Investigating Art and the Spiritual, Week 3: Timeless: Paul Klee and Jeanne Jaffe

(a small portion of the cave paintings in Lascaux, France)

(Forgetful Angel, by Paul Klee)

(Spill of Memory, by Jeanne Jaffe)

(Study for Progeny, by Jeanne Jaffe)

Timeless: Klee and Jeanne Jaffe
Along with transcendence, timelessness is another prominent characteristic of spiritually-attuned artwork. Timelessness can be said to be spiritually-important because it is a characteristic of those things which have stood the “test of time”, and which impart a sense of a reality beyond our immediacy, and which, though no longer ours physically, can be touched spiritually. It is a reality as we will see, both integral to, and connected with, our present realities. Paul Klee said in his journal of 1916, “Everything passes, and what remains of former times, what remains of life, is the spiritual” (Lipsey, 188).
To begin defining timelessness, we can approach it beginning by making several points: for one, the artwork will have some distinguishing feature which is recognizable over eons; that is, any human seeing it, no matter what their time, place or context will recognize some aspect of its core purpose and value, as well as its transcendent properties. As an example, we might agree that the cave paintings in Lascaux, France, discovered in the mid-twentieth century, could readily be considered timeless – humans thousands of years removed from their inception needed little time to figure out several possible reasons for their existence. The drawings were perhaps done as a memorial; a sacrifice of thanks, or a shrine of sorts: we don't know for sure. The time lapsed has of course raised some puzzling questions, but the fluency; the purity; the spiritual freshness of the cave drawings quickly pulls us in; they readily tell us a story – though perhaps a bit foggily. And conversely, the spirituality of these cave drawings contributes to our recognizing them as timeless: the animals are raised up to an almost deified status; they are simultaneously prey and savior (or a symbol of salvation and continuing, enduring sustenance) for these ad hoc artists. A second aspect of timelessness that can be found in spiritually-attuned art is that, no matter when (or from where) it is approached, it casts backwards and forwards from that place equally well. It functions as both medium and prophet. That is, the visual language extant in the artwork has no specific time limits (this is a further distinction of the previous point). It also follows from our investigation of transcendancy last time, that an artwork which pushes towards transcendence will often have the additional element of timelessness. That is, it is sometimes transcendent through its timelessness. Admittedly, some artwork closer to our time than cave paintings may now seem timeless, or seem to be growing into a universal spirituality, but it still remains to be proven whether or not it will indeed read well over eons. For example, much of the abstract expressionist art of the 20th century (by painters such as Barnett Newman; Morris Louis; Ad Reinhardt, etc.) was ushered quickly into that general fold of "timeless" without the long-tempering which an expression like the Lascaux cave paintings have received. Though we could say, almost as a rule, that the less specific and more universal the subject, execution and symbolism becomes in an artwork, one may assume (to a point) that the artwork will endure a long time, its volume gaining in timeless power as it continues to age. An artwork by someone like Fragonard, e.g. may indeed tell us volumes about 18th century France; its ideals and mores, but is it spiritually awake in a timeless way – like a Cy Twombly painting seems to be? It remains to be seen – and that's the difficulty in finding some surety; time is required as the ultimate test of timelessness – at least in most cases.

However – there are certain artists who have such an incredibly innate ability to create artworks which speak timelessly, seemingly on the very day of their birthing: because of their intense peering into the depths and riches of the past, and the acuity with which they predict – Jules Verne-like – the format of the future, molding their artistic production between those two sides of the cast,. Such an artist, who is thus foremost in my mind when considering the spiritual possibilities of timelessness in art, is Paul Klee. We are fortunate to have several fine works by Klee in the Foundation's collection, including several late works. Klee is an artist who was not only gifted with an ability to tap into the timeless spiritual/sub-consciousness of art, but also was one who, upon reaching the last years of his life, shone intensely and columnar, like a candle about to go out. His late work is among his most pure, refined and timeless.

