Paul Klee's Angels
Angels, as described in religious texts, serve as intermediaries between God and man. They provide warnings, prophesy, guidance, blessings and above all, comforting reassurance that there is a divine presence close at hand. Angels bridge the gap between heaven and earth in many famous historical paintings; kneeling before the Virgin in scenes of the Annunciation, hovering in the air as a backdrop to the Madonna and Child, playing the harp in celestial orchestras, or wrestling with Jacob in a nocturnal encounter. They are represented as creatures of light, winged messengers, metaphysical beings that float and glow, appear and disappear. Angels are symbols for purity, righteousness and compassion.
In twentieth-century art, angels tend to be more secular, mortal and earthbound. In Symbolist paintings they are often depicted in death scenes, as black figures representing sinister forces. Vassily Kandinsky painted abstract angels in "The Last Judgement" of 1912 as part of an apocalyptic vision. Willem de Kooning's painting "Pink Angels" of 1945 was based on a study of female nudes. Whether brooding, menacing or sexualized, these modern art angels seem to have fallen from a state of grace.
The Swiss-German artist Paul Klee (1879-1940) painted a series of angels that are both puzzled and puzzling. This fascinating body of work, depicting 50 variations on the theme, was one that Klee did not discuss in his diary, poetry or lectures on art theory, although angels remained a preoccupation throughout his lifetime.
Paul Klee was born in Munchenbuchsee near Bern, Switzerland in 1879, the son of a German music teacher Hans Wilhelm Klee and a Swiss singer, Ida Marie Frick. He studied music in his early years, but at age 19 decided to become a painter and after preparatory tutoring, entered the Academy of Fine Art in Munich. In his initial studies as a visual artist, he proved to be a good draughtsman, but had trouble developing an eye for colour. "During my third winter I realized that I probably would never learn to paint," he wrote in his diary, a deprecating remark typical of Klee's acutely self-analytical mindset.
In 1906, Klee married the pianist Lily Stumpf and settled in Munich. The couple had a son the following year, and Klee became a stay-at-home father while his wife pursued her musical career. In 1911 Klee joined the group of artists known as Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) and through his association with Vassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Auguste Macke and Gabriel Munter became part of an avant-garde movement that aimed for an expressive, non-figurative style of painting. The group exhibited together, but had no formal manifesto. They shared an interest in primitivism, mythology and Jungian psychology, and believed that it wasn't enough to replicate the appearance of things in painting. "What we see is but a suggestion, a possibility, a makeshift," Klee stated. "True reality lies invisible underneath."
Developing a Style
A trip to Tunis in 1914 with friends August Macke and Louis Moilliet prompted an artistic epiphany for Klee. The quality of light in North Africa amazed and inspired him.
"It's all pouring into me so deeply and gently, I can feel it and am gaining confidence, without any effort," he wrote. "Colour has taken hold of me. I don't have to chase after it. It's got hold of me for good, I know. That is the meaning of this happy hour: colour and I are one. I'm a painter."
Klee's palette brightened and he began experimenting with grid-like compositions that resembled mosaics. He painted his first entirely abstract painting at about this time, and earned the attention of an influential Swiss art collector Hanni Burgi-Bigler. His "happy hour" did not last, as World War I marked the end of what had been a promising, fertile period in Europe's art history. Klee was called for duty in the Germany army and ended up working in a reserve unit job, painting camouflage markings on airplanes. The group Der Blaue Reiter was dissolved under wartime pressure as several members dispersed to Russia and France in 1914, and Klee's close friends August Macke and Franz Marc were killed in action.
Following the war, Klee was invited by architect Walter Gropius to fill a teaching job at the Bauhaus in Weimar. From 1921 to 1931, he worked as Form Master, giving instruction in bookbinding, stained glass and mural painting. The Bauhaus years were productive ones for Klee who wrote a "Creative Credo" and continued exploring the dynamics of colour, while developing his own quirky, personally-relevant iconography. This included drawings of anthropomorphic animals, clowns, witches, spirits and angels. He often included ancient hieroglyphics, hex signs and fragments of text in his compositions.
"Angelus Novus" was purchased for 1000 marks (14 dollars) by Walter Benjamin in 1921 from a Munich gallery. The writer/philosopher re-named the watercolour painting "The Angel of History" and wrote this passage about his most prized possession:
"A Klee painting named "Angelus Novus" shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress." - Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940)
Perhaps that hesitant, hovering angel did have an aura of prophesy, as Klee's life story unfolded in a tragic way. Foreseeing political disruption, Klee left the Bauhaus in 1931 to take a professorship at the Dusseldorf Academy of Art. The rise of the Nazi Party in 1933 led to the persecution of avant-garde artists and intellectuals. Klee was blacklisted, labelled a "Siberian Eastern Jew" and denounced publicly as a "dangerous cultural Bolshevist." He was in fact neither Jewish nor Bolshevist and when questioned, refused to swear loyalty to the Nazi party. His home was searched by the Gestapo and Klee was fired from his teaching position at the Academy. On the day he lost his job, he painted a poignant self-portrait entitled "Struck from the List."
