null
Advanced Search

Landschaft gegen den Hades (Landscape near Hades)

Not on view

Landschaft gegen den Hades (Landscape near Hades)

Artist: Paul Klee (Swiss, 1879-1940)

Date: 1937
Medium: Pastel on canvas mounted on jute burlap
Dimensions:
Overall: 18 5/8 x 27 7/8in. (47.3 x 70.8cm)
Signed: Recto, upper left (red paint): 'Klee' Verso, on top stretcher bar (red ink): '1937.U9 Landschaft gegen den Hades / Klee'
Inscribed: Verso, (graphite): '71' [encircled] Verso, (red crayon): 'K.O 3179 / P. 6' Verso, (brown ink): 'Inv. N° 65' Verso, (blue crayon): '755'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 53.174
Label Text
Hades is the land of the dead in ancient Greek and Roman mythology. Paul Klee turned to this subject towards the end of his life, when he was ill and living in exile from Nazi Germany.

In Landscape near Hades Klee drew marks floating across a ground of colored, irregular geometric shapes. The marks exist somewhere between a personal hieroglyphic writing and simple imagery of souls being ferried on the River Styx through the underworld.

Klee’s interpretation of ancient myths in this composition is pre-Olympian: a focus on chaos, the powers of nature, and the underworld realm (the Olympians, products of a later cultural stage in Greece, were largely spared from suffering). By 1937, the Olympian tradition had been thoroughly appropriated by the Nazis in their organization of an order that would serve their ideology of racial superiority. Mythology in Klee's late work functions in direct opposition to the Olympian aesthetics sponsored by the Third Reich.

Mary E. Murray, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art




In 1937 Klee was confronting illness, exile from Germany, and the Nazis' official condemnation of his work, as showcased in the "Degenerate Art" exhibition that had opened in Munich in July. His painting manifested a significant change in form and content, initiating the period of his late work that featured freely drawn marks floating across grounds of colored, irregular geometric shapes. Klee's painting had long comprised many forms of pictorial writing, but in the late work hieroglyphic marks fluctuate between the ideographic and figurative.

Death is the theme of Landscape near Hades. With the title, the ship floating in the field to the right of the center of the composition announces the ultimate journey via the River Styx to Hades, the land of the dead in Greek and Roman mythology. It also must be noted that the title Landscape near Hades suggests the pre-Olympian myths of ancient Greece that describe chaos, the powers of nature, and the underworld realm. By contrast, Olympian gods, products of a later cultural stage in Greece, live a safe distance from suffering and pain. By 1937, the Olympian tradition had been thoroughly appropriated by the Nazis in their organization of an aesthetic order that would serve their ideology of racial superiority. Klee's engagement with classical myth is certainly nothing new, but in his late work myth functions in direct opposition to the Olympian aesthetics sponsored by the Third Reich.

In addition to tragic myth, the painting also takes its place in a lifelong series of Klee' s pictures that deal with the theme of maritime navigation. Nautical references abound in both his written and visual work, providing metaphorical frameworks for him indicating not only death, but also adventure, discovery and, above all, orientation, that sense of directionality and placement so important throughout the development of his pictorial theory.

Kathryn Kramer
2005

Text Entries

Beginning in 1937, after Paul Klee had recuperated sufficiently from the debilitating onset of the scleroderma that would prove fatal in 1940, his painting manifested a significant change in form and content, initiating the period of his late work.  While many aspects of his earlier work are still present, a new mode predominates—well exemplified by Landscape near Hadesthat features a vocabulary of freely drawn marks floating across grounds of colored, irregular geometric shapes.  Klee’s painting had long comprised many forms of pictorial writing, including the calligraphic, lettristic, hieroglyphic, and otherwise notational.  In the late work, however, the hieroglyphic prevails as the marks fluctuate between the ideographic and figurative.[i]  The glyphs’ evocation of ancient script confers an archaic sensibility upon the works, which is often intensified by mythicizing titles, including Landscape near Hades as well as Bacchanal in Red Wine, 1937 (private collection, Germany), Temple Festival, 1937 (private collection, Zurich), and Legend of the Nile, 1937 (Kunstmuseum Bern).  This general tenor of antiquity introduces a sense of gravitas to the late work, and the formal gravity of the glyphs’ heavy black lines reinforces that solemnity.  Klee scholarship has long noted that by 1937 Klee was confronting illness, exile from Germany, and especially the Nazis’ official condemnation of his work, as showcased in the Degenerate Art exhibition which had opened in Munich in July.[ii]  Considering such burdens, it is unsurprising that his expression shifts from the whimsical lyricism that marked so much of his work until this point to the decidedly elegiac.  Nevertheless, Klee did not retreat wholly into mournful, autobiographical investigation during these troubled final years.  Indeed, Marcel Franciscono rightly notes that Klee very much engages with the contemporary art of international modernism throughout this time, despite the relative isolation of his Swiss exile.[iii]

 

Landscape near Hades may thematize imminent death, particularly when one considers the title along with the glyph of the ship floating in the field to the right of the center of the composition.  The ultimate journey via the River Styx to Hades, the land of the dead in Greek and Roman mythology, immediately springs to mind.   By evoking the voyage to the underworld, Landscape near Hades may figure as a product of Klee’s acquiescence to his fate and consequent retreat into the recesses of the self, leading to the enigmatic symbols and the somber resonance of tragic myth.  Yet, the painting may also take its place in a lifelong series of pictures by Klee that deals with the theme of maritime navigation.  Nautical references abound in both his written and visual work, providing metaphorical frameworks for him indicating not only death, but also adventure, discovery and, above all, orientation, that sense of directionality and placement so important throughout the development of his pictorial theory.[iv]  It also must be noted that the title Landscape near Hades, as do so many others from the years 1937-1940, suggests the chthonic, pre-Olympian myths of ancient Greece that describe chaos, the engendering of the earth, the powers of nature, and the underworld realm.  Chthonic myths are the stories of gods such as Dionysus, who know violent derangement, pain, and death.  By contrast, Olympian gods, products of a later cultural stage in Greece, live a safe distance from suffering and pain.  By 1937, the Olympian tradition had been thoroughly appropriated by the Nazis in their organization of an aesthetic order that would serve their ideology of racial superiority.  Klee’s engagement with classical myth is certainly nothing new:  his entire oeuvre reflects a profound understanding of the visual and symbolic potential of this rich narrative tradition.[v]  However, the undeniable emphasis upon chthonic myth in the late work functions in direct opposition to the Olympian aesthetics sponsored by the Third Reich, allowing Klee to join the avant-garde opposed to Nazism through an international language what Werckmeister has termed “crypto-mythic figuration.”[vi] Thus, Landscape near Hades manifests a political voice Klee found late in life while also embodying a more traditional late style steeped in autobiography as well as sustaining the major, life-long thematic concern with navigation.  This powerful painting is a prime example of Klee’s expressive powers at their multidimensional heights.

 

Kathryn Kramer



     [i] K. Porter Aichele, Paul Klee’s Pictorial Writing (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

     [ii] See O. K. Werchmeister’s discussion of the personal and political significance of 1937 to Klee in Paul Klee in Exile (Himeji City, Japan: Himeji City Museum of Art, 1985), 32.

     [iii] Marcel Franciscono, Paul Klee (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 288-308.

     [iv] Shelley Cordulack, “Navigating Klee,” Pantheon LVI (1998), 141-155.    

     [v] Pam Kort, ed., Paul Klee: In the Mask of Myth (Cologne: Dumont, 1999).

     [vi]  Werckmeister, Exile, 33.

Copyright
Presumed copyright: the artist or the artist's representative/heir(s) / Licensed by ARS, New York, NY.