Of Angel and Puppet Klee, Rilke, and the Test of Innocence
Built for his son from the scraps of daily life — matchboxes, beef bones, nutshells, and plaster — Paul Klee’s hand puppets harbour ghosts of human feelings, fragile communications from a world most adults have left behind. Kenneth Gross compares these enchanted objects to angelic figures, in Klee’s artworks and the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, helping us dance as well as wrestle with their visions of innocence.
May 19, 2022
Puppet theater draws us closely to something like innocence. This theater feeds on intensities of imaginative love that are native to children at play, so ready to transform ordinary objects into something else, to give these objects a surprising life, to allow them to crystallize thoughts otherwise invisible. It taps archaic appetites, refusing the control of narrow social rules and established forms of politeness. The puppet’s speech is often close to the unformed babble of infants, the naked gestures of small children. There are hauntings and enchantments possible in this theater that belong to worlds most adults have left behind. The American puppet artist Janie Geiser — whose shows often dwell on questions of vulnerable innocence and its powers of resistance — said to me that, for her, “the puppet is without history, existing in the moment”, so that “there is a kind of existential innocence in puppet theater. Its simplicity makes any falseness immediately apparent.” And then, also, “no one blames the puppet for its violence, and no one quite blames the puppeteer. You can’t blame a piece of wood.” As these words may suggest, such innocence is itself not necessarily comforting. The innocence of Carlo Collodi’s hungry Pinocchio, that of the happily murderous Mister Punch, or the innocence of Don Quixote destroying the puppet show — these have a kind of menace as well as wonder, something not so easy to banish.
Innocent puppets have a kind of knowledge as well. Being innocent, harmless (innocens in Latin), may mean exposure to danger, a lack of defenses that can yet become a weapon. (Geiser’s own puppets keep an eerie, graffiti-like strength, for all their fragility.) The innocence of the puppet keeps the imagination open to the power of unknown things, even death; it also allows for a terrible fearlessness in the face of death. One knows that innocence, including the innocence of children, is no simple thing. Innocence is an idea or wish that can freeze into a dead statue of itself, becoming deceptive and coercive; the same can happen to our ideas about the loss of innocence, how it is taken away. Children are often asked to be content with puppets that are merely soft and yielding, content with wheedling cuteness and moralism, rather than being given a wildness they might crave or a danger that might spark bravery and love. Such a contrived innocence can be itself more creepy than even the most violent and grotesque of puppet shows. It comes more to reflect the fears of adults than the wishes of children. It distrusts children’s ability both to commit their belief to fantastic worlds and to face the real one. As William Blake knew, the category of innocence is itself a thing always in need of repair and of testing. It is something that needs continually to be reimagined.
One of the puppets on display has a body made of black calico with rows of tiny pink and gray flowers, and there is a white cross stitched crudely along the front. It has a narrow, beaky head atop a long neck, round black eyes that are in fact tiny spectacles, and a triangular, tooth-filled mouth. It is called the Ghost of a Scarecrow — so, the specter of a puppet made to scare away scavenging birds. Its hands are raised, whether to frighten or greet or just show pleasure is hard to say. There is another whose face is a network of metal tabs and curls of wire clustered inside a battered, round ceramic socket, named Electrical Spook. The eyeholes of Mr. Death make you feel the force of thumbs pushed deeply into the small plaster lump, the two depressions — which take up the whole width of the face — filled with black paint, and below them a crudely drawn row of teeth pressed on the surface of the white plaster. Its body is white cotton, a ghost’s body or a shroud. Other puppets cluster around them, the White-Haired Eskimo, the Clever Peasant, the Sultan, the Big-Eared Clown, the Barber of Baghdad, the Devil with Ringed Glove, the Old Maid, each evoking a possible fable to play a part in.
I am at the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, Switzerland, looking at an array of small transparent boxes that contain the whole of a group of thirty hand puppets which survive from among roughly fifty such figures that Paul Klee made for his son, Felix, between 1916 and 1925. These figures are part of a show mounted in 2007, “Paul Klee: Überall Theater” (Theater Everywhere), which explores the range of Klee’s work relating to the world of theater, dance, and circus, including the theatrical mode of being in ordinary humans and even animals. There are paintings of seductive and horrific masks, figures of dancers, mimes, fragile clowns, and thinly drawn wire-walkers, images of “the brutal Pierrot”, of “animals playing comedy”, and “children playing tragedy”, drawings of the “cat as bull” and “mongrel as lion”, or the strutting form of the “proud bird”. All convey Klee’s sense of theater as a metaphysical thing, a place where hidden gestures of mind, will, or spirit are made visible. They convey also the artist’s feeling for theater as a link back to the world of childhood play, volatile, metamorphic, dangerous, and often likely to survive into adulthood.
