CONTOURS OF MULTI-LAYERED MYSTICISM: The History and Time of a Painting

Published by


Paul Klee, Angelus Novus*


: Owing to the interpretation of Walter Benjamin, Paul Klee’s paint- ing Angelus Novus has become the paradigmatic work of modern art. Its mystery is not manifest only in the possibility of revealing the mystical on the borderline between the apocalypse and melancholy. Based on Klee’s ap- proach to the idea of modern art, the aim of this article is to propose a hypoth- esis on the symbolic meaning of colour. It is about that which emerges from the “surplus of the imaginary” in painting as a combination of “construction” and “composition”. Klee was the only one after Cézanne, as Heidegger noted late in his life in his Diaries and Notes, to have spoken of art as something beyond metaphysics. How should one think the relationship between colour and composition in the contemporary visual arts of ‘today’, if what defines the contemporary art of the event (the performative turn) emerges as the end of history and the implosion of time in the technological and scientific construction of virtual worlds? Can the Messianic and the melancholic in art’s demand for the “surplus of the imaginary” return into painting, as time condenses in the moment the world is created?

Keywords: Colour, Event, Angel, Messianic Time, History, Klee


The Diary of Paul Klee contains probably the most important thought on the visual turn in modern art. The way in which the painter expressed it is particularly striking. The dramatic tone of the invention of this thought and its openness towards the world can almost be compared to what Wassily  Kandinsky said about artistic creation in his essay Concerning the Spiritual in Art – that it is another way of creating the world anew.1 Instead of God, it is the artist who takes on His creative role. Thus, Klee wrote the following in his Diary:

Colour possesses me […] It will possess me always, I know it. That is the meaning of this happy hour: colour and I are one. I am a painter.2

A painter does not possess colour. Instead, it is the colour that dominates him and does with him as it pleases. However, without his role in creating  a work of art, colour would never enter the world. The description of the encounter between colour and the artist shows that the event of creating art presupposes a relationship between the two. However, the painter’s ecstasy does not originate in something external. Why does it fail to impress that the line and the surface possess the painter, and this insight affects only that third element, which endows the line and the surface with autonomy? Apparently, colour somehow precedes the line and the surface, even though not logically or historically. We even do not ask ourselves, in a traditional ontological sense, what colour is. In this case, we only wonder what line is, or the sur- face on which the line inscribes the image. Colour – that already belongs to the sphere of mystery. Asking about colour means thinking beyond the re- lationship of cause and effect. But there is something even more mysterious than this mystery, and that is how colour comes into this world. What is the constellation in which colour can create new relations in the world (of paint- ing)? How can the “composition” alter the plan of the “construction”, bor- rowing Klee’s terms from his book On Modern Art?3 Having colour means becoming one with that which painting makes possible in the first place. In Klee’s view of artistic creation, it is the primordial. Having colour means al- lowing it to perfect or complete, in the act of shaping the world, that which emerges from the mysterious event of encounter between art and the artist, the creation of the artwork and the creator himself. In the eternal creation of the world, as Klee almost neo-gnostically understood the process of inform- ing what ‘is’, painting becomes an almost paradoxical act of the event. The temporal quality of ‘the moment’ and the flash of ‘eternity’ results from that event. Naming the encounter of coming-into-being of the artwork itself sig-

nifies the essence of modern art. The primordial and the modern are thus no longer divided by an abyss.

If one recalls that Klee’s predecessor in understanding the painting and the creative act as that which Heidegger called the non-metaphysical mode of thinking in modern art, and that is, of course, Paul Cézanne, called this be- coming-one of the painter and the painted a “happy moment”, one shall see that this kairos is situated in the relationship between colour and form. It can- not be eternalized. Instead, one should reflect on the way in which it emerges from the constellation of the historical event. Is it possible to abandon the classical geometric and linear form as the “symbolic form” of the Renais- sance4 and to venture beyond the visible world? In that which makes it pos- sible for the colour to ‘possess’ the painter, while the painter becomes one with the event in which the visible comes into the world, there is no longer any illusion of the objectivity of the painting (mimesis and representation) or the lack of its non-objectivity (destruction and deconstruction of the idea of the painting). Klee, on the other hand, leads us to “construction” and “com- position”. The creative act opens up the world in the activity of formation. What is the meaning of colour in the process of bringing forth the primordial and the future in a painting? Why is it colour, of all things, that is enveloped in such a great mystery in modern art?

One should say at once that, with Klee, the differentiation between modern and contemporary art in terms of a gap between the aestheticism of the art- work and the aestheticism of the event loses the significance of an episte- mological turn. What one calls today “the visual arts” for pragmatic reasons refers merely to a multitude of artistic directions, strategies, and techniques, from painting, photography, and cinema to the body as an idea in the space and time of its performance. To be sure, modern art disappeared when one could no longer define the borders of modernity as such. This disappearance occurred in the shifts and turns within the notion of the new.5 Contemporary art, again, is all the more contradictory as its focus on the events of life as art amounts to reproducing the artwork without an original. In its pure form of dematerialization, it persists in space as a void.6 Klee therefore appeared in the visual art of the 20th century like a meteor. Beyond the existing borders of the avantgarde and the neo-avantgarde, his appearance had some features of a miracle. Something similar may be said about Kafka in modern litera- ture. Klee’s position in the modern visual arts reflected the impossibility of retaining the difference between understanding the artwork and the event. His theory of painting, presented in various essays and aphorisms on art, is most certainly a unique example of creative thinking in which the image and

the word come together. The basic idea of painting is revealed in the sugges- tion that painting does not present or represent the objects that exist in this world. It was already from Van Gogh and up to the early Picasso in his cub- ist phase that art had ceased to depict objects-in-the-world. The worldliness of the world had already been challenged, both in painting and in language. The discovery of elementary particles in physics and Einstein’s theory of relativity corresponded to the emergence of the idea that painting should create possibilities for a breakthrough beyond the image and the language in the traditional sense of communication instruments. The issue of image and language had ceased to be a question of the mediality of the medium. Instead, it became a crucial question about the credibility of the image and language as the event of encounter beyond the logic of the subject and its realm of appearances. Painting brings the world to visibility. Thereby the eternal creation of the new subverts the traditional theological image of di- vine creation. It is not accidentally that Heidegger, having reached the final possibilities of thinking the event, saw in Cézanne and Klee the beginning of a non-metaphysical way of thinking art (Dichten). It liberates us from the aforementioned turns and gaps between modern and contemporary art:

