How Klee’s “Angels of History” took flight

Jason Farago, Bbc, 19 Aprile 2016.

He stands slack-jawed, his four front
teeth protruding from his open mouth like uneven stalactites. 

head is topped by a mess of curls, which look more like sheets of
parchment than strands of hair, and his jug ears stick so far out
from his cylindrical face that they’re almost flush with his jiggly

His dainty chicken feet, joined to spindly legs, are
complemented by large, grand wings – spread open, but tangled and
ungainly. Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, a 1920 oil transfer drawing
with watercolour, is a fearsome but fragile seraph: afloat, aghast,
going who knows where. “This,” wrote Walter Benjamin, the
philosopher who first owned the monoprint, “is how one pictures the
Angel of History.”

The exhibition Paul
Klee: Irony at Work
, which has recently opened at the Pompidou
Centre in Paris, features more than 250 paintings and works on paper
by the wily, capricious Swiss modernist. 

It comes just two and a half
years after Tate
Modern’s Klee blowout
of 2013 – and while you can quibble
with the Pompidou’s decision to mount another retrospective so
soon, the Paris show has one drawing that London didn’t get.
Angelus Novus, barely known during Klee’s life, has become the
artist’s most famous work largely thanks to its extraordinary
provenance, passing through the hands of four important modern
philosophers before entering the collection of the Israel Museum in

It’s now in Paris, and its arrival is nothing short of
an event.

Like most critics, I shy away from the
words ‘mythic’ or ‘legendary’ when describing works of art –
in most cases, those words are better left to marketing departments. 

But Angelus Novus, perhaps more than any other artwork of the last
century, really has exceeded the boundaries of the gallery: it is an
image more fully understood as a myth than as a work of art.

Wings of desire

Klee was still a young artist when he
created his winding, eccentric angel in the years after World War

He was conscripted into the imperial German forces during the
conflict, but spent much of his service away from the front, which
allowed him to paint and draw throughout WW1. Later, in 1921, he
would join the faculty of the Bauhaus in Weimar and then Dessau. 

between the end of the war and his acceptance of a teaching job, Klee
secured a small income from a Munich art dealer named Hans Goltz –
who presented a major show of Klee’s work in 1920.

That show, which featured more than
100 works of Klee’s, included for the first time the mystical
monoprint that would absorb a generation of thinkers. 

The angel
stands suspended like a dummy or a marionette in a mucky yellow
field; his wings are grand but inadequate, and he seems trapped
between forward and backward motion. That suspension appealed greatly
to Walter Benjamin, who was already making a name for himself as a
heterodox thinker about politics and art. 

He bought the artwork in
the spring of 1921 for 1,000 marks – a major sum for a writer who
had endless money troubles – and hung it in his office in Berlin: a
guardian angel, though of a vengeful sort.

Benjamin was not a systematic thinker,
who propounded principles and laws to be tested and affirmed. 

wrote discursively, dialectically, feeling his way to new ideas
through experiment and contradiction. 

In this, he and Klee – an
unconventional modernist, as comfortable with Bauhaus-approved
function as with woozy Surrealism – were one of a kind. 

became something like a Klee superfan, and a healthy proportion of
the philosopher’s thinking about art – notably his conception of
“aura,” a numinous quality proper to art that is lost in the
process of mechanical reproduction – can be traced to his
engagement with Klee’s sprightly, dynamic paintings and drawings. 

None informed his work more than Angelus Novus, a work he frequently
called his most treasured possession.

But both artist and philosopher had
their careers interrupted by the rise of Nazism: one severely, the
other mortally. 

Klee was booted from his teaching job in 1933 and
moved to the Swiss capital, Bern; more than a dozen of his paintings
would end up in the Nazis’ notorious Degenerate Art exhibition of

As for Benjamin, he had already left Germany just before
Hitler’s accession to power, first for Spain, then for Paris. 

beloved Angelus Novus was stuck in Berlin, but a friend brought it to
him in 1935: the year of the adoption of the Nuremberg laws, which
redefined German citizenship and left the Jewish philosopher a
stateless man. 

When war broke out, Benjamin began writing On
the Concept of History
, a fragmentary text – a set of notes,
really – that tried to make sense of the world’s downward spiral. 

One image in particular served as his touchstone.

A Klee painting named Angelus
Novus,” Benjamin wrote in the ninth thesis, “shows an angel
looking as though he is about to move away from something he is
fixedly contemplating.” 

(It is in fact not a painting at all:
Klee’s oil transfer technique, a method of his own invention,
involved slathering a piece of tracing paper with printer’s ink,
then placing a drawing paper underneath and scratching the top paper
with a needle to make an impression on the one below.) 

Benjamin went
on: “His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain
of events, he sees one catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon
wreckage hurling it before his feet.” Then Benjamin takes a turn
for the clouds: “A storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got
caught in his wings with such violence the angel can no longer close
them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which
his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows

Angelus Novus would have been unknown
to Benjamin’s readers; ever since he bought it from that Munich
gallery, Klee’s work had been out of view. 

But the angel, in
Benjamin’s vision, was nothing less than History itself, helplessly
turned the wrong way as it gazes at the wreckage of the past. It’s
a pessimistic, even fatalistic understanding of the state of the
world, one that would have been anathema to leftwing thinkers of just
a decade before. But history had caught up with Benjamin since his
first encounter with the angel in Munich in 1920.

The present was debris-strewn already;
as for the future, who could imagine? Remember that, before the late
1930s, many Jews and left-wing Germans still held out hope that the
Soviet Union could offer a model for a just future once the Third
Reich fell. With the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, that last hope
was shot. 

For Benjamin, the kind of historical progress promised by
Marxist theory – the certainty that class struggle would
necessarily lead to a shining, beautiful future – had been exposed
as a sham. Only the angel remained, to survey the rubble of the past,
and be borne helplessly into the future.

Angel come home

Less than a year later, in a town on
the border between Spain and France, Benjamin swallowed handfuls of
morphine pills: a massive, lethal dose. 

The fall of France spelled
disaster for Jewish refugees like him, and Benjamin, who had already
been imprisoned in a transit camp, had no hope left for the future.
But before he left Paris, he confided his papers and his angel to the
author Georges Bataille, who somehow kept them safe in the
Bibliothèque Nationale until the liberation. 

After the war,
Benjamin’s possessions were passed onto his fellow Frankfurt School
philosopher Theodor Adorno, another great Jewish pessimist; it then
came to the Kabbalist scholar Gershom Scholem; and finally Scholem’s
widow offered the curly-haired angel to the Israel Museum in 1987.
Having been written about and obsessed over for so long, Klee’s
traumatised seraph at last emerged to the public – in a country
that Benjamin, a complicated Zionist, could only conceive in the

Klee was not Jewish. But Jewish
mysticism, and the philosophical and historical traditions associated
with the predominantly Jewish Frankfurt School, have become so
intertwined with his youthful masterpiece that Israel seems the
almost inevitable place for the slack-mouthed angel to call home. He
very rarely travels; when the curators of Documenta, the art megashow
held every five years in the German city of Kassel, wanted to include
the work in their 2007 edition, they had to make do with a photocopy. 

So the return of Angelus Novus to Paris, the city in which Benjamin
conceived his most trenchant and tragic principles of history, offers
a very rare chance to see the artwork behind the myth, and still to
let the myth propel the artwork forward. 

The angel survives amid
catastrophe, powerless but undefeated, assiduously pushing through an
endless and intensifying storm. 

“This storm,” Benjamin wrote, “is
what we call progress.”