Intellectual history Interview

Behind the Angel of History: An Interview with Annie Bourneuf

By Benjamin Beese and Matthew Johnson

By Benjamin Beese and Matthew Johnson

Annie Bourneuf is Professor of Art History, Theory and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the author of Paul Klee: The Visible and the Legible (2015) and Behind the Angel of History: The Angelus Novus and Its Interleaf (2022), both from the University of Chicago Press. Behind the Angel of History is a fascinating and meticulously-researched study crossing the fields of art history and intellectual history. It offers new and often surprising perspectives on the Swiss-born German painter Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920), which has become an iconic and arguably clichéd image in the wake of the belated but intensive reception of Walter Benjamin’s last essay, “On the Concept of History” (1940). In this much-debated essay, Benjamin invokes Klee’s angel, whose face “is turned toward the past” as he beholds “one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage” (Selected Writings 1938-1940, 392). Instead of being able to “make whole what has been smashed,” the angel is caught in a storm that prevents him from closing his wings. This storm, which Benjamin identifies with progress, “drives [the angel] irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky” (392). In addition to being an important “thought-image” (Denkbild) for Benjamin’s reflections on history, Klee’s angel took on a darker resonance in light of the fact that Benjamin composed his essay in the last year of his life, before his suicide as he attempted to escape from Vichy France, which had promised to turn German-Jewish refugees over to the German authorities. In the subsequent decades, after the posthumous publication and global reception of Benjamin’s essay, Klee’s angel has become a key point of reference for a wide range of theorists, artists, and activists in their grappling with the concepts of history, catastrophe, and progress.

Benjamin not only wrote about the picture but owned it, and its winding itinerary after his death is “bound up,” as Bourneuf writes, “with the circumstances of Benjamin’s life and the question of his legacy in the narrow sense (to whom should his property—in this case, ‘his most important possession’—go?), inflected with the question of his legacy in a broader sense” (17). After passing through the hands of Theodor and Gretel Adorno, and perhaps Georges Bataille, among others, the Angelus Novus variously “hung in the Institute for Social Research and later in the Adornos’ living room” before it was given to Gershom Scholem, who bequeathed it to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (18). While Benjamin’s connection to the picture undoubtedly undergirds its enduring fame, and explains why it has become “a logogram for Benjamin, for the Frankfurt School, for modern Jewish intellectual history, for critical historiography, for memory” (9), Bourneuf is also interested in thinking about its significance beyond this connection. In illuminating analyses of the artwork itself and of writings engaging it, Bourneuf defamiliarizes this image and opens up the different ways it might matter—with and without Benjamin—for thinking about art, politics, and religion in the twentieth century and today. Benjamin Beese and Matthew Johnson interviewed Annie Bourneuf about her new book.  


Benjamin Beese and Matthew Johnson: Your book begins with a “startling discovery” made by the artist R. H. Quaytman about Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920): underneath the watercolor paper, which depicts an angel frequently conflated with Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history,” there lies a portrait of none other than Martin Luther, the radical early modern theologian. You further assert that, in light of recent studies of the artwork, it is now “certain that the print interleaved in the Angelus is an impression of an 1838 engraving of Luther by the little-known Dresden-based engraver Friedrich Müller” (3). It is a “very ordinary print,” an example of the kind of portrait of Luther that circulated widely in the nineteenth century and “might have hung in any Lutheran home or schoolroom” (6). But the presence of what might be seen as a “hero-image of German nationalism,” as you describe it, “[u]nder, as it were, Benjamin’s ninth thesis, beneath Klee’s drawn angel,” raises a number of tantalizing questions (9). Can you tell our readers a bit about how Quaytman made this discovery and about your own involvement in that process?  

Annie Bourneuf: Quaytman saw Klee’s Angelus Novus at the Israel Museum in 2013 and was drawn immediately to its dark border, wide as a finger—the edge of an engraved portrait. The Angelus consists of three layers: the watercolor paper on which the “new angel” is drawn is glued onto this larger engraving, which is glued onto a piece of cardboard on which Klee wrote the title and date. From across the room or in a bad reproduction, the engraving might look like merely a dark border of the kind Klee often made using ink or watercolor, but when you see it in person, it’s easy to see the engraving’s mesh of parallel lines, an interlocked “LC” monogram, a 1520-something date, the folds of dark robes implying a half-length portrait. She was astonished when no one on the museum staff could tell her about it.