What Cézanne had prepared started with Klee.7

If art opens up the possibilities of erasing these borders, then it becomes quite clear that Klee’s fascination with colour as that which subverts the relation- ship between the painter and his world is more than an epistemic-metaphys- ical dimension of understanding the very act of creating the world. The dia- metrical contrasting of colours thus corresponds to their sublime meaning. Starting from the notions of time as the “moment” of temporality and the “flash” of eternity, Klee abandoned two opposed ideas of the essence of time: that of the final and limited nature of time in its epochal beginning and end, and that of the infinite and limitless eternity in uninterrupted duration. The time of creation is neither of these. If it were the first, then modern art would be subject to the law of the avantgarde’s destruction and deconstruction of eternity. And if it were subject to the rule of the divine immutability of the world, it would turn into a frozen tradition and there would no longer be any place left for what Heidegger called the second beginning. Klee shows that the “eternally childlike” in the iconology of his angel, the infantile play with the form of the human face in the act of primordial formation, corresponds to the archaic and the eschatological at the same time. But the secret of colour remains in that which appears only after the line and the surface. Why? For Klee, colour is primarily a formal category in the composition of a painting, in

a triad of (1) measure, (2) weight, and (3) quality. Quality defines the way in which measure and weight will appear, but certainly not in terms of quantity. Thus everything becomes symbolic. Light and its reflection give the spiritual dimension in encountering beauty. Therefore, what remains a challenge for contemporary art is the question of the relationship between form and colour. That is the relationship that results in the unique constellation of beauty.8

The secret of colour is neither in materiality nor in the formality of relations that a painting emanates in its meaning. The problem of colour had been present in Western art from its beginnings, and that is how it was also seen in neo-Platonism, as a problem of what one may call the symbolic form, the spiritual in art, or the surplus of the imaginary, following Gottfried Boehm’s hypothesis on the “iconic turn”.9 Clearly, a ‘surplus’ always implies some ‘lack’. Is this operation of adding and subtracting not the destiny of painting in modern art? What is added must be a substitute for some loss in the very ‘nature’ to which the image has been referring throughout art history. Thus, with colour we enter the world as the event that possesses us, rather than us possessing it. And since the event has the contingent and the giving without return within itself, something surprising and apparently non-contemporary must still happen in modern painting with regard to the experience of the avantgarde as radically iconoclastic in terms of aesthetical policy. With co- lour, as the symbolic form of that unexpected and primordial-future event, one encounters the mystery of that which colour neither presents nor repre- sents. The riddle of colour as the emanation of the divine refers to the Mes- sianic in the idea of painting. However, hasty conclusions about the return of the sacred in modern art will not be help us here, as we know that the divine is not expressed through colour alone. The entire tradition of European art is uninterruptedly Christocentric. This happens even when the divine with- draws from the image. Kandinsky said the following:

Painting is an art, and art is not vague production, transitory and isolated, but a power which must be directed to the improvement and refinement of the hu- man soul – to, in fact, the raising of the spiritual triangle. […] It uses its own, specific language to tell the soul about the things, a language that is the daily bread for the soul, edible only in that form.10

Obviously, the problem must be approached from a different angle. Colour does not emanate the divine as such. Instead of this neo-Platonism, useful for other purposes, it is more adequate for our purpose here to establish that colour has neither formal nor material significance in presenting the non- presentable, as Lyotard has observed in his analysis of contemporary art on

the example of Barnett Newmann.11 This must direct us to a different path. Coming back to our analysis of Klee, we shall see that the notions of the form of expression and the dimensions of the painting now enter the discus- sion. Neither can be reduced to the material nature of the painting. Their meaning comes from the symbolic dimensionality of that which eventually endows the painting with the language of mystery through colour. In his in- terpretation, Walter Benjamin used Klee to speak of the future as a disaster. The angel is looking backwards. Melancholy necessarily becomes historical awareness in the sense of lamenting nostalgia. And that is why time can no longer be presented “in an image”, the same as words can no longer be used to speak “of” the world without creating the word anew, together with its co- lours, forms, and lines. Time can only be the symbolic power of colour. Like a river, it has its own source or else it cannot have banks.

After all, the angel signifies a link between the apocalypse and aletheia,    in the same way as the blue in Plotinus’ neo-Platonic Gnosticism indicates the future in a pure emanation of the eternal idea of God. For Klee, time condenses to that which Leibniz called metaphysical with regard to the mathematical point – which means that the golden yellow, on the symbolic horizon of the Judeo-Christian metaphysics of the West is also the colour  of the coming God of time and the apocalypse of the ancient world. With Malevich, the avantgarde necessarily had to destroy the world of colours and to establish the non-colours (black and white). The new non-objectivity of construction was formally formless and the reason was that the world was no longer created from a pure idea. Instead, there was a technical plan of cluster distributions. Between the clusters, there was only the relationship of functions and structures, without their interpenetration. After Cézanne, Klee was the only one, as Heidegger wrote towards the end of his life in his Diaries and Notes, who wrote of art beyond the metaphysical. How should we think today of the relationship of openness in contemporary art of the image if the performative turn in art occurs as the end of history and the implosion of time in the technological and scientific construction of virtual worlds? Can the Messianic and the melancholic in the demand of art for the “surplus of the imaginary” be brought back into the image, as the time con- denses in the moment when the world is created? In this essay, my aim is to show the internal link between Heidegger’s thinking of the event (Ereignis) and the theological-Messianic interpretation of the event in an analysis of Klee’s painting. Eventually, I will raise the question of why colour should be the main problem for contemporary art at all in its kinetic turn towards the world, a problem that involves the mystical and the symbolic in the political and aesthetic space where contemporary art intervenes into life.