But before we delve more deeply and formally into Klee's work, let's firstly investigate just a bit more closely the spiritual importance of timelessness. A first point that I’d like to make, is that not all timelessness in art is directly spiritual or concerned with spiritual things, but all spiritually-attuned art has an element of timelessness. The reason I would propose is that, by nature of its spiritual acuity, which can be sensed visually, tactilely and psychologically, timelessness is assumed. In other words, temporality is the antithesis of spirituality. Essentially, that which seems to point most clearly into the future, by necessity points to and incorporates the qualities of something beyond our own time; something flowing parallel and just out of our full reach. Art like Klee's dips into that stream, but only sparingly – "like a glass darkly". And those art works which are timeless in a spiritual way are those "dark glasses" through which we are allowed to blink and occasionally glimpse, however dimly, our interaction with the timeless. Another word which may be of instructive use here, though used more in distinctly religious ways, is "eternal”. However I would caution that reverting from the use of "timeless" to "eternal", would move our concept further away from a directly human spirituality. That is, within the term “eternal”, time is a non-issue – and non-existent …however, within timelessness, time may be absentee and somewhat emasculated, but it still has a grasp on our human sensibilities. Eternity is an abstract dream and ideal, whereas timelessness is a spiritual concept rooted in humanness: we experience timelessness through our humanity. So for our purposes, we'll stick with the term timeless. However, the term “eternal” still does impart that same sense of a channel flowing just beyond our full reach, unattainable only because of our persnickety physical temporality, and our consciousness of being primarily in the here-and-now. Investigating the timeless in art though, can help us move – staying within our bodily vessels – beyond ourselves and our book-ended lives. It gives us the opportunity to tap into a history and a future which we otherwise would only be vaguely conscious of.

So, returning to Paul Klee. The first Klee we'll look at is Historic Ground (Historischer Boden) in Gallery 17, a wonderful piece that is strongly evocative of timelessness. At first glance, there are some parallels between this drawing and the Lascaux cave drawings mentioned earlier. This drawing is done in earth tones of sienna, rust and umber, and molded in modulating tones, both of which suggest an ancient set of glyphs, subtly carved into a long-lasting material, such as rock, and greatly weathered: there is a definite evocation of old-age. The shapes in the drawing too, are similar to Celtic runes; Sumerian script, or other ancient forms and tropes of communication, which have largely been lost to us, save for a few scraps of knowledge. Thus, there is a gradually-assumed timelessness here, part of which is untimely; that is, run out. We no longer understand this thing which was made for specific communication, therefore a deep and centralized universality – even though it is inscrutable to us – has come to the surface to replace its former specificity. So, though one form of understanding has long since leached out; a greater but more mysterious and enigmatic one has replaced it. This is the sense we receive from how Klee has formally arranged and composed the colors, tones and lines. But there is more: after the formal has been received as an invitation of sorts, we may go in further. However, I’d like to offer a word of clarification: on the one hand, a drawing like this, drawn in this way, by someone like Klee is an invitation; an invitation to speculate on where this drawing is from; where it's taking us; and how it is taking us there (i.e. what it's saying, and how it’s saying it). In other words, who are we in relation to it? The issue becomes, though that as a group, we would need to stop soon: for, the more the piece invites us in, the more personal it becomes. It would invite each of us in different direction, and into a different place by different means, depending on our personal spiritual inclinations and needs. So ironically, the more universal an artwork becomes, the more personal it becomes: essentially, each of us can use it in the way it most resonates with our inner spirit, and there is less chance of error. Because the piece can speak to nearly everyone (universality), it speaks a million languages at once. It is a different sort of spiritual translator, authentically translating to every viewer who interacts with it – the anti-Babel, a clarifying power, rather than an obscuring one. Such is this drawing by Klee.

