Dance You Monster to My Soft Song! enjoys an exclamation point at the end of the title, at once stern and genial. Less famous than his cousin Angelus Novus, this funny little monster from 1922 by Paul Klee has none of the bathos that typically attends “the spiritual in art” or, for that matter, the “messianic thinking” that the new angel has inspired in critical theory after Walter Benjamin. Brought from Germany to New York by the German Jewish art dealer Karl Nierendorf, it’s there now at Visionaries: Creating a Modern Guggenheim. From the image, one goes to the title. It’s there on the wall next to the group by Klee brought together for the exhibition. It’s also there at the bottom of the picture where Klee inscribed its words as if by way of an incantation. One’s first response is to laugh, of course. More given to humor and irony, Klee’s work is so very different than his friend Kandinsky’s.
In a chapter on “Word and Image in Twentieth-Century Art” in Topics of Our Time: Twentieth-century Issues in Learning and in Art, the great Ernst Gombrich has introduced our theme with far more expertise than is possible in my amateurish speculations. Gombirch makes mention of this image in relation to Klee’s own understanding of the creative process. Gombrich quotes Klee about those occasions when “one is very glad to see a familiar face surfacing spontaneously from the configuration, and find that the images look at one cheerfully or sternly, more or less tense, consolingly or threateningly, suffering or smiling” (p.178).
The sense-idea of the image looking back at the viewer will be a theme that readers of “Eye and Mind,” a magnificent essay by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, should surely recognize and appreciate. Gombrich notes Klee’s attribution of “a kind of reality” to the “presences” called up in the creative process. About Klee, Gombrich himself writes, now in his own words, that this artist “takes the measure of his ghostly visitors and remained in charge.” The “fierce monster of the tribe of Medusa [is] overcome by the artist’s gentle magic; it must dance rather than threaten, wit has triumphed over suffering.” On the relation between image and word, Gombrich says that it always helps to know the spirit’s name, which is what give us the power over them (ibid.).
The monster hovers over the diminutive little painter who stands before the piano with a seven branched candelabrum on top of it. To the right, a little exclamation point hangs over the title scrawled along the bottom of the painting. The painting is itself small, like most paintings by Klee. Small scale, the elevation evoked by this picture is down to earth.