The Angel of the Apocalypse: Klee, Angelus Novus

Klee painted his Angelus Novus in 1920. Today the painting is part of the collection of the Jewish Museum in Jerusalem. Gershom Scholem has men- tioned that the painter’s son, Felix Klee, told him in a letter from March 1972 that his father was enticed to paint the messengers of the gods “often even in human tragicomedy”.12 It does not happen all too often in art history that an interpretation has added to a painting’s ‘value’. And in fact, this interpreta- tion has nothing to do with an art-historical approach. Moreover, it has en- dowed the painting with a greater mystery than that which the entire history of modern painting has found in a single fragment from the work of Walter Benjamin, more precisely in his 9th Thesis on the Philosophy of History. I will quote the fragment in full, together with the motto from a poem by Ger- shom Scholem, as it illustrates well the relationship between the painting and thought as a narration on the primordial and the future:

My wing is ready for flight, I would like to turn back.

If I stayed [in] timeless time, I would have little luck.

(Gershom Scholem: Gruss vom Angelus)

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.13

The mandate of phenomenology is: back to the actual things! But is it pos- sible in this case? For can we forget Benjamin’s description and metaphysi- cal interpretation of Klee’s painting and undertake something that might be considered as a return to the image? It is known that the “return to the image” has been a motto of another programme beside phenomenology, albeit close to it. It was an interdisciplinary movement during the 1990s, with two differ- ent currents: (1) the visual studies and the “pictorial turn” of W.J.T. Mitchell

and (2) research in the image and the “iconic turn” of Gottfried Boehm.14 Briefly, the return to the image meant liberating its pictorial quality from the power and domination of language. In modern painting, in paintings by Cézanne and Klee, that freedom proved an irreducible difference. Contrary to the path that the image took after the historical avantgarde movements, namely in the direction of a performative-conceptual turn, painting remained the last domain of ‘nature’. Another current today relies on various attempts at thinking the corporeality of the body and its environment in the techno- sphere (from the philosophy of the media to neuroscience, bio-cybernetics, post-humanism, and trans-humanism).15 The image as colour and the body as performance intersect in the digital era of constructing the very composition. In other words, the new nature of the image is no longer elementary. The image generates itself technically, which creates a technological-aesthetical experience of its hyperreality. Experience and appearance, the traditional categories of early modern aestheticism, have now turned into the new cat- egories of approaching the event as a work of reproduction. In the digital setting, experience has turned into the appearance of the real, and appearance into the experience of the hyperreal.16

Thus, the return to the image seems to have launched it far beyond language, into the black holes of dematerialization. And it is for this reason that we must again forget what is supposed to be inherent to the image, what seems to resist any penetration of the linguistic riddle in its search for meaning. It is impossible to return to the image as a “thing” without also returning to lan- guage as a thing in itself. Without its language, the image exists only virtu- ally, like a line and a surface in the desert. No reality in-itself is there for the image, in the same way as colour, without a reflection and a symbolic mean- ing, remains something colourless for the observer. The monochromatic co- lours of the avantgarde (black and white) are always colours for-the-Other. In themselves, they have neither the properties nor the quality of colours. All discourse on the non-objectivity of the image is thus a discourse on depriv- ing the figurative or referential painting of its raison-d’être, with the idea  of symbolically constructing the world in terms of colours and forms. Mal- evich’s avantgarde therefore destroyed and deconstructed the non-objective world by reducing the symbolic power of colour to elementary emotions. The monochromatic act of painting, contrary to what Klee stated, elevat-  ed the line and the surface to a geometrical form as a proto-form. Whereas Klee spoke of the primordial intensity of creation from a transformation of forms and colours, Malevich adhered to the idea of the eternal form as that which transcended the image.17 Therefore, the avantgarde was paradoxical in its demand of reconciliation between the rational and the intuitive in art.

Destruction of the image as an image of objectivity determines the rational creation of the new world of/without the image. The indestructibility of form belongs to the appearance of eternity. Everything else is worthy of perishing, as Goethe said in his Ur-Faust.

The relations between “construction” and “composition”, discussed by Klee in his view of the theory of artistic creation, place the image into the world and embody the painter in the very body of the image. That is the meaning of that phrase from Klee’s Diary where he says that objects look at us, not we at them. By the way, the same thought, although in a completely differ- ent context, was expressed by Jean Baudrillard in his critique of the banality of contemporary art. If objects now deconstruct us instead of vice versa, it is a sort of rebellion of objects following the end of the subject. All that be- gan with Marcel Duchamp’s idea of the transformation of image as a work of art into an aesthetical object (a ready-made).18 This turn regarding the nature of things as such also meant a return to the elementary forms of that very nature. For pre-Socratic Greeks, nature was a basis for understanding being. One should keep in mind that modern painting constantly oscillated between two natures and two bodies, and it is not difficult to conclude that it also meant oscillating between two times. The first nature was the nature of romanticism in the sense of man’s other-being, while the second was placed by the avantgarde into the centre of the new world, which was the world of technology. Dance on the wire between two worlds, bodies, and times is the permanent fate of all contemporary art. However, the issue of the relation- ship between time and the techno-sphere now permeates the new nature of the image, after Benjamin’s insight about the character of the angel of histo- ry. Staring at the past as a catastrophe, the future seems anything but salvific. When speaking of Klee’s Angelus Novus, we already think of a painting that was crucially determined and imprinted by the brief interpretation in Benja- min’s 9th Thesis on the Philosophy of History. Everything else would mean violating the history and time of the painting as such. After all, without it, all modern painting would have remained merely an empty imaginary museum of lines, surfaces, and colours.