Quaytman makes paintings based on images derived from her intensive investigation of pictures and sites. She had been planning to make work relating to the Benjamin-Scholem correspondence and their differing understandings of image and word. She had been reluctant to engage with the Angelus—such a cliché! But once she saw it in person, she became consumed by the question of this sixteenth-century image that the angel was hiding (mostly) behind its back. She is especially interested in the edges of paintings, and she collects engravings. She surmised from the dark robes that it was a religious figure, and from the linework that it was not really a sixteenth-century print, but a later engraving reproducing a sixteenth-century work.

By the time she contacted me in 2015, she had pretty well exhausted the technological possibilities for peering behind the angel without damaging the work; she had even had it brought to Rome to try infrared thermography. My book, Paul Klee: The Visible and the Legible (University of Chicago Press, 2015), was coming out soon, and she thought I might know something. I didn’t, but I threw myself into the investigation as much as I could with newborn twins. My role, as it turned out, was that of egging her on, confirming that there had been absolutely no mention of this engraving in the scholarly literature. (I think it’s likely, by the way, that if the Angelus had been in a collection in, say, New York or Basel—somewhere more frequently visited by Klee specialists—the engraving would be old news.)

By the time I wrote a little essay for the catalogue of her exhibition in Tel Aviv, which dealt with the engraving as an unanswered question, the hypothesis, based on what you could see, was that the interleaf was a nineteenth- or early twentieth-century reproductive print of a sixteenth-century painting, possibly by Lucas Cranach the Elder—that was as far as either of us had got. Quaytman persisted in what was truly a needle-in-a-haystack quest, sifting relentlessly through digitized prints in various collections looking for the right dimensions and robes. Against all odds, she found her needle—this very commonplace 1838 engraving of Luther, which presents itself as a reproduction of a 1521 portrait by Cranach the Elder. As long as you have a good reproduction of the Klee (I recommend the one in the textbook Art Since 1900), you can confirm her identification yourself.

Quaytman made a series of paintings, exhibited at the Miguel Abreu Gallery in fall 2015, dealing with the discovery. And I began presenting and musing over the discovery at workshops and symposia, sharing it with art historians and Benjamin scholars, trying to figure out what to make of this hidden face.

BB and MJ: The significance and implications of Quaytman’s discovery are compounded by the ways in which it prompts us to rethink the interpretative possibilities of the Angelus Novus, which has long existed in the shadow of Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History.” In turn, while Benjamin plays a central role in your study, you insist that we should remember the difference between Klee’s picture and Benjamin’s “angel of history.” Why is this difference important? What does Quaytman’s discovery open up that we haven’t earlier been able to see?

AB: Klee’s 1920 picture has often been seen, as you’ve said, as a depiction of Benjamin’s 1940 passage on the “angel of history”—especially since 1972, when Scholem delivered his lecture on
Walter Benjamin and His Angel.” (Benjamin, in that passage, holds them apart a bit more: Klee’s angel looks “how the angel of history must look.”)

But it became clear as soon as Quaytman discovered her question, before she had her answer, that Klee’s picture is also meditating somehow on chronology, on history—that was what was so obsessing about the mystery of the mostly hidden engraving. Each edge of its three layers displays a date, 1920 (Klee’s watercolor), 1520-something (the engraving), 1920 (the cardboard mount on which Klee penciled the title). While in Benjamin’s Denkbild (thought-image), the “storm drives [the angel] irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned,” the backside of Klee’s “new angel” is turned literally to an image with a sixteenth century date. But the plot thickens—as Quaytman remarked at the outset, 1520-something engravings do not look like that, so there is clearly a mismatch between the date on the print and the date of the print’s production. For a viewer well versed in European art history, the reproductive engraving that it must be is clearly old in its genre and syntax compared to the “new angel,” as it calls itself in the dead language of Latin—that much is clear from the visible margin—and yet not as old as its date.

