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 firstname.lastname@example.org.