Klee’s Angelus Novus is an example of the theory of artistic creation in prac- tice, such as was endorsed by the painter himself. It has been said above that differentiating between “construction” and “composition” corresponded to differentiating between the levels of creation and formation of the worldli- ness of the world. When colour possesses the painter, the world is formed as the event and the form (eidos) of the essence in appearance. Emotions and form are two notions from the historical avantgarde, within which ex-

pressionism has a clearly defined place. Klee started from the primordial   as a condition for the possibility of future. That is why the childlike qual- ity of his drawing demanded the simplicity of expression. The colours are elementary, such as the emotions and the form in which they are expressed. “Construction” presupposes something that is given in advance, a purpose without a purpose, an idea of creation, while “composition” aims at form- ing the world as an accident. The possibilities of an image start from the possibilities of a difference in creating the world. The greater the possibil- ity of various worlds, the fewer the possibilities of the image. How can we explain this paradox? Simply, it is because the original image is multiplied in its reproduction, and thus the multiplication of worlds is reduced to the irreducible common denominator of creation. And since creation is always either a chained series of the same or an interruption in continuity, the pos- sibilities of the image of various worlds are reducible to the difference be- tween the original and its copy. In Benjamin’s understanding of the work  of art after the arrival of the new media, such as photography and film, the main problem is not the possibility of its technological reproduction, but the loss of aura in the artwork as such. The aura is nothing else but the sacred in the space-time of the image. With the disappearance of the cult as the event of the sacred in space-time, the aura seeks to return in modern art by using various strategies of substitution.19 Thus, cinema is the secular profanation of the artwork’s lost sacredness. Its aim is to establish the surplus of the real over the imaginary.20 It is for this reason that today’s films are visualizations of the hyperreal. Technologically generated colours substitute the “nature” of the lost sacredness. It is not perchance that the aesthetics of the cinema in the 1920s was marked by expressive gestures of dreams and lunacy instead of the surplus of reality. The lack of reality was made up for by the use of the monochrome (black and white) aesthetics of transgression. Lunacy and dreams belong to that black and white gestuality of the European avantgarde cinema in the 1920s.

The art of painting, according to Klee, is in bringing the invisible (chaos and the unformed) to visibility (order and meaning). When keeping that in mind, what Felix Klee wrote to Scholem in that letter, namely that his father liked painting angels also because of the “tragicomedy” that he saw there, acquires a completely new meaning. History appears in a double sense. First of all, it occurs as the event of primordial temporality, and secondly, it takes place as the event of the event itself within the symbolic forms of art. For Klee, only art can be compared to the idea of eternal creation. The reason is that art does not imitate (mimesis) reality. Painting elevates to the forms of a new reality, which represents (representatio) the true nature of things. However, the for-

mation of the world in the symbolic sense of a spiritual encounter between the artist and the divine in the idea of eternal creation cannot be established without the mystery of reaching the visible (world). Colour necessarily takes on the role of the mystery, while form (eidos) marks the world in its mul- tiplicity of meanings. Let us see how Klee explains why colour belongs to that which is defined as dimensionality. The three-dimensional space of the painting consists of lines, surfaces, and colours. For the expressionists, the depth of the image was nothing else than the relationship between the line and the surface, without the additional illusion of perspective. Once colour enters this space of primordial understanding of creation as the formation of the world, nothing remains the same. One may even say that colour draws the figures, rather than aestheticizing or decorating them.

Colour can by no means be reduced to a mere ornament, as the painting would then lose its spiritual meaning, that which surpasses the presentabil- ity/representability-in-image. Realism seeks to establish a pseudo-visibility of the object. Painting as seen by Klee penetrates the secret of nature al- though it uses neither a microscope nor the insights of the history of nature in terms of palaeontology. The figure and the line can never be opposed if linked through something else. By the same token, surface and depth cease to be opposites once the dimension of height combines length and width into a spiritual complex in which the painting reveals itself in the openness of mystery without the addition of the sacred. Thus, with colour we are truly in the realm of the “tremendous fragments of meaning”.21 What is characteristic of the style, in terms of difference with regard to classicism or romanticism, is the composition of colours. For Klee, the richness of meanings that colours emanate in the composition of a painting is a positive proof that the painting results from the “holy trinity” of openness of the three-dimensional space to- ward the observer. To be-observed in the openness of the world means to be painted or coloured with the beauty of creation. In the moment of temporal simultaneity of the image, the observed and the observer merge. For Klee, the moment in which the painter becomes an artist as the creator of the world can only be that happy moment when colour possesses him. This is the very moment of abandoning the false kingdom of the early modern subject. The painter no longer paints objects in-the-world as the autonomous objects of the gaze. Quite the contrary: what occurs now is the openness of nature in all its phenomenological purity. Nature enters the painting with the colour of primordial light. That is what makes the creation of the world possible  in the first place. But that also creates a difference between the painting and the painted, the essence and the being. The opposition between figurative and abstract painting, as seen by Heidegger in his understanding of the non-

metaphysical openness of the image, loses its importance. These are only the external features of modern painting. Klee’s painting may be characterized as “figurative abstraction” or, borrowing the term from Heidegger, “semi-ab- straction”.22 The same can be said of the mysterious painting Angelus Novus.

