26 February 2013

Angelus Novus, Angel of History, by Paul Klee

by Marc Masurovsky
Paul Klee
Source: Wikipedia
Interesting destiny for the watercolor, “Angelus Novus”, a critical early work by Swiss artist Paul Klee.
Angelus Novus, Paul Klee, 1920
Source: Wikipedia
The “Angelus” is also known as the “Angel of History.” Klee painted it in 1920. The Jewish mystical writer, Gerschom Scholem, bought it shortly thereafter and hung it in his apartment in Munich, Germany. Scholem’s close friend, the cultural philosopher Walter Benjamin, viewed it in a major exhibit of Klee’s work at the Galerie Goltz in Munich and acquired it without hesitation. Goltz brokered the sale between the two close friends.
Walter Benjamin
Source: Wikipedia

Benjamin’s relationship to the Angelus Novus was nothing short of profound and deeply rooted in his own existential angst about civilization, the absence of happiness in society, his vision of a humanity bereft of humanity, and yet, in Klee’s angel, he might have gleaned his own angel, a metaphysical creature on whose wings History could be carried aloft. Hope springs eternal, doesn’t it?

Some have written that the Angel’s eyes bear witness to the horrors of history since the dawn of ages and into an unknown future. But they are compassionate and empathetic. For Benjamin, the “Angel” was his angel and Klee’s work took on proportions greater than life, overwhelming Benjamin’s psyche. It was as if this Angel was his redemption, his life buoy. In moments of despair, he would leave it in trust with his friends, including Scholem, and would pick it up again when passing through. Even when Benjamin was destitute to the point of not eating, he would hold back from selling his Angel of History. True, he tried several times. A year or so before his untimely death at Port Bou in the French Pyrenées, Benjamin considered selling the Angel to arts patron Ernest Morgenroth whose son, Ernest Gustav Morgenroth, he knew well—later he became known as Stephen Lackner, a well-known patron of the arts in the United States.

September 26, 1940: Walter Benjamin commits suicide at Port Bou, convinced that he will face impending arrest at the hands of the Vichy authorities who will then turn him over to the German authorities and ultimate doom. Before killing himself, Benjamin secured his papers, manuscripts and the Angel with the renown French writer, Georges Bataille, who then worked at the National Library (Bibliothèque Nationale) in Paris. Bataille hid Benjamin’s belongings in a corner of the Library where they remained throughout the entire period of German occupation. A miracle! Bataille left the National Library and hid Benjamin’s cultural treasures at his apartment. After the end of the Second World War, another friend of Benjamin’s, the author Pierre Bonasse, took over the burden of caring for Benjamin’s items and made every effort to find Benjamin’s sister, Dora, and the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, to whom he had entrusted the manuscripts and the Angelus. Adorno had since moved to the United States. It took another several years before the handover was successful, thanks in part to an employee of the US Embassy in Paris who acted as a courier for the “Benjamin estate.”
Gerschom Scholem
Source: Wikipedia

Available sources are not clear about the last detail, which is how the Angelus fell back into the hands of Gerschom Scholem. But it did, thanks to Adorno. Was this “gift” specified in Benjamin’s will? Did Benjamin have a written will? Safe to say, though, that Scholem, as first purchaser of the Angelus Novus, became again its owner, owing to the unfortunate premature demise of his best friend, Walter Benjamin. After Scholem’s death in 1982, the Angelus Novus was donated to the Israel Museum in 1987 by Scholem’s widow, Fania, with the help of the Herring Brothers, famed art dealers in New York, and Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Lauder.

One fact is puzzling, though: when reading the information about “Angelus Novus” on the Israel Museum website, it indicates that Scholem “inherited” it. What kind of inheritance can this be between two very close friends whose trust in one another was sealed in part by an “Angel of History”?

Sources: Kerber, Armin, “Lost Paradise: The Angel’s Gaze,” Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Switzerland, 2008; Theodor W. Adorno and Walter Benjamin, “The Complete Correspondence, 1928-1940,” Harvard University Press, 2001.