Art Seen: Chicago

Under the Cover of Night

KLEINE WELT // PART II

By Dieter Roelstraete

From January 17 until April 6, 2019, the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society at the University of Chicago hosted Kleine Welt, an exhibition devoted to the idiosyncratic art of the book cover named after a 1918 etching by Paul Klee. Kleine Welt (which translates to Little World) was rooted in a twofold observation I presume to be thoroughly familiar to habitual consumers of scholarly literature. First, why do authors and publishers in the field of twentieth-century philosophy and capital-T Theory so often turn to Paul Klee—often even the same Paul Klee painting, over and over again—to adorn the covers of their books? And second, are the authors and publishers who put Caspar David Friedrich’s iconic Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) on the covers of their books (or CDs, LPs) ever aware of how many others have done the exact same thing before them? Thus was conjured the titular little world of academic publishing, invoked in an exhibition consisting primarily of scholarly books, assembled inside vitrines, with the same dozen artworks or so on the cover, Friedrich’s Wanderer and a handful of eternally recurring Klee classics. (Paul Klee appears to be a particularly popular choice for authors and publishers in the philosophical subgenre of Critical Theory.)

On a fundamental level, the Kleine Welt project—which has since resulted in a publication—acts as a reflection about the power of the image, of a select handful of images, and their spellbinding grip on the intellectual imagination: early examples, if you like, of viral imagery, or analogue memes. What I am interested in above all is these images’ afterlife—the ease with which they have entered the stream of our cultural consciousness and smoothly sail from one frame of reference or system of thought to another. Kleine Welt is a homage to the power held by these images over a discipline of the mind that often fancies itself impervious to the lure and surface charm of the world of “pictures,” and often likes to think of itself as above and beyond imaging. (Not so.)

Kleine Welt is an ongoing project. I cheerfully continue to judge books by their covers and to collect philosophy tomes sporting Paul Klee artworks. In the meantime, I have also started to amass books with other Friedrich covers than the omnipresent, immortal Wanderer; this has admittedly become something of an addictive habit. And there are other dependable purveyors of philosophical imagery as well of course—Giorgio de Chirico perhaps foremost among them (René Magritte is another favorite). What follows is a selection of book covers, complete with annotations, that did not make the original Kleine Welt cut—a De Chirico & Friedrich special.

To read the Special Edition Insert, please download the PDF.


Kleine Welt, curated by Dieter Roelstraete at the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society at the University of Chicago, ran from January 17 through April 6, 2019.

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