Angelus Novus by Paul Klee

Paul Klee

Angelus Novus, 1920, Oil transfer and watercolour on paper, 318 x 242 mm, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem; Gift of Fania and Gershom Scholem, Jerusalem; John Herring, Marlene and Paul Herring, Jo Carole and Ronald Lauder, New York, B87.0994, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel / Carole and Ronald Lauder, New York / Bridgeman Images

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An Angel’s Hinterland

Commentary by

‘The day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night’
(1 Thessalonians 5:2 NASB)

Swiss-born artist Paul Klee (1879–1940) painted hundreds of angels throughout his career. Their simplicity and directness; playfulness and seriousness; bringing of blessings and curses, comfort and judgement, redemption and damnation, were conjured from an imagination eager to create a sovereign transcendent ‘beyond’ whence these messengers were sent for his and our benefit.

But what makes this little angel, Angelus Novus, so extraordinary that it should have become an icon of the twentieth century? It has to do with the person for whom it suddenly appeared, seizing his attention at an art gallery in Munich in 1921 and becoming his companion, inspiration, and comfort for nearly twenty years.

This person is Walter Benjamin, one of the great cultural critics of the twentieth century. And Klee’s little angel served as an inspiration for numerous essays on modern art and culture.

‘There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus’.

So begins the most famous passage in his essay, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, written shortly before he committed suicide to avoid arrest by the Nazis in 1940. This ‘Angel of history’, with his face ‘turned toward the past … sees one single catastrophe…’

On view at the Jerusalem Museum, Angelus Novus is an artistic memorial to the suffering and violence of the twentieth century and the arrogance of modernity. But it also bears witness to the important role that art and literature played in addressing such suffering, violence, and arrogance, whose voice comes from somewhere where existence is not reduced to suffering, violence, and arrogance. Angelus Novus did not come into the world merely to condemn. From this ‘somewhere’, the painting offers the potential, if ever so slight and faint, of freedom, redemption. In this way it is an icon of hope. A painting for the faithful. Not unlike Paul’s letter.

 

References

Benjamin, Walter. 1968. ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books), pp. 253–264