There is a place in Gershom Scholem’s essay on Benjamin and his interpreta- tion of Klee’s emblematic painting which deserves special attention. It seems to touch upon the striking connection between the language of the painting itself and Benjamin’s interpretation in his 9th Thesis on the Philosophy of History. In an indirect way, it proves crucial for understanding colours in modern and contemporary art. The reason why colour has such an impor- tance in the life world of aestheticizing the body, even in the passage from the aestheticism of the artwork to the aestheticism of the event – from the image as a framework to the image as a reproduction and the corporeal vir- tual presence – is certainly its compositional structure. We may even say, fol- lowing Klee, that in contemporary art, which erases the borders between life and art, the very composition of the world occurs as a construction of colour. Thereby colour acquires the aestheticism of the “experience” and “appear- ance” of the new reality. The categories of classical or modern philosophy of art, such as measure, harmony, proportion, beauty, and sublimity, no longer apply here. However, what remains even in this act of virtualizing the real is the “surplus of the imaginary”. Wittgenstein described it as the mysticism of the factual. It is not that the world is mystical because it contains the surplus of the unutterable in terms of transcendence. On the contrary, mysti- cism comes from the thus-being of the world as such. Instead of the question of “what” (quidditas), the true miracle is in “that” (quodditas) the world    is at all.23 For James Joyce, the essence of art resided in the mystical word “epiphany”. Scholem says the following:

It is, therefore, appropriate to point to aspects of Benjamin’s person and thought that are neglected by his current interpreters, or cast aside embarrassedly. To these belong, and perhaps above all else, his ties to the mystical tradition and to a mystical experience which nevertheless was a far cry from the experience of God, proclaimed by so many oversimplifying minds as the only experience deserving to be called mystical. Benjamin knew that mystical experience is many-layered, and it was precisely this many-layeredness that played so great a role in his thinking and in his productivity.24

On the mystical experience of Benjamin’s relation to Klee’s Angelus Novus, Scholem has written an unsurpassable essay. That painting is, therefore, not merely a painting of modern art that deserves some special attention. Quite

the contrary: for Benjamin, this painting was the paradigmatic image of the idea of history as a catastrophe. The Messianic time in the end of history as “tragicomedy” supposes the essentially completed history of the world, be- yond the difference between the profane and the sacred. Mystical experience has been interwoven into the history of interpretation of this painting to such a dramatic extent that the life of a philosophical essayist in the dark age of historical destruction after the rise of Nazism in Germany was transformed into an Ahasuerian wandering between two points in an immense desert. Thus, the discourse of the “multi-layeredness” of mystical experience in Benjamin’s understanding of art must be understood primarily as an instruc- tion for further exploration of the role of colour in painting and its substitute media, such as photography and the cinema. If God is not the beginning and the end of mystical experience, then there are many other forms in which the unutterable nature of the image comes to the fore. That is particularly evident in the language of contingency and performativity. I do not intend to address here the mystical experience in the Qabalah. In that regard, Scholem has made a seminal contribution to the philosophical approach to Jewish mysticism in the 20th century.25 For our purpose, it is far more important to show how the mystical experience condensed in an analysis of a painting, in differentiating the historical time from the Messianic one.

Before making any conclusions on the further possibilities of reading Benja- min’s analysis of Klee’s painting, one should express some phenomenologi- cal reservations with regard to any inadequate associations. For Klee painted his angel with colours chosen outside of the iconographical tradition. Instead of using blue, the colour of immateriality and innocence characteristic of the messenger of God’s word in Christianity, Klee deconstructed the symbolic tradition and painted his New Angel in hues of yellow and gold. His figure is precisely what his own theory of artistic creation referred to as the “eternally childlike”. It is not about a child as an angel. The angel’s figure has been re- duced to that of a child, but without any infantile features. Moreover, Klee’s angel-figure comes close to that which was in Malevich’s suprematism de- scribed through the idea of form. The figure is used to bring abstraction to the idea of the proto-form. The painting does not show the figure. On the contrary, the idea of the painting is in the “compositional construction” of the difference between tradition and modernity. In that difference, what con- nects the disconnected is the very figure of the angel clad in yellow and gold. But that is already essentially brought to the “tragicomedy” of history, as the angel’s wings are hanging and he is staring at the past. Melancholy has its source in the tragicomedy of history. One cannot progress, as the future indi- cates a catastrophe, and going back would mean facing the ruins and death.

Klee’s angel indeed seems as the pure idea of the new as unconditioned prog- ress. It is a painting depicting the essence of the modern age, which Benja- min interpreted in terms of melancholy and apocalypse. Angelus Novus is the angel of the Apocalypse. His colour comes from the earth, from the mystical encounter between heaven and the underground, between the divine and the mortal. It is a hybrid colour of rottenness and gold, that which withers and disappears in overall nothingness and that which offers the event of life.

The non-narrativity of the painting, however, tells more than the story, which is known from various sources coming from Jewish and Christian eschatol- ogy and soteriology. The angel always appears as the messenger of God’s word. He is the figure that pronounces the message in the sense of signifying the future. And that signification has two possible forms: destruction/damna- tion and salvation. It is self-understandable that the messenger of the future should appear in the picture, rather than a discourse with apophanic features. The hermetic tradition of Christianity, as well as that of Jewish mysticism, stands close to the Greek understanding of the hermeneutic image, as the gods’ messenger, Hermes, links two worlds, that of heaven and that of the underground. Thus, the Apocalypse presupposes the goal and the purpose of historical evolution. Even Christ himself says in the Book of Revelation: “Behold, I am making all things new!” However, Benjamin’s interpretation of the “tragicomedy” in Klee’s painting is ambiguous and multi-layered. Af- ter all, so is the entire painting, in all its closed openness. Its colours indicate a dimmed glare, withering and uniformity. But how do we come to ascrib- ing the atmosphere and the tonality of the Apocalypse to this painting? The answer resides, again, in the factual nature of the mystical experience. We do not reach a mystical experience directly, but indirectly. After all, the angel’s figure serves us to name the medium of that which is directed into non-rep- resentability through the image. The truth of the picture is condensed in the extra-pictorial, in the same way as the essence of language is shown in telling the event, as Heidegger said.26 The essence of the pictorial in Angelus Novus resides in the mystical experience of the event of the end of history as the apocalypse of the very truth about the meaning of history. However, all that has been ascribed to the painting. Does the painting actually have something autonomous, something specifically its own, or is Klee merely a painter of the symbolical under the guise of “figurative abstraction”?

