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Appropriating the Angel. Paul Klee’s "Angelus Novus" (1920)

Hausarbeit 2017 32 Seiten

Kunst - Malerei


Table of Contents

Introducing the Angel(s).

Angelus Novus.

The Angel of History.

Critical discrepancies within Walter Benjamin’s Theses IX,

Homeostatic theory as proposed by Claude Bernard,

Indication of homeostatic theory migrating into literature,

Homeostasis within the methodology of Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook

Critical review of trauma marked poesies in Paul Klee’s pre-1918 painting

The influence of homeostatic methodology within the Pedagogical Sketchbook,

The balance model within the framework of Angelus Novus

Walter Benjamin’s appropriation of Angelus Novus appears in, Theses on the Philosophy of History,

Walter Benjamin’s traumatic experience within a volatile period in history

Revalorization of the appropriated angel

The duality discourse in context to Angelus Novus,


The Angel and the Artist.

The Keys to the Tower.

The Appropriated Angel of the Historian.

The Philosophical Revalorization from Art to Art efact.

In View of the Angel.


Appendix 1: Homeostasis: Recent Research of Causal Mechanism for Hallucinations.

Appendix 2: Selected Significant Events, Publications and Text of Relevance:1859-1947


This paper shall deconstruct Paul Klee’s German Expressionist painting, Angelus Novus (1920), with the objective of contextualizing a modality of balance aesthetic. The process shall then analyse the Pedagogical Sketchbook (1925), transcribed by Paul Klee in 1918, to critically examine a content of pedagogical homeostatic practice methodology, and focus on a diagrammatic construct within the book, Building a Tower (1918). The attention on an analysis of this diagrammatic has the objective of identifying it as a pedagogical homeostasis model, and to evidence this model informing a modality of balance aesthetic for his later painting, Angelus Novus. Paul Klee’s pre-1918 practice is then assessed to distinguish trauma related poiesis, in consideration that psychological imbalance may have triggered instigation of homeostatic methodology within Pedagogical Sketchbook. Paul Klee’s painting after Building a Tower, shall then be deconstructed as a methodology of considering its practice influence. An overlaying technique will then be used to reinforce this theory of framework connectivity. As a Der Blaue Reiter artist, Paul Klee’s art was attributed new significance of ‘ Entartete Kunst' (Degenerate Art), in 1937 by Adolf Hitler. In this paper, the act of attributing new significance shall be referred to as ‘revalorization’.

There will be an introduction to Claude Bernard’s homeostatic theory, (1878). Homeostatic theory will be evidenced migrating into creative aesthetics, in the form of literature as a medium of conveying Claude Bernard’s theory, resituating it in simplified mode, within a mass cultural domain pre 20th century.

The scholarly theses, Theses on the Philosophy of History (1939), by the German Jewish Historian Walter Benjamin contains the stanza Theses IX, in which Angelus Novus is renamed as the, Angel of History. Within this paper, the act of renaming of Angelus Novus, requisitioned with its form redirected shall be termed as ‘appropriation.’ The configuration of Theses IX, is inconsistent in both style and structure of main body of the theses. The method of deconstructive critical assessment will be applied to both the variance within the scholarly paper, and the physical form -versus the descriptive text of the appropriated form of Angelus Novus. Assessment of discrepancies will be considered to determine fixity in Walter Benjamin’s ability to mediate and communicate rationally. Reflection contextualizing homeostatic disequilibrium, as causation for variance of subjectivity and state of mind, at the time of writing Theses IX are investigated. The Germanic socio-political environment of anti-Semitism under Adolf Hitler, prior to writing the document, will be reviewed as a possible environmental factor influencing psychological instability.

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag writes, ‘ To the militant, identity is everything. ’ (Sontag.S., 2009p. 9), in context to whom is considering an image of suffering. In considering this perspective, the paper will review the German Jewish philosopher, Theodor Adorno’s retrospective view of Angelus Novus, as art efact of Jewish suffering. This perspective will then be considered as conceivably shifting the alignment of the painting’s homeostatic heritage.

The conclusion considers the homeostatic ontology, subsequent appropriation and revalorization of Angelus Novus, and the outcome intends to present a unique critical theory informing how the artwork should now be viewed.