The exhibition of all of Klee’s puppets is a rare event, for ordinarily only a few are on display at a given moment. The majority of them are kept in storage, carefully wrapped, for they are fragile things, a curator’s nightmare, made quickly to entertain a child (or the artist himself), with heads of plaster, mostly, or glued bits of wood, scraps of old clothing, leather, and fur, matchboxes, even electrical sockets, and then further painted or drawn on to form a feature or an expression. Unlike the elaborately stylized, machine- or manikin-like costumes which Klee’s Bauhaus colleague Oskar Schlemmer created for his Triadic Ballet — clown-like in ways, but unnervingly impersonal, even armor-like — these puppets are intimate, homemade. None of these figures was ever part of the careful catalog of works that Klee kept from his earliest years as a working artist, and so the puppets form a curious, private space within his oeuvre. The figure of Mr. Death is among the earliest, surviving from the cast of a traditional show of Kasperle (the German Punch), which we know Felix performed. Otherwise we get an array of more idiosyncratic character types, curious exercises in fantasy and satire, only tenuously traceable to specific shows, but forming a strange community.1
I cannot take my eyes off these things. I look at their faces and make faces back at them. There is an eerie charm in these small, idiosyncratic, assembled objects. They are ugly things, yet happy in their ugliness. However bizarre their being or personality, however grotesque or obscene their forms, they keep about them a sense of something childlike, things made for children, and themselves resembling children. That childlikeness expands into a domain of life that belongs to the adult world, they are broken machines, relics of ancient ceremonies, satiric visions of fixed social or political identities, such as the Monk, the Crowned Poet, or the German Nationalist. Their force lies partly in the play of human and inhuman shapes, subtle and shocking plays of color, elements of abstraction at once analytic and arbitrary. One knows such a spirit from Klee’s drawings and paintings, works so often haunted by a volatile dream of innocence, an innocence that is open to a sense of loss, fear, invasion, and exile. You feel in such works so many metaphysical gestures of line — moving, active, and balancing lines such as Klee described in his Pedagogical Sketchbook, but also lines that digest and shatter the forms they define and sustain. In another part of the gallery, I look for a long time at the painting entitled Destroyed Labyrinth, which yet creates a new order of labyrinth out of a gathering of broken, curling, and cipher-like strokes of color, pieces of an unknown alphabet.
Klee has formed the simple bodies of these puppets — handless shapes, mostly sewn of old cloth remnants, sometimes painted — so that almost all of them have their arms thrown out and up in what looks like an ecstatic sign of greeting. Mr. Death ecstatic. The Frenchman with his paint- or blood-stained smock ecstatic. The Shrewd Peasant Woman ecstatic. The White-Haired Eskimo and Big-Eared Clown ecstatic. Ecstatic the proud, solemn Poet with his spiky, crumbling laurels, and the Buddhist Monk with his frightening orange eyes peeking out of a pink, ruined head. Ecstatic the Absolute Fool, oddly feral with his flat face, his rosy eyebrows and black, teardrop eyes, ecstatic the Devil with Ringed Gloves, whose horned head looks more like a fool’s cockscomb. The Philistine with his pear-shaped, plaster face and owlish green stare is ecstatic. (Only the puppet self-portrait of Klee himself, in cloak of gray wool and an Astrakhan hat, has no arms at all to raise up, though it carries particularly large painted eyes, almond shaped, in the midst of which float the amber irises and black pupils.) The puppets in their ecstasy seem to invite the viewer to join in a dance, to take them into a play. They are astonished to find themselves as puppets, and throw up their handless hands to catch our attention, holding nothing.
