It’s a Small World After All: the Neubauer Collegium’s Exhibit on Visual Arts in Literature

The Neubauer Collegium’s newest exhibit explores the phenomenon of certain, enduring images in the publishing industry.

By Patrick Egan, Contributor

On January 17, the Neubauer Collegium opened its new exhibit, Kleine Welt, centered on an array of book covers and prints by Paul Klee and featuring contributions from Zachary Cahill, R. H. Quaytman and David Schutter. Kleine Welt translates to “small world,” a title appropriate to describe both the dark and chaotic Klee print to which it was originally assigned, and the world of book covers dominated by Klee in the 20th century. 

Born in 1879 in Switzerland, Paul Klee, a follower of cubism, surrealism, and expressionism, inadvertently created something of a monopoly on the cover art of 20th-century texts. His abstract prints appealed to publishers of philosophical and theoretical subject matters in particular. Many of those books are on display in the Collegium’s gallery. In one display case, "Death and Fire," which Klee painted at the end of his life as a representation of his suffering, could be seen on the covers of books such as Late Style and its Discontents, Heidegger and Language, and Risk, Environment, and Modernity. The publishers of all three of these books independently saw something in "Death and Fire" that reminded them of their unique subject matters. The majority of Klee’s prints were used for philosophical and theoretical texts, but they have also been applied to topics ranging from Twitter and modern linguistics to linear functions and matrix theory. 

Another display case exhibits about a dozen books all featuring “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog,” a painting by Caspar David Friedrich. The versatility of imagery as an art form was showcased here the most clearly, with Friedrich’s romantic-era portrait gracing Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and an album cover of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy. The image of a lone figure surveying a foggy landscape was able to capture the themes and emotions of 15 very different books and a piano composition, despite not being made with the intent of representing any of them.

The fact that so many publishers are attracted to Klee’s work more frequently than other artists is indicative of the power of his prints to invoke thought and encourage different interpretations that Klee himself could never have foreseen. Klee’s images have a life of their own and take on new meanings even after his death. The interpretations of viewers (and in this case publishers) add meaning to a work that the original artist could never have predicted. One of the focal points of the exhibit was an array of works featuring "Angelus Novus." The abstract rendering of an angel was purchased by German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who interpreted it as depicting “the angel of history” looking back on catastrophes of the past. Klee (who died in 1940) could never have foreseen that publishers would run with this interpretation and would feature the image on the covers of post-Holocaust printings of books on Jewish theology and German philosophy. The exhibit also features R. H. Quaytman’s renditions on "Angelus Novus" overlaid on portraits of Martin Luther, which have hung in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

The Neubauer Collegium’s exhibit makes a powerful case for the versatility and enduring influence of imagery. The diverse uses of each print show how many different meanings a single image may confer, while other art forms are too singularly focused to encapsulate such a wide array of ideas. The Collegium implores its visitors to ask themselves what it is about Klee’s particular style that attracts so many authors and publishers of diverse subject matter. Perhaps his prints toe the line between abstraction and specificity enough to apply to a multitude of subject matters, while evoking concrete thoughts when viewed alongside a corresponding title. Perhaps authors and publishers of abstract philosophical concepts gravitate towards Klee because his paintings are well suited to ground and provide a visual representation of their subject matter. Regardless of why, it is clear that Klee’s prints possess a quality that is highly attractive to artists in the literary world. A trip to the Neubauer Collegium is worthwhile for anyone interested in the relation between visual arts and other forms of media.