This implies that Benjamin’s 1940 thesis might be more in dialogue with Klee’s picture than either Benjamin or Klee specialists had previously understood (I too had earlier thought that the Angelus served Benjamin more as a projection screen). But to understand this dialogue qua dialogue, it was necessary first to separate out the various voices. After Quaytman revealed that it was Luther lurking behind the angel—Luther untonsured and antimonastically jowly, in academic robes, Bible in one hand, the other on his breast—I felt it was crucial to understand how Klee’s picture might have meant (along which lines, intersecting with which discourses and debates) when he compounded it in Munich in 1920, before Benjamin bought it.

Some commentators had already suggested that Klee’s Angelus is a riff on the famous rainbow-haloed resurrected Christ of Grünewald’s 1515 Isenheim Altarpiece, which had been taken from Alsace to Munich during the First World War and was on view in the city for almost a year after the armistice. The gesture of pasting a kind of caricature of that hovering, glowing figure—from what was very much seen as one of the last great German Renaissance altarpieces, painted on the very eve of the Reformation—atop a highly routinized portrait of Martin Luther struck me as requiring a new understanding of Klee’s picture in relation to understandings of art history in Germany in the early postwar years, themselves deeply entangled in religiopolitical concepts, embedded in art history as it developed in the wake of Hegel’s understanding of art as something that “in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past” (53, footnote 62), and urgent in the context of messianic politics and white terror in Munich in 1918–19. Joseph Leo Koerner’s book on The Reformation of the Image (2008) was indispensable.

BB and MJ: We are particularly interested in your methodological approach. You take Quaytman’s discovery about the Angelus Novus as a point of departure to think not only about “an earlier moment in the history of the making of this single work but also [about] earlier moments in larger, longer, and far more vexed histories of religions, languages, national identities, and politics” (10). In this regard, your book is as much a work of intellectual history as art history. Could you say more about how you navigate the relationship between formalist and historical approaches—about the ways in which, for example, your book attends both to the materiality of paper, cardboard, and paint and to the philosophical and political legacies of German and Jewish modernity? Phrased differently: How might formalist analysis be an important—and even necessary—tool for the writing of intellectual history?

AB: I see intellectual history and art history as inseparably enmeshed. When, for instance, Martin Buber published an essay on the Isenheim Altarpiece in 1914, or when Walter Benjamin visited it and hung a reproduction in his study, or when the retable itself was displayed in Munich, it was not as a thing either sealed off in a history of painting nor a set of signifieds (Jesus, suffering, transfiguration) separable from the massive, double-winged Schnitzaltar. It is important to attend not only to the panels as Grünewald completed them, but also to the vicissitudes of its afterlife (the rearrangement of the object’s very shape and structuring of vision when it was secularized—its disarticulation allowing the simultaneous display of both sides of its panels for the first time); and to attend, moreover, to the art-historical, but by no means only art-historical, categories through which viewers approach it (“Christian,” “German,” “Gothic”), to those viewers’ relations to those categories, to the way in which the object had been described and understood in earlier discussions—all of it matters. The relation between the object’s presence (of that of its life-size figures, of all that is vivid and immediate in the panels) and its distance (from any modern observer)—something it shares with many of art history’s favorite objects—became especially urgent, in various ways, for Buber, Benjamin, and Klee, among others, as they navigated questions of religion, politics, perception, and historicity.

Their enmeshment is especially obvious around something so charismatic and freighted, but it obtains elsewhere. I recently reread “Resisting Blackmail” by art historian Yve-Alain Bois, the introduction to his 1990 Painting as Model, a book that has been crucial for Quaytman—his vigorous defense of formalism remains vital. There are important connections, conversations among made things, that can be perceived in no other way.

BB and MJ: Your book is organized into three chapters that revolve around particular years that were important in the genesis and reception of the Angelus Novus: 2015, 1920, 1922. Why did you choose these years in particular and why did you order the chapters non-chronologically? Furthermore, what do these years have to do with your interest in larger periods of historical and cultural transformation (e.g., the Reformation, the Weimar Republic, etc.)? 