The answer seems to be in that which Klee himself said about colour in   his abovementioned reflections on modern art. It is “composition” as the construction of the world in accordance with the primordial understanding of the relationship between line and surface. And colour does not come to

it subsequently, as a “third layer” that serves to complete the painting in its meaning. In Angelus Novus, colour decides on the painting’s meaning. To the painting, as the new world, colour gives only that which history and time have condensed until the event of the world’s pictoriality. This is what Scho- lem has called the multi-layered mystical experience. It is only now that the painting acquired its dignity, no longer reduced to a story or an ornament. In his “novelty”, the angel is always new and at the same time his old self. The time in which his mission occurs is, for Klee, the “tragicomedy” of history. Paraphrasing Borges in his Apocryphal Gospel, where he says that it is the door that chooses, not the man: it is the colours that paint, not the painter! After all, Klee epiphanically noted down this thought in his Diary as the credo of painting and art. One can now see that colour, in modern painting, does not serve to describe an object neither in a classical nor in a realist pro- cedure. It no longer presents or represents anything. We shall see that colour bridges the roads in reflecting on art in a specific way, by linking modern art to the mystical experience in contemporary art. That has been especially em- phasized by video-artist Bill Viola in his own attitude towards the experience of the mystical eye in the Spanish baroque understanding of composition as seen in paintings from El Greco to Goya.27 The silent dialogue between the painters is both the controversy and its solution in the continuation of the dialogue. Colour possesses the controversy and the conversation between Paul Klee and Anselm Kiefer concerning the mystical experience of the non- representable and the melancholy understanding of history.

In this regard, one should recall Klee’s position as expressed in his essay On Modern Art, where the painter, regarding the relationship between “con- struction” and “composition” in painting, links the unutterable and the utter- able, same as a philosopher may construct a new reality with his ideas. For a painter, colours are what ideas may be for a philosopher. Eventually, he ends with the thought that points in historical continuity are here not functioning as the first and the last truth on the path. The neo-gnostic act of eternal cre- ation merges the symbolic experience of colours from the primordial to the future. Mysticism resides in the multi-layeredness of that which passes from the invisible world into the visible one. That is why colour neither presents (mimesis) nor represents (representatio) anything or anyone. Moreover, co- lour does not emanate the meaning of the eternal and the immutable (being). Klee clearly shows that colour is the final act, which brings the line on the surface to the form of the painting. Thus, composition means creating the world, the coming-into-world from nothingness (non-colour) into the light of openness, where everything that is has its colours and its place in the world as it becomes a work of art.28 In his phrase “from the pre-pictorial to

the proto-pictorial” (vom Vorbildichen zum Urbildlichen), Klee speaks of his own path as a painter. The turn to the primordial is also present in this phrase. When there are no longer objects that colour would refer to, there is only the non-objectivity of suprematism, as in Kazimir Malevich, or the sub- stitution of the object of art through an aesthetic object, as in Marcel Duch- amp. Both trajectories defined the fate of contemporary art, whereas Klee’s solution remained some sort of an in-between state, which may perhaps be understood as the “third way”. It is only now, with the new dematerialized image in the techno-sphere of virtuality, that this path has again become a challenge. However, nothing can be brought back to the starting point. That is the greatness of Klee’s mystery of painting and his Angelus Novus, as well as of Benjamin’s interpretation of the relationship between the historical and Messianic times “after the storm”.

Walter Benjamin

A Return to Dürer: Melancholy of the Present

Not everything ended with Benjamin’s interpretation of Klee’s mysterious painting. Recently, another way of interpreting painting has opened up new views on the already discussed issues: that of Giorgio Agamben. His analysis focuses on the symbolic meaning of the angel in interpreting the historical ad- venture of man. Restoring the notion of melancholy to contemporary philoso- phy and visual arts seems to coincide with testing the borders of utterability in these two discourses of our age. In his analysis, Agamben writes about the angel in Dürer’s Melancholy I (1514), referring to Panofsky’s famous icono- logical interpretation. The angel is here understood as representing the idea of art. However, what attracts particular attention is Agamben’s opinion that Klee’s angel cannot be a witness to the storm of progress, which is opposed to Benjamin’s hypothesis. In his 9th Thesis on the Philosophy of History, he has shown, namely, that there is no longer any link between the past and the future. One can only speak of the overall break between tradition and mo- dernity. The fury of the new must therefore necessarily be the apocalyptic catastrophe of history. Agamben, on the contrary, sees something essentially salvific in art.29 Therefore, his reading of Benjamin’s analysis of Klee’s paint- ing is much more Heideggerian than it might seem at first glance. It is based on Heidegger’s premise on art as the salvific germ of the second beginning. In his obsessive preoccupation with Klee towards the end of his life, Heidegger saw in his painting the same as in Hölderlin’s poetry – the possibility of over- coming the metaphysical horizon of history. Art had become a genuine pos- sibility of different thinking, from which it salvifically created the possibility of a future God beyond the entire metaphysical tradition.30

