New Harmony by Paul Klee

Paul Klee

New Harmony, 1936, Oil on canvas, 93.6 x 66.3 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 71.1960, © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation / Art Resource, NY

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Hearing Colours Newly Arranged

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Charles A. Gillespie

At first, Paul Klee’s New Harmony may appear rigidly four-square, but a closer inspection could lead us to notice imprecision in these ‘squares’. Can we imagine how the colours and shapes—interpreted by some as Klee’s response to musical theory—might undulate, dance, and play together? When Jesus enumerates familiar commandments, do they work like these discrete colours? What does it mean to keep all of the commandments?

Perhaps the rich young man in this passage imagines God’s instructions as something like Klee’s patterns. Jesus rearranges the music of the law in a way that is analogous to the way our eyes might move about Klee’s painting. Harmony emerges in relation, not isolation.

Klee, too, might help us find the harmony in those words of Jesus that connect the rich man to the other disciples; all are addressed as ‘children’ (Mark 10:24). No one can win the inheritance of eternal life through their own isolated brilliance, zeal, or action.

The more memorable lesson of this passage may be about money, but the Gospel cautions against all sorts of self-centred focus. Jesus calls for a hard a way of keeping commandments—with a love suitable for building the kingdom of heaven rather than a concern with one’s own success. The rich man must learn to see and hear others; he must be harmonized in a new way. Peter and other disciples, too, must be wary of ‘owning’ their discipleship as though it were a clear-cut or finished work. Peter exclaims that the disciples have already met the terms of Jesus’s amazing request to the rich young man: ‘Lo, we have left everything and followed you’ (v.28). Jesus replies with yet another inversion. Overconfidence in the eventual harmony of eternal life might refuse to see and respond to the interim dissonance of ‘persecutions’ (v.30).

Mark’s Gospel continuously rearranges what was already known. Its ‘good news’ takes us beyond the known, asking more of us than we are prepared for, and directing us to love what is beyond our habitual horizons. Do we know what keeping all of the commandments looks like? It might be more like listening between colours.