Introducing the Angel(s).

Angelus Novus.

Paul Klee painted Angelus Novus (New Angel), in 1920 using an oil transfer technique on watercolour paper. This method, one he developed, involves covering tracing paper with oil paint, then introducing drawing paper beneath, marking the inked paper with a drawing implement which then comes through to the underlying page. The figurative painting is not of a classical angel of divinity, but takes the form of an unheroic mythical hybrid, both human and avian. The gaze appears empathic, as opposed to judgmental, and the beguiling genderless figure is simultaneously ugly and beautiful. It has an oversized head, a human gaze, and exaggerated lips that expose eight teeth instead of a beak. The hair forms wild curls like musical turns, the arms and hands take the form of wings and claws- the feet like a bird’s, have four toes. It wears geometric apparel, embellished with a necklace. Although quite small, 31.8 x 24.2 cm, and of muted colours, it maintains a spiritual presence centrally located within the clouded, but otherwise empty frame.

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The Angel of History.

Angelus Novus assumes an alternative identity in the philosopher Walter Benjamin’s 1939, Theses on the Philosophy of History[1], published in Neue Rundschau, (1950). Within the 9th stanza, Theses IX, Walter Benjamin appropriates the name, Angel of History assigning this description to Paul Klee’s painting: -

‘An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky high.’ ( Benjamin.W. , 1940, 4) .

To visualize both Paul Klee’s painting, Angelus Novus, together with Walter Benjamin’s transcript describing the Angel of History, which preceding this quotation he identifies as the painting by Paul Klee, discrepancies are apparent in what he reimagines and then transcribes.

Critical discrepancies within Walter Benjamin’s Theses IX, can be seen when the text and painting are compared. He describes a crescendo of events occurring in empty space; Catastrophe mounting rubble upon rubble at the feet of what has become an angel of history. This angel can see the past in front, whilst trying to distance himself from something he also stares at. The angel is in paradise, but it is inevitable that he is to be blown by a storm back to the future. The displaced, open –mouthed, winged angel, supposedly must look like this as forceful wind in his open wings means he is not free, to rise toward the heights of a sky which is to be filled with rubble.

What Walter Benjamin describes is so severed from the actual reality of the appearance of the painting, that it identifies a vivid visual discrepancy . His critique appears so disengaged, that it assumes a diagnostic of hallucination: an irrational his story of a prophetic angel, situated in a rational historicism theses. This paper expands on these discrepancies, by examining the role of homeostasis, as the probable hallucinogenic causation of the appropriation of Angelus Novus, to the Angel of History, and revalorization from painted figure to living form in his descriptive text .

Homeostatic theory as proposed by Claude Bernard, locates its origins dating back to 19th century science, before the conception of Angelus Novus. The etymology of homeostasis is derived from Greek homoios meaning similar, and Latin stasis meaning motionless, thus maintaining balance. Homeostasis was originally researched by Claude Bernard, who was the first scientist documenting the use of modern experimental psychology within empiricism. In 1878, he presented Lectures on The Phenomena Common to Animals and Plants, proposing theoretical homeostasis as:

“fixity of the milieu supposes a perfection of the organism such that the external variations are at each instant compensated for and equilibrated. All the vital mechanisms have always one goal, to maintain the uniformity of the conditions of life in the internal environment.” (1878; quoted in Rahn, 1985, p.179)

In this extract of the lecture, Claude Bernard suggests that to live a free and independent life, the stability of an internal environment is a primary element. His extract proposes unchanged states of being within changing environmental factors are internally adapted and balanced, maintaining physiological balance within connecting living systems. His research examined variant temperature of nerve systems, liver function and digestion, concluding that each singular internal system is intrinsically interconnected to the biomedical function, or dysfunction, of the internal structure. The research proposes that organic lifeforms possess ability to control balance within complex, interrelated systems.