These puppets recognize the power of what is fragile rather than what is strong. That is part of the strength of their peculiar innocence. They are not like broken statues. These things always knew they could not survive, so their survival is a mystery, they speak for something that slips beyond the notice of great powers, that is hidden in plain sight, not asking for protection, not boasting of its innocence. It is a version of something I sense often in the old puppets I see in museums, though Klee’s figures are themselves parts of a larger realm; the touch of their making makes them connected to something else. For all their concreteness, they are like visitants from another world. One way of placing the effect is to say that these puppets are themselves a little like ghosts of other puppets, and also seeds of puppets, things with other sorts of gesture and life held within them. They are meditations on the spirit of the puppet. That these are hand puppets seems important. They belong to the simplest order of puppets, ones that children can readily take up, capable also of the fiercest, most immediate gestures.
In their substance, frail and ruined and partial as it is, these are creatures that are clearly part of time, wounded by time. They are ghosts of human feelings, fixed forms of peculiar emotion. And they call up aberrations of history, satiric clichés or icons of human pretension — regressions of adulthood to something narrow, fixated, and unreflective; they remind us of adults whose supposedly rational ideas are driven by primitive, perhaps invisible passions. (It’s no surprise that Felix used them to act out satirical plays about his father’s Bauhaus colleagues.) And yet for all their fixedness, the figures’ power lies in their yet being infinitely accessible, innocent, and welcoming things; they are children who have survived their childhood, grown old, but retained something of that early state. They are representatives of some world that belongs at once to children and adults, and to some more mysterious world they share within creation. Klee wrote in his diary of 1901: “The future slumbers in human beings and needs only to be awakened. It cannot be created. That is why even a child knows about the erotic.”2 On his epitaph he wanted the words “I live just as well with the dead as with the unborn.”3 The artist invented a word, Schwerleicht, “heavylight”, to describe what he often tried to evoke in his paintings, and this is there in the puppets.4
At this exhibition I watched a brief video that shows the aging Felix — who became an opera director — happily enacting scenes with these puppets, made for him by his father half a century earlier. The figures turn out to be very expressive in their movements, charged and charming things. In one brief skit, Mr. Death creeps up slyly on the impassive puppet of Paul Klee, and whispers into his ear, in an insinuating, cackling, high-pitched, childlike, and self-amused voice, “Tod ist Leben, und Leben ist Tod” (Death is life and life is death).
With their arms lifted up like wings, their astonished, open eyes, their gaiety and childlike mien, even their very ugliness, Klee’s hand puppets mirror the pictures of angels he made throughout his career. I think of the well-known watercolor of 1920, Angelus Novus, owned by Walter Benjamin. Here the artist’s urgent, scratchy lines evoke a creature suspended in space, caught out in a moment of fear or wonder, ready to take flight. You see its winglike arms or armlike wings raised up, its small, clawlike feet, its huge head and agitated scrolls of hair, the eyes wide open yet shifted to the side, staring at something we cannot quite see. There is something clownish as well as menacing in this angel. I think also of Klee’s Unfinished Angel (Unfertiger Engel), one of a considerable number of drawings of angels he made at the end of his life, in 1938 and 1939, executed with a few determined pencil lines that claim the whole space of the paper on which they’re drawn. Unfinished Angel shows us a compact creature, its wings folded yet pointing upward, a figure that seems to wrestle with itself, broken and angular, incomplete, yet strangely smiling, half asleep. Klee’s angels, for all their childlike immediacy, are creatures caught in time, witnessing time and its stresses, by turns anxious and self-absorbed — other drawings are titled Forgetful Angel, More Bird Than Angel, Angel Still Ugly, and Angel as Yet Untrained in Walking.
This connection of Klee’s puppets and his angels is a link, further, to a crucial moment in the fourth of the Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke, a poem that likewise probes the matter of innocence. The poem begins with Rilke lamenting the half-filled masks of humans in the world, our self-conscious and self-doubting gestures and thinned-out, coldly felt words, the laborious costumes that we assume before others and before ourselves. We never know, he complains, “the actual, vital contour of our own / emotions”, only those boundaries that form them from the outside. Echoing Heinrich von Kleist’s 1810 essay “On the Marionette Theater”, with its description of the puppet’s unfallen force, its lack of murderous self-consciousness, Rilke evokes the puppet as the witness of a mode of being at odds with such disguise. The puppet is a thing that is always itself, a pure surface, “the face / that is nothing but appearance. . . . It at least is full”, and in that honest. It displays a form of wholeness just in its being so bluntly a small piece of the world. The tiny, abandoned stage of the puppet theater indeed draws the poet with the promise of something different, something later as well as earlier than the domain of life we inherit with adulthood. The poet imagines that he must wait patiently,
wait before the puppet stage, or, rather,
gaze at it so intensely that at last,
to balance my gaze, an angel has to come and
make the stuffed skins startle into life.
