In his Theses on the Philosophy of History Walter Benjamin famously rounded upon Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus as the angel of history – eyes fixed on the ever accumulating wreckage of the past, wings caught open, as he is propelled backwards by the unrelenting winds of progress. Possessed by a messianic desire to halt and intervene in the action, he is instead swept into the unseen future. It is a passage that touches on the fecundity of Paul Klee’s graphic work as a catalyst to imaginative response, even as the strength of the prose delimits the angel’s flight – chaining it to the author’s wider meditations on historical materialism. The dangers of cooption notwithstanding, the angel’s presence in a text which rallies forcefully against historicism points towards the shortcomings of the Tate’s recently closed retrospective. Not only was Benjamin’s angel missing (along with the rest of Klee’s post-war host), but following on from the Tate Britain re-hang – and once more under the banners of high corporate sponsorship – the exhibition veered uncomfortably close to uncritical historicism. With the only declared organizational principle derived from Klee’s sequential numbering system, the works unfolded in a relentless firing line, with little to no cohesive attempt at communicating the proposals of the selection or the wider historical situation.
Whilst on the surface such returns to chronology may seem to be an accession to those of us who lamented the arbitrary nature of the Tate’s thematic groupings (and in reality are perhaps little more than convenient structures to mask the complex wrangling of loans and rotations), the rigid chronologies irk for familiar reasons. Forgoing historical interpretation for the mustering of ‘a mass of data to fill the homogenous empty time’, we are left without a comprehensive, or even stated, theory of history. Nowhere do we sense the seizing of historical structure as a ‘chance in the fight for an oppressed past’, no judgment is made as to Klee’s relevance to the present moment (beyond vaunting his status), no historically underplayed parts of his career are overtly highlighted and no criteria of selection are put forward. Instead, hollow paeans to Klee’s unbounded creativity, obscure reference to his ‘sophisticated approach to composition’ and token timelines multiply across the walls like the anaesthetized sales tools of investment consultants. Throughout Klee is presented as an eternal but ill-defined genius.
Leaving aside the perhaps inevitable contradictions inherent in a logo emblazoned, blockbuster retrospective in the early 21st century, the exhibition presented further tensions. If the sheer volume and inventiveness of Klee’s output would seem to recommend him as a giant of modernism, on a par with Picasso, his work sits much more awkwardly within both our historical reconstructions and, more pointedly, the cavernous post-industrial halls of Tate Modern. To extend the (perhaps unfortunate) comparison, following Clement Greenberg, ‘Picasso’s works move about in the world; they take place among other events and objects. Klee’s live in a more fictive medium and require of the spectator a greater dislocation’.  Relating this (somewhat vaguely) to both manuscript painting and the Dutch-German bourgeois tradition – as opposed to Renaissance wall-painting, as continued in Picasso (presumably via the French Salon) – Greenberg touched on how the aura filled halls of Tate Modern consistently undermined the sort of concentration demanded by Klee’s work. Compounded by the vast quantity of work assembled and the lack of any attempt to situate it within a firm historical context, the absorption and speculative involvement required by each work made the experience of the exhibition an exhausting one – and one which inadvertently made clear the divergence of Klee’s practice from contemporary modes of display. Klee’s are fundamentally domestic objects – they cry out to be possessed, engaged with intimately and over extended time, and are, as such, more than usually unsuited to the endless stream of public procession in which status is today conferred.
The awkwardness with which Klee occupied the large public halls of Tate Modern, provided a reminder of the long-running debate surrounding the perceived ‘privateness’ of the work. Greenberg located the matter in the receptive modes outlined above, and the contrast between absorbing ‘easel painting’ (of which he saw Klee to be one of the last great defenders) and projecting ‘mural painting’ (soon to be allied with the Abstract Expressionist mode). But, in the standout essay of the exhibition catalogue, Annie Bourneuf shows that contemporary German criticism situated the privacy of Klee’s painting at a more explicitly social level. As Wilhelm Hausenstein wrote in a 1919 survey of Expressionism, the ‘subjectivity of Klee’s art is so elusive that it threatens to end the inalienable concept of artistic publicness’. It was a threat with which many felt uncomfortable, (from Dadaists to conservative Munich critics) and which left Hausenstein ‘neither able nor willing to give a generally valid norm of judgment; his drawing is so subjective and so full of fundamentally problematic features that it is impossible to measure it against objective and general criteria of art’.
