The world groans into view. And oh what a view! Artists set their hearts on capturing it — its every aspect. The chick just hatched from the shell. The wind-ruffled dimple on the pond. The light finally arrived from a far-off star (that sight alone millennia in the making).
Art: an immense endeavor. Praise be.
But what if you were to recognize the narrowness, the futility of this endeavor, the vanity of reproducing merely the visible? What if you focused instead on what cannot be seen, on things invisible or not yet visible — or on the very shiver of becoming?
You would be a philosopher. Or then again, you might be Paul Klee.
Klee (1879-1940) is the subject of a captivating show at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art. Comprising loans from the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, Switzerland, and from a host of US museums (many of them New England college museums), “Paul Klee: Philosophical Vision: From Nature to Art” was organized by John Sallis, a professor of philosophy at BC.
It looks at Klee’s work in the context of philosophy, particularly the 20th-century philosophy of Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Walter Benjamin. All three admired and wrote about Klee.
Like many of the philosophers who engaged with him, Klee’s art is always playing havoc with intelligibility. His art can seem as modest and straightforward as a child’s diagram. But look closer and try to parse the diagram, and you succumb to the strange sensation of being completely alone and utterly in the dark.
Don’t be afraid. Stay there. It’s good.
The implication, of course, as far as Klee was concerned, was that intelligibility itself was suspect. Man was too hung up, he felt, on the visible world. In his view, “the visible is only an isolated example and . . . other latent truths are in the majority.”
This belief made itself felt all through his art, but notably in work that concerned itself with the natural world. In “Perception of an Animal,” for instance, Klee draws an animal’s head and, above it, a set of lenses and a magnifying glass. He is toying with the notion that animals perceive the world in ways that differ dramatically from our own perceptions.
In “Green Terrain,” we might be reminded of a conventional landscape (it’s green if nothing else). But the effect is more of a kind of energy, a freshness, an experience of the landscape in time, a view that evolves in tandem with feelings and forces both terrestrial and cosmic.
For Klee, nothing was fixed, nothing sacred. Fundamentals of our perceptual world might be regarded as mere toys, props from a fairy tale — as in the 1940 drawing “The Moon as Toy.”
Klee was born in Switzerland but lived most of his life in Germany. He was a central, yet always idiosyncratic figure in modern art. Even as the push toward abstraction in art was underway, he saw that representation and abstraction were not opposites. They were on a continuum. Not a one-dimensional continuum, but (as in paintings such as “Printed Sheet With Pictures”) a spreading web of visual possibilities that included diagrams, letters and language, pictographs and symbols, colors, and textures, all of which might carry meaning — or just as good, defeat meaning.
For 10 years Klee was associated with the Bauhaus, a German school of architecture and industrial design that fostered some of the most influential modern artists, designers, and architects. His habits of inquiry and pedagogy did not originate there — they seem to have been innate. But they were certainly encouraged in that hothouse atmosphere of experimentation and learning. (One of the more absorbing parts of the show is a glass-covered table holding selections of Klee’s teaching tools: teaching diagrams, lecture notes, and so on.)
The exhibit is not lacking in pedagogical impulses itself. It is divided into eight sections, each of which groups together drawings, prints, and paintings that relate to a given theme: Klee’s dialogues with nature, for instance; his interest in questions of genesis; his engagement with flight, movement and balance; his interest in words and music; and his concern with politics and death.
What emerges from all this is an artist of extraordinary fecundity and flexibility. An artist trying to escape preconceived imagery as he lets his mind and hand seek out the unknown. An artist interested not in forms, which are static and, in a way, “finished,” but in forming, in the never-ending process of becoming. An artist teaching himself to express what he called the “prehistory of the visible.”
But what about those 20th-century philosophers who were so drawn to Klee?
Merleau-Ponty, for one, was deeply immersed throughout his career in the idea of the visible world’s dependence on the invisible, with repeated reference to Klee. As if to confirm the connection, one of Klee’s works in this show is a small drawing of a whimsically drawn human head against a sky with symbols suspended in it. The words “sichtbar machen” are written alongside: “To make visible.”
Benjamin, meanwhile, purchased a painting by Klee, “Angelus Novus,” in the early 1920s (the painting is in Israel, and not included in the McMullen show). Almost two decades later, he based one of his most famous passages on it.
In his essay, “On the Concept of History,” Benjamin described it as a picture of the “angel of history,” shown with his back to the future, mouth open, wings spread, facing not a chain of events but “one single catastrophe, which incessantly piles wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.”
The angel, continued Benjamin, would like to stay and help put things back together. But his wings are kept open by a storm now blowing from paradise. That storm propels him into the future, even as he still faces back, watching the wreckage pile skyward.
“This storm,” concluded Benjamin, “is what we call progress.”
Heidegger, one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, was part of that storm — and part of the wreckage. Convinced that philosophical thought itself had taken a wrong turn and needed to be undone — picked apart, like a child’s tangled mobile — he was a brilliant mind who wrote congested, difficult prose. (“Making itself intelligible is a suicide for philosophy,” he wrote.)
Heidegger joined the Nazi party in the same year he was made rector of the University of Freiburg. He resigned as rector a year later, but stayed on as a teacher and maintained his membership of the Nazi party until the end of the war. (Klee, through that same period, was labeled a Jew and a degenerate and fired from his teaching post in Dusseldorf — even though he was not in fact Jewish. Seventeen of his works were included in Hitler’s infamous “Degenerate Art” exhibition and more than 100 were seized by Nazi officials.)
After the war, through the collector Ernst Beyeler, Heidegger became closely acquainted with Klee’s works. Heidegger was attracted, it seems, by strong affinities with his own interest in the origins of things, in the relationship between space and time, in authenticity, and in man’s relationship with technology.
Although he kept his distance from Klee’s theoretical writings, he was profoundly affected by the works themselves. He spent long meditative hours with them, and addressed them in subsequent lectures. In one 1962 lecture, he spoke of a desire to stand before works by Klee “and give up all demands for immediate intelligibility.”
Merleau-Ponty, Benjamin, and Heidegger were by no means the only philosophers who chose to engage with Klee. Others who wrote or lectured about him include Theodor Adorno, Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and Michel Foucault.
Klee himself, meanwhile, drew in his work on philosophers from Plato and Voltaire to Nietzsche. The show includes several of the young Klee’s rarely seen illustrations to a 1920 volume of Voltaire’s “Candide” (the drawings were made in 1911).
It also includes a number of riveting drawings of figures poised precariously above the earth — “Tightrope Walker” from 1922, for instance, and “Suicide on the Bridge.” Both seem to relate to Nietzsche’s idea, in “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” of the tightrope walker (who later falls to his death), and to the passage that describes man as “a rope, tied between beast and overman — a rope over an abyss.”
Since he usually worked on a small scale and favored childlike simplifications, there has been a tendency to diminish Klee as a modernist misfit — a miniaturist who overindulged his own penchant for whimsy.
Connecting his work with major strains of 20th-century philosophy — and convincingly — as this show does, provides a valuable corrective. It reminds us how bold, how restless, and how deeply in earnest Klee was.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.