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From Eagle to Angel part 4: I saw the Angel of History

April 6th, 2016 by Willem Jan Renders

Together with my colleague Angela Lampe from Centre Pompidou I am working on the ‘Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich’ exhibition that will open in March 2018 in Paris. Angela has just finished an exhibition on the oeuvre of Paul Klee and I was able to visit it last Sunday, one day before the opening. The exhibition is in Galerie 2 (1000 m2) of the Centre Pompidou and this is also the space that is intended for our future exhibition. To me it is still an incredible idea that within two years our exhibition will open here…

Just opened in Centre Pompidou:
Paul Klee – L’ironie à l’oeuvre

But now to Paul Klee. I should start by saying that I never liked his work. All those clouds of coloured points and those sensibly curved lines. Somehow it was all too delicate, too esoteric and too fine for me. But walking in this exhibition I see a lot of works I did not know and I discover a whole new artist. In a lot of his works this artist is a sensitive and nervous thermometer of his time. Am I becoming milder as I grow older? I never liked dahlias and now I find some of them very beautiful. Is the same happening with Klee?

Ernst Kallai, Caricature of Klee as Buddha, 1929
collection Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin

Here I will concentrate on only one work in this comprehensive exhibition. I chose it for this blog because it fits in my previous quest for angels. I did not forget that I still have to report on the Kabakov angels I saw in Long Island, but I will do that later. Klee’s angel comes first.

Paul Klee, Angelus novus, 1920
collection Israel Museum, Jerusalem

This work was once in the collection of the philosopher Walter Benjamin. He had two works by Klee: one work, Presentation of the Miracle, he got from his wife and another one, Angelus novus, he bought himself in 1921. Now it is this Angelus novus that would become the famous Angel of History that Benjamin describes in his Theses on the Concept of History, written while fleeing from the Germans in 1940 and just before his suicide. For Benjamin this angel was not the traditional figure of salvation and redemption. He saw in it a personification of history, an allegorical figure showing us how history works and how it progresses.

Benjamin describes this Angel in his ninth thesis on the concept of history in the following way:

IX

My wing is ready for flight,

I would like to turn back.

If I stayed timeless time,

I would have little luck.

Gerhard Scholem

Greeting from Angelus

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed . But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that 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 skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

End of citation.

After almost 80 years the Miracle and the Angel have been united in this exhibition here in Paris. After Benjamins death the Angel went with his colleague and friend Theodor Adorno to the United States and from there it was brought back by another friend: Gerhard Scholem, the one who wrote the poem cited above. The Angel is now in the collection of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and for the coming two months (and not a day longer) it can be seen in the Klee exhibition in the Centre Pompidou.

Face to face with the Angel of History

In a fortunate and quiet moment in this exhibition I was face to face with this Angel of History. You can see me reflected in the photograph I took. What struck me was the sensitive fragility of this secular counterpart of the traditional angel. After reading Benjamin’s suggestive interpretation and looking at my photograph again I saw myself for a split second as a tiny part of that unstoppable storm of progress blowing in the wings of the Angel and pushing history forward. It was not megalomania at all; it was a subtle sense of futility and being part of one great movement forward…

Translations taken from: Hannah Arendt (Ed.), ‘Walter Benjamin, Illuminations’, London, 2002

For an analysis of the function of the Angel of History in Benjamins theory of history see: Andrew Benjamin, ‘Walter Benjamin and History’, London, 2005

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