Let's consider a second drawing by Klee, another late work done in the year before his death. This time it’s not in the form of a landscape, but is a human form. Near the end of his life, Klee drew a series of wonderful and sublime drawings of ghosts and angels, composed of loosely, looping, mostly unbroken lines, and a ghostly pallor. Many were done on a white background, but some were tinted lightly like this one, entitled This Bloom is about to Wither (Diese Blute Will Verwelken). This drawing evokes a different sense of timelessness than the previous drawing. In that one was the timelessness of a human's touch (more indirect; a “record” of sorts); this one conversely, is the directly personal, face-to-face confrontation with the timeless aspects reflected within each of us. There we saw a record; here we see a face. The rudimentary line work he used here serves to flatten the face, and accentuate its stylization. (Klee believed the common claim of his artwork being "childlike" was a misunderstanding) The face seems to be drawn of only two snaking lines, which intertwine gracefully to suggest a serene face, peering out at us in a peaceful and wise manner. It is a face serene on the edge of its temporality, its heavenly, otherworldly hues and modulations are harbingers of its imminent ushering into another place. In the transcendence of a flower the colors of eternity may be seen. What balances these flattening, planar lines of the facial contours is the gently applied pink, red and blue tones; in, over and around the lines, emphasizing them, not unlike the previous drawing. Additionally, the openness of the execution – the fluid, in-and-out of space between the lines – allows one's eyes to move fluidly through the composition. Therefore, though the sense of this figure is one of simple wisdom and serenity, there is a contrasting sense of immense readability; of being able to simultaneously know-all, and know-nothing through this mysterious figure. (And again, we come to a very Zen-like sense of the importance of emptying ourselves of temporality, and being open to the filling up and pouring in of a more eternal consciousness; that stream just beyond our reach and perception, but which so many of us know without a doubt, exists).

So what might this drawing be telling us of timelessness? In a way, this head, this figure symbolizes the acutely aware, and yet often stifled or misunderstood, child-like remnant within all of us, which approaches the world and all of time and knowledge with an immense capacity to absorb, but often limited ability to assimilate; (acceptance, without understanding as a prerequisite: in other words, our pre-rationalistic infancy). Here is our soul-child to be fostered and encouraged; our inner touchstone towards sensing timelessness and the continuing pulse of the universe. An artist we’ll look at very soon, Jeanne Jaffe, alludes to this in her artist statement: “…body parts, tools, toys and biological entities share edges and identities and echo early somatic experiences where the distinction between things are not yet clear, and where boundaries between identities are still fluid. These forms create an intuitive narrative that refers to visual, tactile, and auditory sensations which were felt before words could describe and thereby distance immediate experience.” Klee was perhaps sensing something similar when he was drawing this figure, and the others like it -- any more definitive of a line; any more concrete a tonality and the fresh, vital timelessness would be lessened and stifled. Though Klee was sensing the end, that end is one of the few truly universal things in the universe. Franklin famously said only death and taxes are givens in life. Not to mention, many cultures worldwide traditionally consider this “end” to be a sure beginning.

Continuing with the idea of sensing the receptivity and place for timelessness in ourselves and our lives, let's look at Klee's drawing Village among Rocks (Ort mit Felsen) in G 22, which returns to the landscape as a form, but is still very frontal and fairly flattened. This can be taken as a reminder that we are encountering a symbol; a drawing; artifice: we are not being convinced of a round, illusionary reality; but rather an obviously crafted surface. In this drawing, the timeless mark of a human’s sensory interaction with their world (as seen in the "glyph" drawing) merges with the timeless, personal, interactive gaze (of the "blossom" drawing) and creates a rich, layered investigation into direct human interaction and involvement in timeless processes and patterns. Pattern is one of the strongest ways that this idea is established in this drawing. Most obvious is the closely interlocked, tessellation-like pattern of flatly-rendered shapes which in turn read like rocks; boulders; houses; and succulent plant leaves. And this is the most striking aspect of the shape pattern: we are able to read them as nearly any of these shapes, and the drawing still makes sense regardless. The colors too, are again as in Historic Ground, in an enduring, ancient, and time-worn palette: steely blues and rosy quartz pinks; granite and slate hues – this landscape has existed for a long time; we're not sure how long, and the length of time is not really important. The next most striking feature is that the denizens of this landscape – i.e. the humans whom we might assume built and live in these blocky houses, and the shapes which suggest a hardy plant-life – are perfectly fitted into their environment. And this is a lesson about timelessness – that of reaching near-effortless harmony with one’s surroundings. Temporality almost assumes discomfort, unnaturalness and disharmony – normally time is an essential for true harmony. Here, with a wealth of time having passed, full harmony has been achieved and is being lived out, so that a peaceful homogeneity has been reached. And this is not the negative homogeneity of exclusion and uniformity; it is the positive homogeneity of harmony regardless of difference. See how effortlessly the shapes fit together – as if built out of each other’s materials – yet retain their uniqueness of contour, purpose, and station. Again in this drawing the two sentiments have combined: the wide-eyed innocence of human's near-entrance into the timelessness of the future (the “bloom” piece), and the universally-received language of timelessness which we sense has been written just for us (the “historic ground” piece), have joined in a harmonious whole, giving us a serene, holistic sense of being at peace with our surroundings for all time. Now, granted it is a somewhat Germanic and cerebral vision of heaven (eternity) but it has its own orderly peace about it, and conveys a true, definitive vision both of what timelessness may do for the spirit, and what it looks like in an artwork.

