Berlin - "The angel of history is the spirit of Germany’s greatest modern art: an art that stares at the past and cannot forget its tragedy."
Oh, how the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I read this sentence! The linguist artisan and known nonconformist Walter Benjamin would roll in his Portbou grave if he knew that his description of Klee's "Angelus Novus" - embedded in an arc stretching from Richard Wagner to Anselm Kiefer - would be incorporated into the symbolic imagery of an inspired politics of remembrance.
"There is something very moving in its attempts to make whole everything that has been smashed," writes the art critic Jonathan Jones in a truly hair-raising article that recently appeared in The Guardian. The title of the piece speaks for itself: "Raw, brave, wild and honest: why Germany is Europe's greatest artistic nation."
This may be somewhat well-intentioned amidst the resurgement national pride of post-Brexit Britain. And yet, "No!", one feels like shouting at Jones, "you have understood neither Walter Benjamin nor Paul Klee!" Klee's Angel of History was invoked by Benjamin not because some "great spirit" was expressed in it, or because a Trümmerfrau-like will to rebuild Germany shone through in it.
German art has no tradition. It is as broken as German history.
On the contrary: "He would like to linger", writes Benjamin, "to wake the dead, to put together what has been shattered. But a storm blows from paradise (...) This storm drives him inexorably into the future, to which he turns his back, while the heap of ruins before him grows into the sky." For Benjamin, Klee's angel is a pariah, an outcast watching from the margins, a victim of what we call "progress" - not a magnanimous builder.
What Jones also omits is that Benjamin's recourse to Klee's angels has to do with his Judaism. Benjamin's long-time friend Gershom Scholem recalled: "Imperishable angels such as the archangels were less important to Benjamin. When he acquired the painting, we had conversations about Jewish angelology, especially of the Talmudic and Kabbalistic type."
Of course, it is convenient to use Benjamin, as Jones does, for some sort of all-German remembrance. But that is not what was meant. And it points to a fundamental problem of the article, which lumps artists persecuted by the Nazis such as George Grosz, Otto Dix and Oskar Schlemmer together with greats revered by the Nazis such as Richard Wagner and Leni Riefenstahl. German art – the text ignores this – has no tradition. It is as broken as German history.