Behind the Angel of History: The "Angelus Novus" and Its Interleaf (Hardcover)
Email or call for price
Email or call for price
The story of artist R. H. Quaytman’s discovery of an engraving hidden behind a famous artwork by Paul Klee.
This book begins with artist R. H. Quaytman uncovering something startling about a picture by Paul Klee. Pasted beneath Klee’s 1920 Angelus Novus—famous for its role in the writings of its first owner, Walter Benjamin—Quaytman found that Klee had interleaved a nineteenth-century engraving of Martin Luther, leaving just enough visible to provoke questions.
Behind the Angel of History reveals why this hidden face matters, delving into the intertwined artistic, political, and theological issues consuming Germany in the wake of the Great War. With the Angelus Novus, Klee responded to a growing call for a new religious art. For Benjamin, Klee’s Angelus became bound up with the prospect of meaningful dialogue among religions in Germany.
Reflecting on Klee’s, Benjamin’s, and Quaytman’s strategies of superimposing conflicting images, Annie Bourneuf reveals new dimensions of complexity in this iconic work and the writing it inspired.
About the Author
Annie Bourneuf is associate professor of art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is the author of Paul Klee: The Visible and the Legible, which was also published by the University of Chicago Press and won the 2016 Robert Motherwell Book Award.
"Bourneuf’s magisterial, amazingly lucid commentary discusses Matthias Grünewald, whose Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, France, contains a figure resembling this angel. She also addresses debates between Benjamin and Scholem about Martin Buber’s philosophy, and the larger implications of Benjamin’s and Scholem’s questions about Jewish cultural identity."
— David Carrier
"Behind the Angel of History weaves a fascinating, multi-strand tapestry, a web of associations, filiations, and unexpected connections. The richness of the 'backstories' that Bourneuf sees intertwined through a sheet of black paper is nothing short of astonishing, and the glimpses into Klee’s and Benjamin’s worlds transform that hidden black sheet into an unexpected portal. The presentation’s deliberately non-linear structure is the book’s major strength . . . It is a wild ride."
"In her new book Behind the Angel of History: The 'Angelus Novus' and Its Interleaf, Bourneuf addresses the complicated questions of interpretation arising from this revelation. Bourneuf’s work brings us face-to-face with this mysterious, mute angel, in unexpected ways."
— New Criterion
"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."
— Critical Inquiry
“A stunningly brilliant book. Behind the Angel of History reads like a detective story, tracing the dialectic undercurrents of a monoprint by Paul Klee, which Bourneuf illuminates with historical nuance, contextualizing Klee’s print in the political culture of its time. Bourneuf is to be commended for her prodigious, resourceful scholarship and singular contribution to furthering our understanding of Angelus novus.”
— Paul Mendes-Flohr, Dorothy Grant Maclear Professor Emeritus of Modern Jewish History and Thought, University of Chicago
“Walter Benjamin turned a little picture by Paul Klee into the twentieth-century’s definitive ‘thought-image.’ Now Bourneuf has brought the picture’s hidden backstory to light. Benjamin himself would marvel at what she has uncovered.”
— Joseph Koerner, Victor S. Thomas Professor of the History of Art and Architecture and Senior Fellow, Society of Fellows, Harvard University
“Behind the Angel of History is a revelation. Bourneuf peels back layers of interpretation, many of which had accrued as a result of the Angelus’s important connection to Walter Benjamin. In the process, she uncovers new dimensions of meaning, making visible aspects of the work, and even of Benjamin’s relationship to it, that had been previously obscured by its history. Angelus novus indeed.”
— Lisa Florman, author of Concerning the Spiritual—and the Concrete—in Kandinsky’s Art
“Behind the Angel of History presents a stunning investigation of the fate of Klee’s Angelus novus, a key image. Bourneuf situates Klee’s drawing within layers of overlapping signification: in the reception history of the picture itself, in Benjamin’s work, in the iconographic traditions behind the two images, and finally in the theological politics of the early 1920s. This scrupulous reconstruction of the image and its contexts is nothing short of magisterial: it provides us with something like a definitive view of a central work of European modernity.”
— Michael W. Jennings, Class of 1900 Professor of Modern Languages, Emeritus, Princeton University