Now, Klee is admittedly a sometimes overly-philosophical and mental artist, his works occasionally tipping hard towards seriousness and gravity, from its usual balance with whimsy and dry humor. A contemporary Philadelphia artist, named Jeanne Jaffe, enters our investigation with timelessness wielding a refined and personalized humor, exemplified by her adoption of the cartoon shapeliness and pop art aesthetics informed by the culture of the late 20th century. Her art takes a fresh, feminine tack towards timelessness, drawing on some of the forms Louise Bourgeois debuted, with a similar wry use of sexual innuendo. In Jaffe’s work Spill of Memory (1998), the sculpted shapes move visually between suggestions of both organs and bones; that is between the breathing flesh of existence, and the bare evidence of existence. They are strung on cords; hanging in front of a wall, therefore suggesting the flatness of a 2-D work – again, along with the suggestion of a record or "log" within the grid-like formation – yet they are absolutely, undeniably modeled objects, existing roundly in space. There is thus the element of narrative – though sketchy, and of "memory" being recorded – albeit abstractly. Again, as with the Klee drawing, timelessness is approached first formally – the grid is colored in washed-out, consistently bleached hues, suggesting eons of aging and exposure to the harsh elements. And yet, the suggestion of organ – fleshly – form, suggests that there is still some life in these bony apparitions. Thus, like Klee's This Bloom is about to Wither, there is a pinky-hued hope glowing through the more clinical recording of life, through grids, charts and typologies; an art vs. science-type conversation. Klee's drawing lightly touches on timelessness, suggesting that the artist is gingerly accepting it, as it draws near. Jaffe's work on the other hand, uses signifiers that point metaphorically to not just the idea of or even experience of regeneration towards timelessness, but actually show us possible forms of that regeneration. Bones, after all, are where blood (the oxygen/life-carrier) is manufactured in the body. Also, bones grow from the inside out, ossifying into more solid structures as they enlarge. Additionally, organs themselves are not mere evidence of life, but are fully living tissues, crucial in the function of the body (and here it’s a communal body; of a culture or consciousness, collected in this net of memories). Jaffe pushes off of the evidence which Klee alluded to, and subsequently pumps some fresh, three-dimensional air into the forms of timelessness. Part of what’s being accomplished, of course, is that sculptural pieces are coming out into our space; instead of Klee's pieces, which are obviously humanly - manufactured (artifice), Jaffe's little bodily objects, because of their corporeal associations, and their occupation of our three -dimensional space, feel more "alive", or at least potentially alive to us. Thus, they carry within them the ability to convey the pumping of life's possibility; its regenerative possibilities, to us as viewers (and living, breathing beings ourselves). (Nonetheless, as said before, this aliveness and allusion to regenerated time – i.e. timelessness – is tempered by the grid-formation, and the subjection of the round forms to a "flat" display). Therefore, the resulting emotion is that of a record; but a record which beats with regenerative hope: a powerful function of memory’s power to revivify, relating to the piece’s title. Herein lie some contemporary possibilities of Jaffe's art to reinvigorate; to take up the baton of timelessness in Klee's artwork – in a feminine, constructive, and whimsically-wise way. Jaffe casts back in time deeply, but never loses her hopeful and deeply self-conscious moorings in the present (bodily) realities, and their ongoing possibilities.
For more images of Jeanne Jaffe's work, visit
And to see the original versions of the Klee's I mentioned, come visit the Barnes Foundation!

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