Whilst this perceived subjectivity was most often used by contemporary critics as the basis of reproach, by 1921 Hausenstein had inverted the terms of debate, highlighting it instead as one of the central pillars of defence in his monograph on the artist. A socialist art critic and later politician, Hausenstein began his writing career as one of the few leftist supporters of Expressionism, maintaining that these ‘best sons of the bourgeoisie’ were forging the path towards a new collectivity of spirit. However, in the wake of the First World War (a ‘travesty of collectivism’), and the 1919 assassination of Kurt Eisner, Hausenstein began to turn against Expressionism and view Klee’s intense subjectivity as in tune with the age – ‘truly, the subjective is not the highest. But it is in this suspicious moment the only thing … It is unthinkable that art, if it is to have the significance and beauty of logical consistency, could in this epoch appear otherwise than as Klee’s drawing, the limits of which lie in the span of the excess of his subjectivity’.
Hausenstein’s characterisation of his epoch as one of disintegration, disorder and individualism is, Bourneuf suggests, derived from Saint-Simon’s division of history into ‘organic’ and ‘anarchic’ epochs – Klee’s art is seen to represent the shattered, individualist dissolution of the latter. This scheme combines Hegelian metaphysics with a widely voiced late 19th century lamentation of the decline in cohesive style as an attribute of a declining culture (‘Culture is above all a unity of artistic style and all manifestations of the life of a people’ – Nietzsche). Nevertheless the approach contains the seeds of the more materialist critique set out in Meyer Schapiro’s 1937 essay Nature of Abstract Art. In Schapiro’s text, however, the widespread withdrawal of art into subjective realms from Impressionism forward is not traced with regard to a periodic zeitgeist-impelled circular unravelling, but rather, to the historically conditioned shift in artists’ relation to the broader social moment under capitalism, resulting in an ‘extreme subjectivism’, and a turn away from nature.
Schapiro’s essay touches upon some of the fundamentals of Klee’s art, without – it must be said – focussing upon him directly. Yet, the extremity of Klee’s subjectivism is contestable. If his withdrawal from a collective style, a frequent indeterminacy of ‘meaning’, a disregard of the norms of perspective, a separation and exploration of formal elements and indeed the artists own withdrawal to Bern from 1901-1908 must have presented a challenge to the contemporary notions of ‘artistic publicness’, it nonetheless deviates significantly from the model of withdrawal which Schapiro notes, for example, in Kandinsky. Klee did not posit his abstraction or formal development in opposition to the material world, or as an expression of some ‘inner necessity’, but instead, pursuing figurative and abstract modes throughout his career, seems to have reached a critical understanding of Schapiro’s later insight that it was ‘not that the processes of imitating nature were exhausted, but the valuation of nature itself had changed’. Whilst this change is most commonly perceived as a devaluation, I think that Greenberg revealed the seeds of a more nuanced interpretation when he observed that, in Klee’s art, ‘it is not that nature is not imitated faithfully enough but that nature and the external world are assigned a different role than formerly’. Though Greenberg went on to assert that the primary value of Klee’s art (be it abstract or figurative) lay in its abstract qualities, looking back from our current vantage point, I feel that this view jeopardizes our historical understanding of Klee’s position.
In many ways the opening of the exhibition in 1913 offered a fast-track to the most revealing moments of Klee’s reorientation, between what in a diary entry of that year he defined as ‘Art – Nature – Self’. Although it could also be observed that, as with other centennial embraces of 1913 as a kind of ‘year zero’, this beginning denied access to the explorations on which the mature career was founded. Absent is the biomorphic flow of form and visual association in 1904’s Inventions series, as is the slow separation of line, tone and form across the work of the early 1910s. It is more regrettable, however, that the nominal attempt to pull out sequences of Klee’s art (in fact rather few and far between in the show) did not highlight the series which immediately preceded the exhibition’s breathtaking opener When God Considered the Creation of the Plants (1913). Looking through the second of the five-volume catalogue raisonné on the artist (a format in which the historicism of Klee’s sequential numbering system has an undoubted value), one notes that When God… emerges from a body of works in which the self-promoted mythology of the artist as God (a convenient and repeated trope for the hagiographic cultivation of genius in which the show partakes), may be less pronounced, but the extent of Klee’s broader interests are more clearly revealed. Working through the titles of the immediately preceding works tells its own story: Song of Lamentation, Before the Resurrection, Collapse, Berries, Sound of Fanfares, Helplessness of the Adversaries, Factory, New Construction, The Clock, Old Town, Piano Light on a Desk, The Stars Above Things.
