Professor Saltzman will deliver a lecture entitled " Stories We Tell: Reflections on the Angel of History." The lecture will focus on a piece by Paul Klee, the Angelus Novus, of 1920. That it is known and known not as the “new angel” but as “the angel of history,” is largely thanks to work of the German-Jewish philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin, who, having conjured the image in prose in the posthumously published, influential essay, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” anchored it in our collective imaginations. For no one saw more of the picture than Benjamin.
Soon after acquiring the Angelus from Klee’s Munich dealer in 1921, the little work on paper became Benjamin’s most precious of possessions. So cherished was Klee’s Angelus that Benjamin mounted it above his writing desk in Berlin. Later, it was among the few belongings, beyond his own unfinished manuscripts, that he took with him in his battered briefcase when fleeing Nazi Germany. And in 1940, it was among the few items that he entrusted to a friend for safe keeping as he prepared to flee Paris, fearing that he might not survive the exilic existence into which the Third Reich had propelled him.
Klee’s Angelus is now safely housed in the collection of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, after a long journey that began in Paris, where Benjamin entrusted the picture to Georges Bataille, who bequeathed it to Theodor Adorno, who sent it to Gershom Scholem, in what was then still Palestine, whose widow donated it to the museum in 1987. Few have since seen the actual picture, as it is too delicate to be on view. That said, by total chance, she got to see Klee’s Angelus a few years ago. And the experience was nothing short of revelatory, so much so, that it inspired her new book project, one which begins with mining the stories we have inherited, and the stories we continue to tell, about Klee’s fragile little picture. Her talk in honor of the Pulitzer Chair will give a glimpse of those stories. And of the still inchoate book project that it inspired.