Indication of homeostatic theory migrating into literature, is significant as it would be the modality for transmitting a complex scientific concept, to mass audiences of the period. In 19th century literature, Claude Bernard’s scientific theory was quickly migrated by writers in an era of cultural shifts from religion to science post Darwinism . In 1879 Dostoyevsky’s, The Brothers Karamazov was published, evidencing the first example of imbalanced homeostasis as causation for hallucinations. Prior to Mitya being placed before a court under a false patricide accusation, Rakitan references Claude Bernard and his new homeostasis research for his own literary gain and subsequently suggests:

‘He could not help committing murder, he was a victim of his environment.’ ( Magarshack, Dostoyevsky, and Dostoyevsky , 1970, p.690)

Witnessing his disequilibrium was subsequently described as:

‘Something seemed to give way in his brain. A cold shiver passed down his spine and he began shaking all over.’ ( Magarshack, Dostoyevsky, and Dostoyevsky , 1970, p.752)

Mitya then describes the following:

‘…the nerves in my brain, have sort of little tails, as soon as those little tails start to quiver, an image appears.’ ( Magarshack, Dostoevsky, and Dostoyevsky, 1970, p.691)

The book concludes with Mitya wrongly sentenced to 20 years of hard labour, losing the ability to lead the free and independent life of one whom has homeostatic control. Homeostasis as causal mechanism for the type of hallucination described by Mitya, is also illustrated in literature pre-Dostoyevsky, in Shakespeare’s early 17th century play, Macbeth. One example, in Act 111 Scene 4, Lady Macbeth witnesses her husband’s hallucination experience of seeing Banquo after his murder. Knowing Macbeth has reached acute anxiety she states of this hallucination:

‘This is the very painting of your fear.’ (Macbeth, 2015)

Homeostatic disequilibrium as causal mechanism for hallucinations, can be considered by referring to Claude Bernard’s research. He identifies the need for balance, proposing that dysfunction of the internal structure can be caused by disequilibrium. In states of acute anxiety, the hypothalamus–pituitary–adrenal systems will initiate production and distribution of hormonal steroids, of which the primary stress hormone cortisol is included. Simultaneously, these systems also fire specific neurotransmitters which include dopamine and adrenaline. These chemical messages then activate the amygdala, which is centrally located in the brain and triggers emotional responses such as fear. This rapid chemical release sequence, also effects the frontal motor cortex and the somatosensory cortex, which work in conjunction with the cerebellum, coordinating fine motor skills such as balance.

It is this sequence that is described by Mitya, as he begins to quiver prior to hallucinating. Extensive research as homeostasis for a causal mechanism for hallucinations, is a currently well-researched[2] and documented within scientific principle. Whilst literary examples of neural activity in periods of acute anxiety have been suggested as examples of causal mechanism of hallucinations, disequilibrium can be seen in other creative fields. Homeostasis as pedagogical methodology can guide visual artists coming to terms with trauma. One can identify this concept by the analysis of Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook (1918), which he compiled notes for whilst serving in the Great War.

Homeostasis within the methodology of Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook , can be identified by condensing chronological text and diagrammatic information. This method is used to ascertain relevant points at which the balance/counterbalance concept appears to be his primary driver. Published in 1925, as Pädagogisches Skizzenbuch, it was the second of twelve Bauhaus Books[3], each written by individual tutors of the Bauhaus School, as lecture guides.

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Paul Klee was a knowledgeable academic, and considering the date the Pedagogical Sketchbook was first written it can be assumed that he would have not only been acquainted with the theoretical research of Claude Bernard and its subsequent application within contemporary literature, but also with the philosophy of Kant. In, On Pedagogy (1803), Kant discussed cultural pedagogical theory:

‘…culture is positive, consisting of instruction and guidance. Guidance means directing the pupil in putting into practice what he has been taught.’ ( Kant I. , 1900, P.23-4)

The first chapter of Paul Klee’s guidance commences with the following statement:

‘An active line on a walk, moving freely, without a goal. A walk for a walk's sake.’ ( Klee and Moholy-Nagy, 1973, p.16)

Figure 1

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‘The tightrope walker is emphatically concerned with his balance. He calculates the gravity on both ends. He is the scale.’ ( Klee and Moholy-Nagy , 1973, p.42)

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Figure 2

‘I am stumbling toward the left and reach out toward right to prevent a fall.’ ( Klee and Moholy-Nagy, 1973, p.44)

The stance shifts here, to the action as experience by the self. This action, reaction, correction sequence has definitive descriptors quantified as the acknowledgement of moving with difficulty along an axis, disequilibrium and reflexive cognition of the perceived instance of being injured. Reaction is evidenced as calculable counterbalance from left to right along the axis to ensure personal safety.

