Angelus Novus; The Angel of History and Other Works of Art by Paul Klee

“Angelus Novus” by Paul Klee (1920)

The study of psychoanalysis, especially theories in matricide, is much more than a study of any one individual’s personality, it is the study of what causes human suffering, disease, catastrophe, violence, strife, and war throughout the archive of human history. It is the study of the paranoid schizoid personality constellation that has not only manifested itself in war, but in serial murder and rape.

Paul Klee’s artwork, Angelus Novus, is 1920 monoprint by this Swiss-German artist. Using the oil transfer method he invented, his work has inspired works by other artists, filmakers, writers, and musicians. Klee’s work is described as the emblem of the angel of history and one which represents the age of multinational capitalism, and the somewhat perverse mode of universal history. Walter Benjamin, who felt a mystical identification with the Angelus Novus incorporated into his ninth thesis theory of the “angel of history,” in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” Benjamin writes:

“A Klee painting named, “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as through he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are starring, 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 he 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.”

Symbols of  Fantasy, Myth, and Culture in Paul Klee’s Artwork

“A Woman for Gods” (1938) by Paul Klee

“In the great mythological figures one sees the structuring of the imaginary system.” ~Luce Irigaray

Reviewing Paul Klee’s painting once can witness the reflection of an epoch of history. One of his paintings that struck my attention was “A Woman for Gods” (1938), pictured above, in which the painting depicts mythical symbols of the moon and sun. The mythological representation which reflect the mysteries of the feminine. This artwork, in my opinion, certainly represents the males preoccupation for the mysteries of woman; perhaps the childbearing process as she seems to be “bearing down,” the focus on the uncovered genital parts, the breasts, which can also support Bruno Bettelheim’s theory behind the symbolism of penile subincision in his work entitled “Symbolic Wounds,” and certainly can be symbolic in theories which discuss matricide, or the dead mother. This painting was created during the World War II of the Nazi interlude.

“The Flower Myth” (1918) by Paul Klee

“Myth is a form of knowledge about delirium and symptoms. The myth reveals psychiatric knowledge.” ~Jean-Joseph Goux

The second painting that strikes me in Paul Klee’s collection, and perhaps is the most symbolic of them all in terms of matricide, is entitled “The Flower Myth” (1918), pictured above, and depicts the mythical symbol of a bird diving toward what appears to be the womb of the female form, but after closer inspection of the painting, the womb turns out to be the seedling sprout of a flower. We also see astrological symbols of a crescent moon, and what appears to be the eclipsing of a sun. On the periphery of the painting we see trees symbolic of nature, or more importantly “Mother Nature.” The eclipsing of the sun is symbolic of an intrusion or a blocking, representing a type of interference. This painting was created during the historical event of the Bolshevik Revolution (1917-1918) and the first inception of the first communist government in Russia with the fall of the House of Romanov, the Russian crown monarch.

What is also interesting about this particular painting is that its symbolic representation run parallel with the imagery found in one of the oldest surviving plays of history, Aeschylus play the Oresteia. The Oresteian myth leaves us with a rich corpus of material concerned with the house of Atreus and the bloody chain of murders that marks its transgenerational history. It is also the mythical play that is considered the reversal of Oedipus and has been used in psychoanalytic theories on matricide. Similar to this painting, and found in the first play in the Aeschylus trilogy, “Agamemnon,” it depicts symbols of two devouring birds, twin eagles, one with white tail feathers and one with black tail feathers. The tapestry of colors, one black and one white, is symbolic of the forces of good and evil. These twin eagles consume a pregnant rabbit which is suppose to symbolize the war victory of Argos over Troy. Interesting the tapestry of this Paul Klee’s painting is crimson red.

Additionally, the fertile land of Troy, which was successfully sacked, raped, and destroyed by Agamemnon symbolize the manifestation of rape, more importantly sadistic serial rape and murder in the postmodern epoch. And like the play declares, aggressive acts of war can bring about ill omens and curse upon the house of the aggressor. In some plays these curses appear as Furies which can represent the disturbed mental state of grief and guilt of the paranoid schizoid. In this Greek myth, Metis is raped, impregnated and swallowed up by Zeus. The pregnant female form of Metis could represent the female fertile woman, perhaps even a virgin or any woman who has the capability of being of child bearing age. Like Klee’s painting, it is a corollary to the symbolism found in Aechylus’ Agamemnon.

“Strong Dream” (1929) by Paul Klee

The third painting that struck me in his collection was entitled “Strong Dream” (1929), pictured above, it depicts a man lying under what appears astrological symbols of a crescent yellow moon and a blood red full moon. Drapped over him is what appears to be a blanket the resembles wings. Next to the head of the man is an imprint of a shoe mark, which may serve the double function of a pillow and an impressionable mark. Interestingly our dreams serve us symbolic and sensational fantasized imagery that helps us to decode the events of our waking life. The symbolism found in fantasy, myth and culture are specific to elements in our waking worlds.  The tapestry of the painting is darkness, the veil of night, the time in which the symbolism of our dreams become manifest. The body language of the man appears to be petrified, almost frozen in fear. The symbolism in this painting could mark an end or perhaps a cessation to life, or perhaps a realized fear. Interestingly, this painting was created during the year that marked the end of the “Roaring Twenties,” and what followed was the Great Depression after the wall street market crashed the same year. This event started a world wide economic crisis and the American economy wouldn’t fully recover for two decades.

“Captive” (1940) by Paul Klee

“Then even as the fire doth upward move, by its own form, which to ascend is born, where longest in its matter it endures, so comes the captive soul into desire, which is a motion spiritual, and ne’er rests until she doth enjoy the thing beloved.” ~Dante Alighieri The Purgatorio

The fourth painting in Klee’s collection that stuck me was a work entitled “Captive” (1940). This painting is dated the year of Paul Klee’s death. The artwork depicts a prison cell with a face, that is unsmiling and one which appears to have been injured with one eye that is closed, and which seemingly reflects a swollen black eye. The tapestry of the painting is the blue hued darkness of night. The transition of blue and teal colors across the tapestry almost reflect a partially cloud covered night sky with introjected rays of lighter tones. The year the painting was dated the War with Germany was still alive. It would not end for another 5 years. The darkness of the painting reflects the phantom of a psychological blind spot of the political state during this historical epoch in German history, and one that is reflective of the projection of a persecutory object. The persecutory tone projected on to the Jewish population. The incarceration of many Jews at the various death camps symbolize the splitting of the “bad breast” of Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ play the Oresteia, while the German population represented the “good breast” of Athena who symbolizes the loving guiding help of goodness and love. The painting is symbolic of the negative psychic effects of the paranoid schizoid position of splitting and marks the need of a working through of a prolific amount of grief found in the numbed German psyche, most likely left behind from this symbolic space of early childhood. A wound that had continued left unresolved.

Like the films of Hans Jürgen Syberberg, Paul Klee’s artworks become the subject matter of the struggles of light against darkness, quests for redemption from degeneration and corruption. Particular to Freud and the reversal of Oedipus, they occupy a deep psychological and ideological core of real historical events. What we can discern from literature and artwork is “not unlike the Chinese philosophers, recognizes the great laws of life in the rhythms of the winds and the growth of grain and the composure of a tranquil death and sees volcanoes, revolutions, and the hunger for vengeance as the loud but in the end smaller, transitory events of the world and represents them as such.”


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