If in When God Considered… pen and ink washes, networks of hatching and arrayed pictographic foliage, all seem ready to form into a new constellation of the world, the series as a whole – made a year after Klee’s visit to Paris and at a time of deepening connection to the emergent pan-European avant-garde – reveals a widespread engagement with diverse aspects of the existent world. Merging the excitement (and terror) of new construction methods, with subjects whose range of reference stretches from the everyday to the celestial, the formal to the biblical, and the industrial to the bucolic, the series registers the extent to which Klee’s ‘path to abstraction’ was not made in unqualified isolation and retreat from the material realm (as for example, Kandinsky’s predominantly rural spiritualist fantasising could be seen), or even from a mystical recreation of the self as God (to which When God Considered… may lend credence). Rather, he developed a searching engagement with the world – in its social, material, mythological, expressive and private manifestations – alongside a radical approach to the formal elements of picture making. It is a fusion that seems worth rescuing from both formalist and Marxist accounts.
The breadth of Klee’s interests can, I believe, be related to TJ Clark’s recent reading of Picasso. For Clark, the opening up of the compressed internal ‘roomspace’ of cubism in Picasso’s works of the 1920s embodies or parallels a wider Nietzschean rejection of internalization: ‘the outside has really come to them, in from the window. It has touched these objects … They have become outsides. Outsides are all they are. Internalisation, to use Nietzsche’s great bad word, cannot lay a hand on them.’ For all the talk of Klee’s privateness, it seems notable that from the outset he too rejects the dual internalisations of ‘roomspace’ and ‘inner necessity’. Most explicitly in Opened Mountain of 1915, for example, the interior shafts of the mountain, or at least their abstracted tubular forms, are opened up to become outsides – whether the outside has come to them, or they to it, here they are, bursting out of the mountain and against the limits of perspective. (Klee returned to mineshaft imagery several times over these years.) Often less explicit in their rejection of internalisation Klee’s moves into abstraction are nonetheless characterised not so much by retreat, as by expansion – across the boundaries of subjective intuition and objective fact. Throughout the 1910s Klee’s art pursues formal exploration in contact with a wide range of external spaces – both real and imagined – from sunken cities to North African cityscapes.
Not all of Klee’s work, of course, partakes so apparently in the overthrow of ‘internalisation’. Running through the best works of the exhibition, however, there remains an expansive vision of what a painting could be or do; a balancing between subjective intuition and objective reality, between figuration and abstraction, between diverse modes of visual communication, between ‘self’ ‘nature’ and ‘art’. In Translucencies Orange-Blue, for example, (for me the highlight of the exhibition), we are held by spatial complexity and fluid indeterminacy, between the sensation of light, form and colour, wash and substance, even as the strange emergent geometries look ready to merge into signs or figures. Our attention is split between seeing the painting as a landscape, or as a composition originating in colour harmonies and the joyous flow of materials. Redgreen and Violet-Yellow Rhythm, 1920, once more takes us on a tour of architectonics with floating chasms of space opening from a network of interlocking geometries and recessive whites. Pictographic trees nestle lightheartedly in the cracks between subdued but effervescent colour harmonies. It is at once a distinctly urban, symbolically rural and shockingly abstract scene. In the aquarium studies of the 1920s the gravity of the picture plane is overthrown, a new mode of abstract and constructivist method announced, and once more a renewed consideration of the material world advanced. Exotic River Landscape, 1924, expands such gradated fields alongside the presentation of a water system which flows from sky, through the tributaries and estuaries of a mountain, past a school of fish towards to a remarkably funny flock of cartoonish birds, which stand on top of and merge with the ground, replete with quizzical expressions and stumbling chicks, all to the musical accompaniment of a maestro pianist. To such works could be added the psychological nuance of The Protector (1926), the sheer hilarity of They’re Biting (1920), the historical dimensions of Bewitched Petrified (1934) or the soft evening light and monolithic form of Fire in the Evening (1929). Such work is not a devaluation of nature, nor purely abstract in interest.