Figure 3

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The rationale for presenting the previous three images from the Pedagogical Sketchbook, is to allocate chronological points of reference for the assessment of the fourth and final image.

In Figure 1; - A freely drawn line commences motion without consequent interactions. No authorship is directly indicated, no cognitive functionality is designated, no attributed emotion is evidenced.

In Figure 2; -It evolves to the self-other identity comparative, for example- ‘I am not a tightrope walker but I can visualize myself on a tightrope.’ Human emotions of empathy and concern collate both the imperative need for applied physics, and the risk factor of falling. Synergism between the considered lines and the viewer develop. The line is no longer free but interdependent.

In Figure 3; -The location of identity is solely to self. It has become a complex instructional key, functioning diagrammatically to facilitate safety of the identified self at a singular time.

The Pedagogical Sketchbook is Paul Klee’s discourse empathetically embedding guidance for students to grow experientially, inspired by the allegorical journey of a free line. Taking into consideration this theory, Figure 4, Building a Tower, evidences repeated praxis within the equilibrium of balance/counterbalance modality of calculated assessment.

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Paul Klee’s tightrope fall analogy might exemplify acute anxiety, for example; ‘I am stumbling toward the left and reach out toward right to prevent a fall. ’ (Klee and Moholy-Nagy, 1973, p.44), would trigger immediate sequential chemical release effecting the biological balance of one who is stumbling. The activation of the neurotransmitters then send chemical messages stimulating the amygdala, commencing the human emotional response of fear.

Critical review of trauma marked poesies in Paul Klee’s pre-1918 painting is important. It may identify possible points at which he might have experienced a sense of disequilibrium, and mediated this disturbance within early creative practice. A reflective viewing of this painting may have inspired his future concepts of homeostatic methodology. Three Paul Klee images have been selected and critically reviewed, prior to him commencing the Pedagogical Sketchbook, followed by an attempt to situate the artwork within the modality of trauma marked poesies.

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The proposed trauma marker is the death of August Macke in 1914 probably illustrated in Death for an Idea, alongside another key Der Blaue Reiter artist Franz Marc, killed in action during 1916.

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Child, has an empathetic, gentile dream like modality and is the faintest of Paul Klee’s sketches. It is a packed illustration that informs a dissonance in the barren symbolism of the boat less sea. The three empty boats, two of which are capsized, reminiscent of a voyage involving loss and the grief contained within a mystical, yet tragic, journey. Paul Klee lost his first- born son in 1900.

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Chosen Boy, defines the depth of grief. Like pilots rising to the sky, some flew and some fell, which is perhaps a reference for his sons, one rose whilst one had fallen. This painting is crucial to translating Paul Klee’s depth of imbalance: it literally tears at the format of the known world. Painted whilst serving in The Great War, this trauma marked poiesis, suggest a mental tipping point. After painting Chosen Boy, Paul Klee’s active line no longer walked freely, as the goal becomes freedom, that which Bernard suggests of one whom understands homeostatic balance. Paul Klee then commenced the linear homeostatic model, Building a Tower, evidencing the line responding by actively embedding empathetic formulaic equilibrium, accepting responsibility of balancing cognitive dissonance within traumatic events.

The influence of homeostatic methodology within the Pedagogical Sketchbook, can be evidenced in Paul Klee’s later work. Disequilibrium can be identified in contextualizing disturbance within his creative practice, after he has illustrated the theory within the book. Two later oil transfer images are critically reviewed.

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Ghost of a Genius and Ghost of The First Lover, both painted with the oil transfer technique, visualise disequilibrium. The first painting, a self-portrait, mediates a sense of mental disturbance. Puppet like, the face blurs as if tugged by unseen strings, or nerves, dictating uncontrollable head movement. The image is disturbing, projecting an aura of one caught in a restless introspective incarceration. Grief is a deep- seated emotion, and when seen together with the second painting, it is apparent that the loss of his child is also considered from the stance of the mother. The ‘lover’ is ugly, but this as perceived not as representational of external appearance, but as modality of translating how a mother may feel experientially: disfigured and literally marked by grief. Paul Klee certainly experienced disequilibrium, and considered those dark emotions within others. His reflexivity appears humanist and not religious.

