’s private drawings were unveiled at just the right time in history, when German society had an irreverent sense of humor and relished scandalous, bawdy material. A few decades later, Germany had lost the war, been through economic disaster and was being threatened by Nazism. Kley’s audience could no longer participate so gleefully in his old irreverence. A whole new set of worries had taken its place. But those middle decades, when everything worked for Kley, were enough to produce a wealth of excellent and important material known around the world, and more than enough to qualify Kley for the Society’s Hall of Fame.
Art critic for the Saturday Evening Post
Author, The Life and Art of Bernie Fuchs