Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Zakir Paul reviews Behind the Angel of History

Annie Bourneuf. Behind the Angel of History: The Angelus Novus and Its Interleaf. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022. 176 pp.

19 July 2023

Reviewed by Zakir Paul

The 2016 Paul Klee exhibit at the Centre Pompidou reserved an alcove for a single picture. The lights were trained on a watercolor and some accompanying lines. This once minor work in Klee’s catalog is indissociable from the writing on the wall. The Angelus Novus shows a strange birdlike creature with sharp talons, outspread wings, and an outsized head, its eyes askance. The setting invited exhibitiongoers to gaze at the original of an often invoked and reproduced image. Yet the Irony at Work—as the exhibition was called—was compounded as a plaque announced that the fragile original had been returned. What most visitors saw was a reproduction. Klee’s angel disappeared as soon as it appeared, to invoke a Talmudic story to which Walter Benjamin often alludes.

The association of the artwork with Benjamin, who owned it from 1922 until his flight from France in 1940, is responsible for its aura. In the ninth thesis on the philosophy of history, Klee’s angel is likened to the angel of history, gazing backward at the piled-up ruins of the past as a single catastrophe, its wings caught in a storm from paradise blowing it into the future. The thesis contests the empty, homogenous time underlying progressive historicist, political, and theological narratives. Benjamin’s transformative citation of the image became talismanic for the dissident left since the resurgent interest in his work in the late ’60s.

A discovery by the American artist R. H. Quaytman added a vertiginous dimension to this history. Quaytman’s finding, and its pre- and post-history are the subject of Annie Bourneuf’s exemplary study Behind the Angel of History: The Angelus Novus and its Interleaf. Bourneuf’s first book—Paul Klee: The Visible and the Invisible (2015)—focused on the relationship between writing and drawing. Here the emphasis shifts to “the acts of copying, hiding, framing, and haloing . . . citation, superposition, [and] attention to the edge” in the Angelus Novus, from which she builds a gripping narrative (p. 13).

In 2015, Quaytman was given access to the monoprint at the Israel Museum. There she saw on the margins “finely engraved lines, ‘LC’ or ‘CL’ monogram, 1520-something date, and the folds of drapery . . . indicating someone’s torso,” which remained unnoticed by scholars (p. 1). She suspected that Klee’s interleaf was a print reproducing an older image. Consulting scientists, who used X-ray and thermography to no avail, she continued corresponding with Bourneuf, among other art historians. Quaytman tenaciously combed through digital archives until a chance finding led her to an image of Martin Luther. The 1838 Friedrich Müller print reproduced a 1521 image by Ludwig Cranach, accounting for the date and initials. Klee possessed an impression of Müller’s print in 1920 (see p. 35). A digital superposition fit the Angelus like “Cinderella’s slipper.”[i]

Bourneuf analyzes Luther’s concealed presence in three compelling chapters. “2015” recounts the steps leading to Quaytman’s startling finding. “1920” relates Klee’s work to Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece, which had a particular resonance after the armistice when it became a focal point for debates about the possibility of interfaith German socialist communities. “1922” looks at Benjamin’s engagement with the Angelus Novus, including his plans for an eponymous journal.

Bourneuf’s analyses are admirably clear and intricate. She deftly connects Luther’s image with his vernacular Bible translations, opposition to aniconism, condemnation of the Peasants’ War, the use of his likeness as a saint’s picture, and the twentieth-century appropriation of his persona by Nazism. “Within the terms of art discourse in Munich around 1920, putting a picture recalling Grünewald’s resurrected Christ over a printed portrait of Luther bearing Cranach’s monogram would seem to announce . . . the resurrection of art from the tomb in which Protestantism had laid it” (p. 54). Elsewhere, she casts the Angelus as “a parody of the Expressionist vision of modernism as the resurrection of ‘the Gothic,’” as well as the tradition of devotional pictures meant for “affective, private contemplation” (pp. 66, 62).

The epilogue acknowledges that the study links the Angelus and the theses while setting the connection aside “to estrange the picture from its usual discursive roles” (p. 106). Bourneuf proposes that Klee’s work might share Ernst Bloch’s critique of counterrevolutionary repetition. She opposes such repetition to Benjamin's “much stranger . . . idea of a revolutionary mode of citing the past,” suggesting Klee’s image only becomes dialectical in writing (p. 108). She then briefly contests three interpretations of Benjamin’s thesis: Heinz Brüggemann’s Christianizing equation of the Messiah with the new angel; Gershom Scholem’s reading of the angel exclusively in terms of the Jewish tradition without its Christian eschatological dimension; and Giorgio Agamben’s reading, uniquely dependent on Paul’s letter to the Romans. Bourneuf emphasizes how Benjamin juxtaposes “Jewish and Christian traditions without attempting to undo the . . . process of mutual polarization” (p. 110). Her hypotheses depend as much on Benjamin’s tactics of “reciprocal differentiation” as the “material artifact . . . made of paper, cardboard, cheap engraving, and paint” (p. 111).

How are these two closing gestures related? While the Angelus is not a dialectical image, spurring its invention in writing, the artwork and the thesis together interrupt identification with single theological sources. Do the Angelus Novus and its interleaf relate, suspend, or oscillate between the art-historical, theological, and political strata they conceal and expose? At times, the conditions of possibility that enable Bourneuf’s book—the association and dissociation of the theses with Klee’s image—make responses to these questions more implicit than they may have been. Yet succinctness remains one of the volume’s considerable merits.

Bourneuf’s remarkable study will interest students of modernist art, German intellectual history, and broader audiences interested in how a single artwork can be transformed by material framing, fastening, precedents, parodies, and philosophical recastings. No discussion of Klee’s artwork or the ninth thesis can avoid engaging its arguments. Even those who see the original will know that what lies behind the Angelus Novus keeps it from being fully exposed.


[i] R. H. Quaytman, “Engrave,” in Chapter 29: Haqaq (Tel Aviv, 2015), p. 58.