Angel and puppet: a real play, finally.
Then what we separate by our very presence
can come together.5
“Engel und Puppe: dann ist endlich Schauspiel.” With sufficient love and concentration, a real play happens, a version of generative wholeness. Here the angel comes as an answer to the gazer’s almost desperate gamble of patience, acting as a manipulator, surprising the puppets themselves into life. Rilke does not tell us what the play is, or what the puppets look like. These things are left for us to imagine. What he does suggest is that the angel not only moves the puppets but shares the performance space with them. The angel walks the stage as an actor in whatever play, whatever form of spiel or spell, unfolds there. At the same moment that angel-actor or its double is somewhere else, in another dimension: “Above, beyond us, / the angel plays.”
For all of its purity, its fitness to the domain of childhood, its independence of will, such a puppet does not evade the consequences of existing in a fallen world. Rilke here revises Kleist’s vision of the puppet from his essay, where it is so impersonal, so free of self-consciousness and memory. In its place the poet imagines a puppet that might conjure or hold within it a more intense consciousness of loss, a consciousness of abandoned or thwarted love. This puppet raises the “heart’s curtain” on a “scenery of farewell”. The puppet marks the memory of the pained, baffled love of Rilke’s parents for their growing child, a child whose desire, whose future, is so strange to them. It also marks the child’s own consciousness of objects of desire that are likely to turn away from us, things that put themselves beyond our reach. The puppet is the cousin of the toy that grows beyond the child’s mastery, giving itself over to an inhuman life, the life of matter, the life of what Rilke, in his essay on dolls, calls the “thing-soul”.6 Like many such objects in Rilke, it possesses a vitality that leaves us uncertain of the difference between living things and objects of art.7 The innocence of the puppet in this mirrors the innocence of that Rilkean child within whom ripens a knowledge of his own death, a child “who makes his death / out of gray bread, which hardens—or leaves it there / inside his round mouth, jagged as the core / of a sweet apple.” However alien, that hardened, jagged knowledge is held gently there, without terror and without false certainty; the child keeps it company even. This puppet might take as its companion that mysterious figure, “a girl, almost ...” evoked in the second of The Sonnets to Orpheus, who wakes into her own sleep, who sleeps the world, sleeps in the thought of her own death (a version of the lost Eurydice).8 Or it might keep company with one of those sculptures by Rodin that Rilke describes as awaking within themselves an unknown, unrecognized, often suffering life, a life that at once flowers forth in a gesture and is complete within itself.9
The puppet that calls up the angel — the image evokes the possibility of an innocence at once original and somehow, with patience, restored. It is an innocence lent or given in the moment, fragile, speculative, but capable of challenging narrower, more idealized, defensive, or nostalgic versions of innocence. It is an innocence that includes knowledge of loss. The puppet and the angel seem to hover over the child who stands “in the infinite, blissful space between world and toy, / at a point which, from the earliest beginning, / had been established for a pure event.” And yet the angel is itself no pure being, no purely redemptive or wholly comforting thing. The poet knows that such an angel might be half a demon, a thing bound to time, an angel of the earth, something fallen into time, past and future, rather than redeeming puppets from time. It brings fear as well as love. This creature would be hard to know, a little unpredictable, clumsy, even dangerous, ready to wound. Like that creature which visits Jacob in his sleep, this angel among the puppets bears a difficult blessing, a blessing along with a wound. But it is a creature with whom we might learn to dance as well as wrestle.
Kenneth Gross teaches English at the University of Rochester, and lives in both Rochester and Brooklyn, NY. “Of Puppet and Angel” is taken from the closing chapter of Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life (2011), which won the 2012 George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism. Gross’s other books include Spenserian Poetics: Idolatry, Iconoclasm, and Magic (1985); The Dream of the Moving Statue (1992); and Shylock is Shakespeare (2006). He is the editor of On Dolls (2018), an anthology of writings on puppets, dolls, and automata, and of The Substance of Shadow: A Darkening Trope in Poetic History (2016), a series of lectures by John Hollander. His most recent book, Dangerous Children: On Seven Novels and a Story, will be published in fall 2022.