Exile and a Host of Angels
With the help of Rolf Burgi (son of collector Hanni) Klee and his family escaped from Germany and settled in Bern, Switzerland. Although the move was a necessary passage to safety, Klee was not entirely happy about returning to his homeland, a place that he considered a cultural backwater. A 1931 exhibition of his paintings in the Bern Kunsthalle had received a scathing review in the local newspaper.
"We will not tolerate the walls of two rooms in our Kunsthalle being hung with artful dodgers like the disasters by this Mr. Klee. Praise the Lord we are far too healthy to accept such stammering reflexes of an infantile brain as art."
It certainly wasn't the first time that Klee's work had been panned, and it wasn't the last. 17 of his paintings were featured in the "Entartete Kunst" (Degenerate Art) exhibition organized and curated by Hitler and Goering. The blockbuster Nazi propaganda show which included 650 works, many by avant-garde artists, travelled from Munich to 11 other cities in Germany and Austria. In order to denigrate any hint of artistic merit, paintings were poorly hung and surrounded with graffiti mocking the artists. An estimated three million people viewed the exhibition.
In 1935 Klee was diagnosed with scleroderma, a terminal auto-immune disease that causes the skin and major organs to harden. He was able to continue painting, but suffered from bouts of gastro-intestinal illness, joint pain and bronchitis. During the last five years of his life, Klee completed 2500 works, including the angel series. He adopted the motto "Nulla dies sine linea" a quote from Plinius meaning "No day without a line, without a drawing, without creative work."
Each of Klee's angels is flawed or missing something, and hangs in a state of limbo where transcendence is impossible. There's "Forgetful Angel" a simpleton messenger who fails to remember the details of important information. Another "Angel Still Female" looks askance at her own body, which retains breasts when it ought to be androgynous. The "Angel Applicant" has a mask-like face that tilts toward the moon, peering with hollow, unseeing eyes.
The human shortcomings that mark Klee's angels turn them into tragic/comic figures, more ridiculous than sublime. The series suggests that the artist was looking back at his own work and making an assessment of the oeuvre that was about to become a legacy. From Klee's self-critical standpoint, his ambitions in a lifetime of art-making had not been fully realized, at least not to the level that he had hoped to achieve. His angels seem to pose the question: Can an artist's highest aspirations every be fully realized? As Klee got closer to death, the angels appeared with more obvious defects, trapped and deformed by their limitations. In one of his last drawings, "Angel, Still Ugly" Klee offers a response to the Swiss critic's damning description of his work as "the stammering reflexes of an infantile brain." Klee's angels present a tongue-in-cheek reply, as if the artist is saying, "Yes, my work is still crude, still imperfect, still unresolved and still unappealing to a conservative public with a preference for pretty pictures."
Klee died in a sanitorium in Muralto, Locarno Switzerland in 1940. His epitaph was a quote from one of his poems, a verse charged with the artist's characteristic sense of inadequacy.
I cannot be grasped in the here and now,
For my dwelling place is as much among the dead,
As the yet unborn,
Slightly closer to the heart of creation than usual,
But still not close enough.— Paul Klee
Despite his apparent sense of failure and regret, Klee's work exerted considerable influence on subsequent generations. His name retains significance in art history as a non-conformist, an individual whose work defies categorization as Cubist, Surrealist, German Expressionist, Romantic or Symbolist. During the post-war period the COBRA group articulated a manifesto based on Klee's theories about art. Klee was admired for delving into reality beyond surface appearances, examining thought processes linked to creativity and developing an artistic vocabulary that included irrational, subconscious imagery. His work remains humble, primitive and unaffected, always striving for authenticity informed by spirituality. Paul Klee is heralded as a gifted visual artist, poet and teacher, a man endowed with one of the most fertile imaginations in twentieth century art history.
Viewing Paul Klee's Work
- Paul Klee produced over 10,000 works of art during his lifetime.
- The Burgi collection, assembled over a 25 year period by Klee's patron Hanni Burgi-Bigler consists of 150 works charting every stage of the artist's development. This collection was exhibited in the Scottish National Gallery of Contemporary Art in Edinburgh in 2000.
- The Zentrum Paul Klee located in Bern, Switzerland houses the largest collection of Klee's work, with 4,000 paintings, watercolours and drawings. 120-150 pieces are exhibited on a regular basis, and works are rotated to highlight various themes. The museum also serves as a research centre for academics, and maintains the following archives:
- Music Archive - recordings of compositions since 1930 that have been directly influenced by Klee's work
- Student Archive - database of Klee's students from the Bauhaus and Dusseldorf Academy
- Media Archive - television, film and radio productions about Paul Klee
- Reception Archive - documenting the influence of Klee on other artists
Link to Paul Klee's Work
- Zentrum Paul Klee
More by this Author
Goethe's three-question method for analysing a work of art can help you develop a critic's discerning eye. Whether you admire or abhor the painting in front of you, the answers to these questions will give your opinion...