What’s Behind the Angel of History?

Traces of the c. 1520s etching beneath Klee’s “Angelus Novus”

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.

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