In Agamben’s opinion, the angel linking the figure in Dürer and Klee is noth- ing else but the angel of the impossibility of a link between the past (tradi- tion) and the present (modernity). However, this impossibility emerges only because time has, in the modern world, become the measure of time for the entire history. In the vulgar ecstasy of the present, unconditioned progress has reduced all things to the quantity and weight of the transient and the mutable. That is why Agamben has identified Dürer’s angel with the essence of melancholy, as there knowledge is preferred to the truth, while desire for suffering emerges from the aesthetic practice. Thus, each creation of the new occurs as an act of the endless repetition of the old. The problem raised by Agamben in his interpretation is no longer that of Benjamin’s. Instead of the difference between the historical and Messianic times, it is now the very difference, the in-between state, that has been challenged. The end of his- tory, which brings the angel of the Apocalypse, heralds the “new” time. But what if that salvific time coming through art has itself become apocalyptic? What if art no longer contains any possibility of making a salvific turn in the historical flow of time? There is a striking similarity of colour in the art-his- torical interpretation of the two paintings in which the figure of an angel ap- pears, namely in Dürer and Klee. These are undoubtedly allegorical images. In terms of iconology, the tone is obviously golden-yellowish, and its choice is not only symbolically consistent with that which triggers a contemplative nostalgia for the past; even the atmosphere of the two paintings is perme- ated with the psychological impression that light has been extinguished and disappeared. Regardless of all this, one thing remains crucial in all further research on the allegory of the angel, the Apocalypse, melancholy, and time. It is that, without colour, there is no salvific time or even the idea of modern and contemporary art in the symbolic continuity of history. It is with colour that we rise into the new dimensions of godless reality.


If the truth in an allegory is that it is in the presentable non-presentability  of the mystical experience, which Scholem has ingeniously indicated in his analysis of Benjamin’s thought, then the salvific in the image of an angel as the idea of art is not in the presentation or representation of the angel’s figure, but in that which makes it possible in the first place to present and represent something as a symbol of immateriality and purity. The angel of the Apoca- lypse in Klee’s painting acquires his allegoric “tragicomedy” because his final truth is in the impossibility of his return and the impossibility of his de- parture. His movement resembles that from Kafka’s parable on a man whose

weight prevents him from going further as it pulls him backwards at the same time. The forcible pressure of the present is such that movement proves im- possible in any direction. This is the image that Hannah Arendt adopted for her interpretation of the relationship between tradition and modernity.31 De- spite Agamben’s belief in the salvific future coming from the very idea of art, and that is undoubtedly a result of his (albeit inexplicit) inclination towards Heidegger’s reading of Klee’s painting, it seems to me that the point is that Klee’s painting deals with the present. It is an allegorical counterpoint to the idea of both returning to the past and striving towards the future. The angel, his eyes staring, seems to have nowhere to go. The loss of temporal orienta- tion is a consequence of the fact that the unconditioned power of the present leaves no hope for the discovery of the tradition as a possibility of renewal for modern art. By the same token, a merely technical reduction of art to the function of progress does not leave much hope for the salvific power of art.

It is an image, as Agamben has quite accurately observed, that shows a symbolic link with Dürer as the source of this melancholy view of time. What remains is the “surplus of the imaginary”. But that ‘surplus’ is also the awareness of the ‘lack’ of possibilities in an age when painting passes into a state of dematerialization. Colour as composition becomes the con- struction of a techno-image, in which the world virtually has its ‘experience’ and its ‘appearance’. But the painter no longer has his colour. In terms of primordial future, art has lost its credibility. The angel of the Apocalypse, in his golden-yellowish atmosphere, stands alone in the midst of nothingness, which functions perfectly and watches through the angel how history moves away irreparably from its goals and purposes. It is an image of the Messianic time with no Last Judgement. The true “tragicomedy” of history is finally revealed in that the painting no longer shows anything to the contemporaries of the techno-sphere. Instead of it, Benjamin’s 9th Thesis on the Philosophy of History still speaks powerfully. Thus, the painting has become the language of the endless apocalypse, the truth that liberates in the openness of mystery. The colour of mystery is golden yellow. With it, modern art rises above its own limitations like Klee’s New Angel.

Translated into English by Marina Miladinov

* This text was originally spoken as an invited lecture given at the Conference Theo- retical Dialogues, held on 28th April, 2014 in Rijeka, organised by The University of Rijeka, Department of Art History.


  1. Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911), trans. Michael

T.H. Sadler (New York: Dover Publications, 1977).

