Walter Benjamin, Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus”, and Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire”

5 Mar



Paul Klee, “Angelus Novus.” 1920. India ink, colored chalk, and brown wash on paper. Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

I never thought that I would get the chance to write a paper for my Postmodern Religious Thought seminar that combined my studies in Art History, Philosophy, and Religion, but I was excited and fortunate to be able to do just that with my reading of Walter Benjamin’s essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In this essay, Benjamin discussing Paul Klee’s surrealist mixed media drawing titled “Angelus Novus,” which was the inspiration for Benjamin’s concept of the Angel of History that he uses to expound on his idea of historical materialism. The Wim Wenders 1987 film titled “Wings of Desire,” which is about angels walking amongst people in Berlin just before the Berlin Wall was demolished, also had parallels to Benjamin’s Angel of History. We watched a short clip of this film the first week of class, and when I read this part of Benjamin I immediately thought of it. So I decided to incorporate the film into my essay as well. While I do not necessarily agree with Benjamin’s ideas, I really enjoyed exploring how they could be interpreted and expressed in various artistic media. This is my favorite way to think about art.

The Wings of Desire of the New Angel of History: Walter Benjamin’s Vision of History

Before Benjamin, There Was Hegel

Before the monstrous tragedies that occurred during World War II in the twentieth century, philosophers such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel were able to see history as generally progressive, with humanity and its institutions always improving as they moved forward in time. Hegel fully developed this view, known as historicism, into a comprehensive theory that showed how art, religion and philosophy helped human cultures in specific historical epochs progressively discover deeper understandings of human self-consciousness, a stronger connection to the Absolute (what Hegel calls the divine “Spirit”), and more effective notions of freedom. In Hegel’s sense, this freedom does not refer to an existence without constraint or with individual autonomy, but instead a sense of feeling at home in one’s relationships with others, and feeling peaceful and comfortable in the choices we make as to who we consider our family, the institutions we build, and the way we live as citizens of a state.

Art, religion, and philosophy are what Hegel defines as the three forms of the absolute Spirit, in that they are the fundamental forms which reveal and reflect to us our self-consciousness, our Spirit, our freedom. At certain points in history, one of these forms dominated the others as the most accurate form to depict that historical era’s Spirit. First, art was the dominant form of Spirit for the Ancient Greeks. Then religion, specifically Christianity for Hegel, replaced Art in its creation during the Ancient Roman era as the dominant form. In the modern era, which for Hegel began during the Renaissance and has continued to Hegel’s day in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (and beyond), philosophy has been the form that has best captured our society’s freedom and spirit. For Hegel, our modern institutions of the nuclear family, the free-market economy, and the parliamentary democracy are the conditions which will best guarantee our freedom (as Hegel defines it) in the modern world. With modern philosophy at the wheel, we have tapped into our Spirit and self-consciousness as a culture. History has been a steady marathon and we have finally reached the finish line in the modern era.

Hegel’s Historicism versus Benjamin’s Historical Materialism

Hegel did not live to see World War II, and so perhaps his notion that we have reached the epitome of human progress would have changed. But for those who did live to see World War II, such as Walter Benjamin, the shock that was the project of Nazism and its resulting mass genocide profoundly shattered in their minds this historicist view of human history and any questions of progress. For Benjamin, whose writings in his essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History” stem from Marxist theory, history was not a story of progress, but a harrowing accumulation of destruction. Even when humanity made small bursts of progress through legislation or reform, these victories were only superficial, and did not address the inherent evils in our systems and nature. This view, which Benjamin refers to in “Theses on the Philosophy of History” as historical materialism, requires revolutionary change by the hands of individuals. In harsh contrast to historicism, which finds the individual detrimental and sudden revolutions hostile to the communal progress of peoples, historical materialism champions the bold actions of individuals against the faceless institutions of the masses and shuns historicists who empathize with the victors—those powerful elite who, as the adage goes, are the ones who write history. In a passage which would directly address Hegel’s admiring account of art, religion, and philosophy, Benjamin reveals the appropriative nature of such accounts of history:

Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate…the spoils are carried along in this procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.[1]

While Hegel admires the art of Ancient Greece, especially Greek sculpture, as the epitome of its Spirit, Benjamin sees such objects as products of the toil of anonymous, talented but disenfranchised artisans which are appropriated by powerful people in powerful institutions. While in museums and elsewhere there is only one artist, if any, given credit for an ancient artwork such as a Greek sculpture, there are in fact a workshop’s worth of people who have contributed to that piece and yet can never claim any sort of ownership or reward for their work. And not only are they not given credit, but they are also erased from history, and even the products they are forced to make are completely taken away from them. But historicism wants to gloss over these ugly truths of humanity’s past and present, instead favoring an “eternal image” of the past which obnoxiously glorifies it. Benjamin gives us a vivid image of historicism’s exaltation of the past which historical materialism soberly avoids: “The historical materialist leaves it to others to be drained by the whore called ‘Once upon a time’ in historicism’s bordello. He remains in control of his powers, man enough to blast open the continuum of history.”[2] Historicism for Benjamin is blind to the destruction of the past and views it instead with rose-tinted glasses, using an “additive” method in which time keeps moving forward and achievements pile on in a tower of progress. Historical materialism, on the other hand, is guided by what Benjamin calls the Angel of History, an angel who sees the past for what it is and looks on in horror.

Benjamin’s Angel of History: Klee’s Angelus Novus

Benjamin was heavily inspired by Paul Klee’s surrealist mixed media drawing Angelus Novus for his concept of the Angel of History (see fig. 1). One of Klee’s thousands of artworks created over his lifetime, he created it in 1920, a breakout year for the artist in which a major retrospective of his artwork was exhibited at the Galerie Hans Goltz in Munich, he was appointed to the faculty of the Bauhaus, a cutting-edge art school founded by Walter Gropius, and he published his book Creative Confession, which detailed his personal artistic theories.[3] If it were not for the public attention that Klee received that year, it is possible Benjamin would have never seen Angelus Novus, which is not considered an important work for Klee outside of its influence on Benjamin. In most scholarship on the work, it is only studied in reference to Benjamin, who was so taken with the work he purchased it in 1921.[4] Benjamin’s famous passage in “Theses on the Philosophy of History” interprets Angelus Novus, which translates as “New Angel,” as a depiction of the Angel of History who laments history’s destructive past:

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.[5]

This terrifying vision of human history deliberately uses dramatic language to awaken readers to the oppressive nature of human history which historicism has glossed over and covered up with an overriding narrative of progress and increasing knowledge. The angel, occupying an omniscient position where it can see all of history’s “wreckages,” wants to heal and reform the destruction that it sees. Yet the angel is powerless, for the storm of “Paradise,” which Benjamin sarcastically associates with historicism’s notion of progress, forces time forward. This goes against the orientation towards time that Benjamin believes historical materialists have, where “time stands still and has come to a stop” because this “defines the present in which [the historical materialist] is writing history.”[6] Benjamin and the Angel of History want to shout for us to stop the train of progress, to recognize that we have to stand still where we are and reflect on the past’s wreckages. If we do not stop, that storm of progress will continue to propel us forward, and we will not be able to stop these wreckages from accumulating.

Benjamin takes significant liberty to interpret all of this from Klee’s simple but cryptic drawing. But Klee seems to invite interpretations of hidden truths becoming revealed through art. One of the main ideas of Creative Confession is that “Art does not reproduce the visible but makes it visible.”[7] While it is most likely that Klee did not make Angelus Novus with Benjamin or historical materialism in mind, the artwork’s depiction of a “New Angel” subtly works in the spirit of historical materialist ideas. If we look at the artwork without knowing the title, we probably would not identify the sole figure that makes up the drawing as an angel. This is a subversive trait of the image which Klee may or may not have intended. For most of us, our idea of what an angel looks like comes from the Christian tradition, where angels are usually white, golden-haired corpulent infants or muscular and voluptuous adults, clothed in white robes with large white wings and a golden halo. Instead of presenting us with an image as such to force us to conform to the Western Christian idea of an angel, Klee takes the liberty to define for himself what an angel looks like. He uses the idea of an angel of which dominant Western Christian institutions have taken ownership and frees it back to the realm of individual interpretation. He recognizes that we do not have to draw or think of an angel the way that dominant powers have told us we should through the canonization of artistic motifs. As individuals, like Klee has done here, we can create a “New Angel” for ourselves, and thus be the harbingers of cataclysmic change that historical materialism encourages us to be.