The balance model within the framework of Angelus Novus , is examined by stripping colour leaving only tone, the same process has been repeated for Building a Tower. Text and detail have been removed from the diagrammatic of Figure 4, and an overlaying technique has been used to place the model above the figurative form without alteration to the scale. A period of two years separates the former and the latter; - the former drawn in 1918, whilst serving in the Great War and the latter painted in 1920, just prior to lecturing at The Bauhaus.

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Figure 5 .

Building a Tower, certainly appears to inform the structural framework for Angelus Novus, as illustrated in the composite figure 5. From the base of the construct, a central vertical fulcrum rises above the initial diagrammatic horizontal axis. Below left of the dark weighted centre of mass, the left foot indicates the probability of movement. Behind Stone 1, the flowing apparel assumes the proportions of the stone when offered to the centre of mass, causing instability. The slight imbalance of the primary limb at ground level, and the emerging clothing that follows the area of stone 1, mark the perception of imbalance within the figurative form. This is the tipping point, the span of the angel’s abdomen, where the first correctional stone is then placed, (stone 2). Continuum through the vertical fulcrum, and placement of subsequent stones, adhere to a formulaic pattern of balance/counterbalance that is calculated and repeated sequentially. Stones 4 and 5 appear supported by the outstretched hands of the figure whilst, behind stone 6, equidistant from the central vertical fulcrum, the figure’s eyes look forward toward the viewer. The exaggerated forehead lays central on the vertical axis and the hair is constructed from equally balanced inverted musical turns that stretch to the extremities of the last counterbalanced stone. The final dark weighted mass is positioned where the area of the brain that controls balance, the motor cortex and the somatosensory cortex, are situated.

This unique homeostatic hermeneutic provides a new critical theory. Deconstruction facilitated by this methodology considers empathy both to the painter, the painting and to the viewer who may relate to their own personal emotive states of balance and imbalance. It can be proposed that this method humanises this mythical angel. The Philosopher Walter Benjamin, who had purchased the painting in Galerie Hans Goltz, whilst on exhibition loan from the writer Gershom Scholem during 1921, certainly imagined Angelus Novus, as having human qualities.

Walter Benjamin’s appropriation of Angelus Novus appears in, Theses on the Philosophy of History, when it is renamed the Angel of History. He wrote extensively of Angelus Novus, but it is in this allegorical doctrine of eternal occurrence, that it adopts an alternative identity. Theses on the Philosophy of History, is a reflexive philosophical thesis of historicism responding to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, signifying the perfect storm of European and Soviet totalitarian dictatorships. His theses coherently argue for rejection of all that has gone before as a continuum of progress, but also of Western Marxist historical materialism, as a failed model. The theses are definitive of the socio-political controlled environment, in which the mind of the dictator will inevitably crush the will of the masses. He forewarns, that humanity is doomed to turn away from knowledge of historical repeated continuums of the ages of destructive progression, and the predominant suppression of the will of the proletariat. The philosophical rhetoric, that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, is clear, thus establishing philological rationality which leads to discrepancies in the clarity of his writing style when describing the vividly animated representation of Angelus Novus in the diametrically displaced text Theses IX. One can sense this was written whilst Walter Benjamin is suffering chronic imbalance. The document was completed in the Spring of 1939.


[1] For full text see: Benjamin, W. ed. Arendt.H., (1992) Illuminations. Theses on the Philosophy of History. London: Fontana Press.

[2] Appendix 1: Homeostasis: Recent research of causal mechanism for hallucinations

[3] All 12 Bauhaus Books are available for full and free download through: Open culture at:


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ISBN (Buch)
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Paul Klee Pedagogical sketchbook Theodor Adorno Angelus Novus Walter Benjamin The Angel of History Homeostatic methodology Der Blaue Reiter 1920'S German Art The Art of War Claude Bernard Susan Sontag Degenerate Art Theses on the Philosophy of History




Titel: Appropriating the Angel. Paul Klee’s "Angelus Novus" (1920)