  • Paul Klee, The Thinking Eye: The Notebooks of Paul Klee (New York and London: Georg Wittenborn and Lund Humphries, 1961).
    • Paul Klee, On Modern Art (London: Faber and Faber, 1966).
    • Hans Belting, “Zu einer Ikonologie der Kulturen. Die Perspektive als Bildfrage,” in Ikonologie der Gegenwart, ed. Gottfried Boehm and Horst Bredekamp (Munich: W. Fink, 2009), 9-20.
    • Boris Groys, Über das Neue: Versuch eine Kulturökonomie (Munich: C. Hanser, 2007).
    • Juliane Rebentisch, Theorien der Gegenwartkunst (Zur Einführung) (Ham- burg: Junius Verlag, 2013); Žarko Paić, Slika bez svijeta: Ikonoklazam su- vremene umjetnosti [Image without the world: Iconoclasm in the contempo- rary art] (Zagreb: Litteris, 2006).
    • Günter Seubold, Das Ende der Kunst und der Paradigmenwechsel in der Ästhetik: Philosophische Untersuchugen zu Adorno, Heidegger und Gehlen in systematischen Absicht (Freiburg and Munich: K. Alber, 1997); Günter Seubold, Kunst als Enteignis: Heideggers Weg zu einer nicht mehr meta- physischen Kunst (2nd ed. Bonn: DenkMAL Verlag, 2005), 124; Žarko Paić, “Otvorenost i plavetnilo: S Heideggerom na putu prema drukčijoj umjetnosti” [Openness and blueness: With Heidegger toward a different art], in Treća zemlja: Tehnosfera i umjetnost (Zagreb: Litteris, 2014).
    • “Constellation” should here be understood as that which Benjamin implies when he writes that under particular cosmological circumstances stars form images (Sternbilder). This image indicates the correlation between the past and the future. The term “constellation” refers to a spatial and temporal continuum. Once the stars have disappeared from the zone of visibility, the problem of rearrangement and reformulation of what used to be visible and defined as historical events re-emerges. Cf. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften IV (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1991).
    • Gottfried Boehm, “Jenseits der Sprache? Anmerkungen zur Logik der Bilder” in Wie Bilder Sinn erzeugen: Die Macht des Zeigens (Berlin: Berlin Univer- sity Press, 2007), 19-33.
    • Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (as in n. 1), 110.
    • Jean-François Lyotard, Le différend (Paris: Minuit, 1993).
    • Gershom Scholem, “Walter Benjamin and His Angel,” in: idem, On Jews and Judaism in Crisis: Selected Essays, trans. Werner J. Dannhauser (New York: Schocken, 1976), 208.
    • Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Random House, 2007), 257-258.
    • W. J. T. Mitchell, Pictorial Turn (Chicago, MI: University of Chicago Press, 1994) and Was ist ein Bild? ed. Gottfried Boehm (Munich: W. Fink, 1994).

Cf. Žarko Paić, “Povratak slika?” [A return of images?] in: idem, Slika bez svijeta (as in n. 6), 158-176.

  1. Cf. Dieter Mersch, Ereignis und Aura: Untersuchungen zu einer Ästhetik des Performativen (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 2002); Ingeborg Reichle, Art in the Age of Technoscience: Genetic Engineering, Robotics, and Artificial Life in Contemporary Art (Vienna and New York: Springer, 2009); Žarko Paić, Post- humano stanje: Kraj čovjeka i mogućnosti druge povijesti [The Posthuman Condition: The end of man and the possibilities of another history] (Zagreb: Litteris, 2011).
    1. Cf. Digitaler Schein: Ästhetik der elektronischen Medien, ed. Florian Rötzer (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1991).
    1. Kazimir Malevich, The Non-Objective World: The Manifesto of Suprematism

(New York: Courier Dover Publications, 2003).

  1. “The revolutionary idea of contemporary art was that any object, any detail or fragment of the material world, could exert the same strange attraction and pose the same insoluble questions as were reserved in the past for a few rare aristocratic forms known as works of art. […] With, as a corollary, the transformation of art and of the work into an object, without illusion or tran- scendence, a purely conceptual acting-out, generative of deconstructive ob-

jects which deconstruct us in their turn”. Jean Baudrillard, The Intelligence of Evil, or: The Lucidity Pact, trans. Chris Turner (London, New York, and New Delhi: 2013), 85.

  1. Walter Benjamin, Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzi- erbarkeit (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1996). Cf. Žarko Paić, “Smjerokazi mel- ankolije: Walter Benjamin i mišljenje onkraj povijesti” [Signposts of Melan- choly: Walter Benjamin and Thinking Beyond History], in: Walter Benjamin, Novi Anđeo (Zagreb: Antibarbarus, 2008), 173-191.
    1. Siegfried Kracauer, The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1995).
    1. Klee, On Modern Art (as in n. 3), 41.
    1. Cf. K. Porter Aichele, Paul Klee: Poet/Painter (New York: Camden House, 2006).
    1. Dieter Mersch, “Performativität und Ereignis. Überlegungen zur Revision des Performanz-Konzeptes der Sprache”, mersch.performativitaet.und.ereignis.pdf (last accessed on October 28, 2014); Žarko Paić, “Događaj i razlika: Performativno-konceptualni obrat suvremene umjetnosti” [Event and difference: The performative-conceptual turn in the contemporary art], Filozofska istraživanja 33/129, 1 (2013), 5-20.
    1. Scholem, “Walter Benjamin and his Angel” (as in n. 12), 201.
    1. Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken Books, 1995).
    1. Martin Heidegger, Unterwegs zur Sprache (14th ed. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2007).
    1. Bill Viola, “Das Bild im mir – Videokunst offenbart die Welt des Verbor- genen”, in ICONIC TURN: Die Neue Macht der Bilder, ed. Christa Maar and

Hubert Burda (3rd ed. Cologne: DuMont, 2005), 260-282; Victor Stoichita, Visionary Experience in the Golden Age of Spanish Art (London: Reaktion, 1995).

  • Klee, On Modern Art (as in n. 3), 45; Heinrich Petzet, Encounters and Dia- logues with Martin Heidegger (Chicago, MI: Chicago University Press, 1993).
    • Giorgio Agamben, The Man without Content (Stanford, CA: Stanford Univer- sity Press, 1999), 64-71.
    • Cf. Paić, “Otvorenost i plavetnilo” (as in n. 7).
    • Hannah Arendt, “Tradition and the Modern Age”, in Between Past and Fu- ture: Six Exercises in Political Thought (New York: The Viking Press, 1961).
Author Profile
Žarko Paić

Žarko Paić is a Professor at the University of Zagreb, where he teaches courses in Aesthetics and Media Theory. He publishes frequently in philosophy, social sciences, and art theory. His publications include Theorizing Images, eds. with Krešimir Purgar (2016), and Technosphere Vol. 1-5 (2018-2019), White Holes and the Visualization of the Body, (2019), Neoliberalism, Oligarchy and Politics of the Event – At the Ege of Chaos (2020), Aesthetics and the Iconoclasm of Contemporary Art - Pictures Without a World (2021).