“Wings of Desire”: Angels of History Made Manifest

Wim Wenders’ 1987 film “Wings of Desire,” whose original title translates from German as “The Sky Over Berlin,” is fascinating in the ways it manifests Benjamin’s characterization of the Angel of History. Set in Berlin a couple years before the demolition of the Berlin Wall, the mostly black-and-white film tells the story of the angel Damiel, who yearns to be human so he can have the sensuous experiences humans enjoy as they engage with the world through their five senses. Like the angel depicted in Angelus Novus, these angels do not look the way we would normally expect angels to look: they have a human form, but they wear trench coats, are clean shaven, and keep their medium-length hair in short ponytails. In the film, angels walk among the humans, but they cannot touch them, see colors, taste food, or hear music, among other limitations. Like the Angel of History, they also cannot help but see all of the past and hear all of humanity’s thoughts at once. Being omniscient, they cannot be blissfully ignorant or even temporarily forget the tragedies of the past and present, and so they also yearn for the uncertainty and limited knowledge and perspective that humans have. “It’s wonderful to live as spirit and testify for all eternity to only what is spiritual in people’s minds,” says Damiel to his fellow angel, Cassiel. “But sometimes I get fed up with this spiritual existence. I don’t want to always hover above. I’d rather feel a weight within casting off this boundless freedom and tying me to the earth.”[8] Damiel is expressing a desire to no longer be an Angel of History. He would like to give up the power he has to see the entirety of humanity and history and simply be able to live in one community and attend only to the choices of one life. He would like to rid himself of the burden of acute awareness of humanity’s problems, but for now he has the duty of the Angel of History to record the truth of all, rather than just the truth of the victors as historicism does.

While the film mostly follows Damiel as he walks among and admires from afar the lives of humans, Cassiel goes on his own journey. Intermittently he follows an old man who considers himself a storyteller. As the old man browses books in the library and replays memories of death in his mind, he wonders why no one has “sung an epic of peace.” “What is it about peace that its inspiration is not enduring?” he wonders. Then later in the film, this man ponders, “Why doesn’t everyone see from earliest childhood the passes, portals, and crevices down on the earth and up in the sky? If everyone saw them, history would continue without killing and war.”[9] These questions the old man considers echoes Walter Benjamin’s concept of history being “shot through with chips of Messianic time.”[10] The old man’s laments speak to the same desire that the Angels of History have, which is that people would look for times to redeem society, to spur revolutions which will alter the destructive conditions of life enough to allow peace to prosper in its stead. These opportunities are small but abundant, “For every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.”[11] Yet this is the crucial element of history that is the only way Benjamin believes we can stop wreckages from piling up, the awful sight that the Angel of History is forced to behold while being powerless to stop it.

“Wings of Desire” ends with the same old man reflecting on the desire for peace that he shares with the angels and the historical materialists alike. Cassiel watches the man from afar as he walks towards the Berlin wall, and the man thinks, “Tell me of the men, women, and children who will look for me—me, their storyteller, their bard, their choirmaster—because they need me more than anything in the world. We have embarked.”[12] This storyteller, who recognizes the importance of seizing the moments we have for Messianic time, knows that we need him in order to know the actual truth, rather than the self-serving truth that historicism tries to pass off as universal. If we let ourselves forget the true oppression that occurs, the wreckages that the Angel of History is forced to see and remain powerless to change, those shots that we do have to seize Messianic time for revolution will disappear altogether. This is what the storyteller, the Angels of History, and Benjamin beg us to grasp.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: