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Self-portrait. Between the clock and the bed by Edvard Munch
Angelus Novus by Paul Klee
Altarpiece No. 1, Group X by Hilma Af Klint

Edvard Munch

Self-Portrait between the Clock and the Bed, 1940–43, Oil on canvas, 149.5 x 120.5 cm, Munchmuseet, Oslo, M 23, © The Munch Museum / The Munch-Ellingsen Group / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY HIP / Art Resource, NY

Paul Klee

Angelus Novus, 1920, Oil transfer and watercolour on paper, 318 x 242 mm, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem; Gift of Fania and Gershom Scholem, Jerusalem; John Herring, Marlene and Paul Herring, Jo Carole and Ronald Lauder, New York, B87.0994, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel / Carole and Ronald Lauder, New York / Bridgeman Images

Hilma Af Klint

Altarpiece No. 1, Group X, 1915, Oil and metal leaf on canvas, 237.5 x 179.5 cm, Klint Foundation, Stockholm, HAK187, Private Collection / Bridgeman Images

The Day of the Lord

Comparative Commentary by

‘Put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation’ (1 Thessalonians 5:8 NASB)

How long will we have to wait, to struggle, to suffer in this broken world? How long will we have to wait before it is healed, before we’re healed? This is what the religious community in Thessalonica wanted to know from the apostle Paul. They had been taught that Jesus would come again, soon. But he had yet to come. And what will happen when (and if) he comes? How will we know? What do we do in the meantime?

After the devastation of the First World War, and the catastrophic loss of life as well as the economic, political, and cultural crises that ensued (including, eventually, further violence and death in the Shoah), many artists and writers returned to the apocalyptic and messianic texts of the Old and New Testaments in search of something that saturates the biblical literature: hope for redemption. In 1951, the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno even wrote that philosophy must now be practised ‘from the standpoint of redemption’ (2005: 247).

It is out of this cultural crisis and search for redemption that the works by Paul Klee, Hilma af Klint, and Edvard Munch emerge. What they can remind readers of 1 Thessalonians is that Paul is stressing a daily life lived in the present in light of future redemption, through hope. Far from being merely a disposition toward the future, hope in this text is a lived practice in the present, underscoring and enlivening even our most mundane and seemingly irrelevant daily tasks, even the making of paintings.

Hope is not merely something that is future-oriented; it is what motivates and sustains the present, underwriting the courage and perseverance to live each day in its light. While Adorno’s ‘redemption’ may envisage a purely human event, its arising from creative human agency might nevertheless be something miraculous.

Hope may perhaps be compared with that to which Paul refers elsewhere as the ‘today’ of salvation (2 Corinthians 6:20). It is Klint living day to day with her ‘secret’ knowledge and experience of the cosmos that inspires and sustains her daily work as a writer and painter as she works on behalf of future audiences. To stand before one of these paintings is to realize that we are the intended audience for her work, that it is her hope that sustains us, as she shares her vision of a future destiny.

Klee’s awkward and vulnerable little Angelus Novus made a powerful impression on Walter Benjamin’s understanding of history and the future. He called it ‘the Angel of History’ and described it as a ‘flash’ that occurs at a ‘moment of danger’ (1968: 255, 257). Benjamin and Klee thus remind the reader of 1 Thessalonians 5 that the Lord often makes appearances in unremarkable and even unnoticed ways, whether in a still small voice (1 Kings 19:11–13), mistakable for a gardener (John 20:15), or a fellow traveller (Luke 24:15ff). In other words can we ever be certain that the day of the Lord, the return of the Messiah, those transformative miraculous moments, haven’t already come? While in our zeal for pomp and circumstance we have missed them, failing to be aware and sober, ever alert for this appearance?

Walter Benjamin writes that although the Jews ‘were prohibited from investigating the future’, time was imbued with a fullness of expectation, a fullness wrought by hope. ‘For every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter’ (1968: 264). Redemption, miraculous moments, can and do occur daily, while we are going about our daily work. Putting on faith, hope, and love as our armour for daily battle opens us up to the ‘day of the Lord’ at any moment. In fact, it includes us in the work of such coming. As God comes, redemption occurs through faithful human agency, generated from hope and for love—love of our neighbour. For Benjamin, Angelus Novus became one of those ‘strait gates’, a secular ‘day of the Lord’.

And finally, we are confronted by a tired, frail, and dying Edvard Munch, dealing moment-by-moment with the fear and anxiety of his death, confronting his vulnerability and fragility, yet continuing to work, painting pictures. Like Munch, we’re left with our worn-out bodies, fearful minds, and a room full of our work, of whose ultimate value we have no idea. And yet, as Paul counsels, we continue to labour daily, even if that labour is to paint pictures, and do so armed with faith, hope, and love, and a confidence that there was, is, and will be redemption.

And these paintings, in their own very different ways and from their own very different circumstances, say ‘amen’.

 

References

Adorno, Theodor W. 2005. Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (London: Verso)

Benjamin, Walter. 1968. ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books), pp. 253–264