Monday, December 17, 2007

The Angel of History

Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite painter, Paul Klee, created a body of evocative images that linger in the mind much like the great director’s most troubling film sequences. Born December 18, 1879, Klee painted Angelus Novus (above) in 1920, which the philosopher Walter Benjamin eventually owned. Benjamin saw Klee’s angel as "the angel of history.” “His face is turned towards the past,” Benjamin went on. “Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage." Although he was half Swiss, Klee considered Germany his homeland, fighting for that country in World War I and later teaching at the famed Bauhaus until its closure by the Nazis and the condemnation of his works as “Degenerate Art.” The Nazis made special mention of Klee’s art as “the work of a sick mind.” Today, we honor Klee for the soundness of his mind, which continued to explore the outer reaches of art and spirituality as all reason collapsed around him.

Klee continually innovated in his approach to art. In The Future Man (above, from 1933), Klee applied watercolor using a spatula. Klee saw no method of drawing too outlandish if it could convey the message he wished. Klee paints The Future Man in the fateful year of 1933, when Hitler assumed power, the Bauhaus closed its doors, and the “Degenerate Art” exhibition opened its doors. Looking at this figure today, you have to wonder what future Klee envisioned for man in the midst of that nadir of hope. Klee suffers from the common misperception of his art due to the primitivism he employs, which belies the sophistication of his composition and draftsmanship. It’s not easy to make such a figure look so simple. A great sadness emerges from the simple face of The Future Man as it looks either ahead to an uncertain future or back to 1933 as the beginning of the end.

Despite living in such troubled times, Klee never lost his sense of humor and childish wonder. Fish Magic (above, from 1925) seems like a magical aquarium. The fish take on the nature of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Many of Klee’s later abstract works have this quality of writing, as he strove for a universal “language” of drawing free of cultural and political associations. Like his close friend Wassily Kandinsky, Klee saw abstraction as the solution to the ills of twentieth-century European reality. "I belong not only to this life, “ Klee had placed on his tombstone. “ I live as well with the dead, as with those not born. Nearer to the heart of creation than others, but still too far." Paul Klee remains an angel of history, looking down at the sad chain of events as one long catastrophe, yet also recognizing the ties that bind all humanity across all eras.

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