Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus” (1920) is the Mona Lisa of early modernism, a celebrated work whose history grants it a fabulous mystique. It was purchased by Walter Benjamin, who hung it in his German study, and then in his Parisian study when he was in exile, and discussed it in his famous last essay “On the Concept of History” (1940). Surviving the war when Benjamin did not, after being in the possession of Theodor Adorno and (per Benjamin’s will) gifted to Gershom Scholem, the painting entered the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. A fragile work on paper, it’s rarely on public display for long.
The story told by Annie Bourneuf in Beyond the Angel of History: The Angelus Novus and Its Interleaf begins in 2015 when the American artist Rebecca Quaytman made an amazing discovery. Klee had glued his work, an oil-transfer drawing and watercolor on paper, directly on top of an old engraving, identified with a date in the 1520s and the initials LC. No earlier account mentions that hidden underneath the Klee is an engraving of Martin Luther based on Lucas Cranach’s portraits. Given that Luther’s antisemitic ideas were adopted by the Nazis, what did Benjamin have in mind when he discussed this Klee in his essay on historiography? The engraving is not easy to see, either in Bourneuf’s reproduction or, at least in my experience, when viewing the picture itself. So it’s natural to wonder whether Benjamin knew about it. But answering that question maybe matters less than understanding this process in which the hidden engraving might guide interpretation of Benjamin’s influential essay. “On the Concept of History” is suspended between Scholem’s Jewish mysticism and Adorno’s Marxism, so “Angelus Novus” may be one key to understanding the author’s thoughts.
Bourneuf’s magisterial, amazingly lucid commentary discusses Matthias Grünewald, whose Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, France, contains a figure resembling this angel. She also addresses debates between Benjamin and Scholem about Martin Buber’s philosophy, and the larger implications of Benjamin’s and Scholem’s questions about Jewish cultural identity. And I, too, am involved in this interpretative process, because my own prior publications suggest how to extend this challenging story. As I noted in a 2015 essay, Quaytman is the daughter of Harvey Quaytman, a Jewish painter who astonished Leo Steinberg by using the cruciform in a de-Christianized manner in abstract compositions. Here, the analysis of Benjamin’s Jewishness, already complex, becomes more complicated. Even if Benjamin wasn’t aware of the presence of this engraved image, it enters into his interpretation of “Angelus Novus” at the margins. If Benjamin failed to see this hidden image, what does that say about his visual acuteness. Maybe, however, he saw it but deliberately didn’t discuss it. Or, finally, since the Klee is just an example, maybe this detail doesn’t matter for evaluating his historiographic argument. Some books resolve debate. This one advances but does not resolve discussion. Instead, it brilliantly shows that the significance of this famous image may still be hidden.
Beyond the Angel of History. The Angelus Novus and Its Interleaf by Annie Bourneuf (2022) is published by the University of Chicago Press and is available online and in bookstores.