AB: And I could have called the epilogue “1940”—that’s where I turn back to Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History.” It was in 2015 that Quaytman discovered Luther, 1920 that Klee made the Angelus Novus, 1922 that Benjamin sought to launch a new journal called Angelus Novus. I took my cue from the multiple edges of Klee’s compound picture, and their prominent dates. The timestamping on those margins is of course the result of the basic Renaissance convention that an artist signs and dates a work, marking it with a singular moment of fabrication which then allows its entry into a linear chronology. Yet Klee’s work both foregrounds and confounds that basic convention and, extending its meditation on art and historical time, presses together Christ by way of Grünewald and Luther by way of Cranach as figurations of what were understood in ideologies dominant in the German Empire as historical watersheds and points of orientation—to be fully modern was to place oneself securely after these moments. At the same time, an alternative model of history undergirding much of the Expressionist avant-garde saw the present as a turning point, the last moment of a long artistic-cum-religious epoch and the dawn of a new one that would resurrect art so that it would no longer be “a thing of the past.” My dates, I hope, both serve my historian’s task of separating out and contextualizing distinct moments in the uses of Klee’s picture and pay homage to Klee’s and Benjamin’s ways of troubling history as linear succession.  

BB and MJ: While your book is devoted, in large measure, to careful analysis of art-historical evidence and to the material traces of the past, you are also interested in more speculative histories. In one chapter, for example, you reflect on the “impossible” position of Benjamin’s journal, named after Klee’s picture, which failed to materialize. Can you explain your “attempt to illuminate what did not happen” (102)? What role does speculation play in the larger argument of your book?   

AB: One of the greatest rewards of historical research, I think, is when you are able to construct in detail a plan or project that did not come about. Benjamin’s project for a new journal called Angelus Novus occupied him a great deal in 1921–22; he wrote an ambitious and developed announcement of its program and came close to putting together a first issue. His announcement glosses the title as pointing to the journal’s hoped-for ephemerality and contemporaneity by gesturing towards angels of the Talmud who, he writes, at every moment and in enormous, ever-replenishing numbers, are born, sing before God, and die. His rewriting, as it were, of Klee’s image—whose reference to the Isenheim Altarpiece I can’t imagine the Grünewald devotee Benjamin failing to catch—in terms of Jewish angelology emblematizes one of his journal’s ambitions, of serving as a locus for a kind of Jewish-Christian exchange, but one marked by the “mutual alienness” of the contributions. Benjamin’s journal would have taken its place in a larger context of parallel attempts, such as the journal The Creature, which had a Jewish, a Protestant, and a Catholic editor, in accordance with the plan of Benjamin’s close friend, the Protestant theologian Florens Christian Rang, who also worked on Angelus Novus.

Not a single issue was printed. Benjamin had serious problems with his collaborators; among other things, he counted on Scholem’s active participation when Scholem was not in fact interested in the project, a strain in their friendship that affected how Scholem wrote about Benjamin’s angel decades later. But it was not merely that: the kind of interreligious dialogue Benjamin pursued here, in often contentious conversation with that of other participants in the postassimilatory “Jewish Renaissance,” might be called, to use Scholem’s words, “on the level of historical reality, never anything else but a fiction” (74). Yet it may be described, and, as Benjamin wrote in a letter to Rang, “this unwritten journal could not be any more important or dear to me if it existed” (103).

The historical retrieval of what didn’t happen is an important part of my most recent research, in quite another context, for an upcoming exhibition of the work of photographer and writer Lucia Moholy (1894–1989), curated by Jan Tichy and Jordan Troeller at the Kunsthalle Praha. She was involved in a formidable but failed effort after the Second World War to bring about a very different information economy in scientific publishing from the one we know—a non-commercial one under public ownership, using documentary reproduction, especially microfilm, to deal with the much increased scale and volume of research. Much of her effort was perhaps only reconstructable now; I needed recent historical work provoked by the current landscape of scientific publishing—dominated by companies like Clarivate and Elsevier that extract staggering profits from academic research, much of it publicly funded—to understand the importance of her project.

Benjamin Beese is a graduate student in Germanic Languages & Literatures at the Ohio State University. He received his B.A. in History from Middlebury College.  

Matthew Johnson is Senior Lecturer in Germanic Languages & Literatures at the Ohio State University. He received his Ph.D. in Germanic Studies from the University of Chicago.

Edited by Jonathon Catlin

Featured image: Selection from the cover of Annie Bourneuf’s Behind the Angel of History: The Angelus Novus and Its Interleaf (University of Chicago Press, 2022).