It is this freedom of a distinctly early 20th century range of reference that underwrites Klee’s best work. He merges musical harmony, poetic juxtaposition, humour, evolving structural concerns and free-flowing association, in a balance of what he might have termed classical and romantic modes. The fusion challenges both formalist and materialist histories, but will not be illuminated by uncritical paeans to creativity. Pursued outside of the boundaries of any particular avant-garde tendency (and Klee seems at his weakest when you feel such tendencies most directly encroaching – in his Harmony of the Northern Flora (1927), his feathered pointillism, constructivist parodies such as Jumper, 1930, or the slightly grotesque and overscaled surrealism of Still Life with Crucifers, 1925), there is undoubtedly a degree of privateness in Klee’s relation to the world, and in the way in which the works engage the viewer. In this they foreshadow a century in which cranky individualist theories of art took succour in the delightful combination of insight and vaguery of The Pedagogical Sketchbook. But his is, nonetheless, a social art, which belongs to its historic moment in more than just its individualism. Schapiro reminds us that in the ‘Renaissance the development of linear perspective was intimately tied to the exploration of the world and the renewal of physical and geographical science’. Similarly we may posit that in his renegotiation of communicative modes, his exploration of the world’s external structures alongside man’s fragmented psyche, his shifts in scale between the microcosmic and macrocosmic, and his broad range of historical reference Paul Klee’s art is intimately tied to the multiple progressions of human knowledge in the last century. Accepting the dangers of relying on Klee’s writing, his oft quoted pronouncement that ‘[t]he contrast between man’s ideological capacity to move at random through material and metaphysical spaces and his physical limitations is the origin of all human tragedy’, seems to rest enchantingly upon a central tension of not only his work but the century which bore it.
It is perhaps the fusion of startling eloquence and frequent obfuscation detectable in Klee’s extensive writing that has led to the common focus on his unbridled ‘creativity’, and individual genius. In assessing his legacy, however, it seems worth underlining that his particularity can be traced most concretely through a deep-reaching, cogent and thorough realignment of his art’s relation to the world. Beyond romantic self-expression, or classicist reduction, Klee’s achievement was a generous and searching consideration of his tools of production and the means by which they could register his relation to the world – in both its subjective metaphysics and material form. In this, his rigour, and critical awareness should be stressed above his role as a creative mystic. If Greenberg is right that Klee took his privateness rather for granted, perhaps Klee’s work shows us that so too did Greenberg, and many others. For if his works are no doubt privately desirable bourgeois objects, which engage the viewer on an individual basis (Death of Marat, they are not) their relation to the viewer exceeds these limits – not by formal projection, or political reference – but rather by historical importance. Klee’s abstraction (as his figuration) presents a monument to the tensions of the age in which it was produced. It involves a complex valuing and distrust of history, a poetic expansion of art’s remit alongside a formalist research of production; the decline of tradition is shown alongside a broadening enrichment of reference.
The recent exhibition made discoverable (without stating) the rigour of Klee’s art, but left its position within the movement of art across the last century woefully unexplored. It is this combination of rigour and historical agency that may well have allowed Benjamin, the famous detractor of artistic aura and questioner of speculative immersion – to look up from his desk as he penned his essays, and feel at one with his absorbing, bourgeois, quasi-religious possession. Klee’s angel, like his other work, takes its place within the ‘socialisation of the means of production’, expanding art into a new and historically conditioned dialectical embrace between the self and the world. It highlights the contradictory relation of the subjective and objective worlds, whilst rejecting ‘inner necessity’ and formal self-sufficiency. It is, therefore, for all its bourgeois privacy, a social and communicative art, whose historical importance far exceeds the cult of Klee.
 Walter Benjamin (1940), Theses on the Philosophy of History, in Illuminations, Fontana Press, 1992
 Clement Greenberg (1941), Art Chronicle: On Paul Klee, in Clement Greenberg, The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 1, 1988, The University of Chicago Press, pp 65-73
 Annie Bourneuf, An Art of Privacy? Wilhelm Hausenstein on Paul Klee, in Paul Klee, Making Visible, Tate Publishing, 2013
 see Max Haxthausen, Paul Klee, Wilhelm Hausenstein, and the “Problem of Style“
 Meyer Schapiro, 1937, Nature of Abstract Art, First published in Marxist Quarterly
 Clement Greenberg (1941), pp 65-73
 Paul Klee, The Diaries of Paul Klee 1898 – 1918, Ed. Felix Klee, University of California Press, 1968, p. 287
 see for example MoMA’s Inventing Abstraction
 TJ Clark, 2013, Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Gurenica, Princeton University Press. For a summary see Malcolm Bull, Pure Mediterranean, London Review of Books, v. 36, no 4, 20 February, 2014
 Clement Greenberg (1941), pp 65-73
 Benjamin purchased Angelus Novus from a 1921 exhibition.
 Walter Benjamin, (1934) The Author as Producer