A watercolor demon of the past (1)

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920

What is the facial expression of the above figure? Is it fear or focused concentration? Is the figure's body language that of horror and stepping back or rather of getting ready to step forward?

The prevailing way of reading the image comes from the following text: "There is a picture by Paul Klee called Angelus Novus. In it, an angel is depicted who appears, as if trying to distance himself from something that he stares at. His eyes and mouth gape wide, his wings are stressed to their limit. The Angel of History must look this way; he has turned to face the past. Where we see a constant chain of events, he sees only a single catastrophe incessantly piling ruin upon ruin and hurling them at his feet." - Walter Benjamin, “On the concept of history”, 1940

Benjamin had more than enough reasons to see the world in such terms. Nothing was making sense around him, the horror was closing on Europe and on him personally. (Shortly after writing these words he committed suicide on the French-Spanish border, while trying to escape to America.)

Seventy years later, some still see this image through the Benjamin’s glasses to illustrate the unpredictability and cruelty of History to us. Recently in “The Art of Life” by Zygmunt Bauman, (2008) I have found a more balanced approach: (My translation from a Polish edition) “People of that epoch, like the Angel of History, from the Paul Klee’s painting, with its memorable commentary by Walter Benjamin, stared in horror at the past and present cruelties. Terrified by what they saw - the sea of blood and human suffering - they were escaping into the past. The force of rejection was stronger to them than the force of attraction. It was not a vision of a happiness that pulled them toward the future, it was rather a sight of pain and misfortune that pushed them away from the past.” (This quote appears in the context of commenting on the ideas of Jean-Claude Michea)

Encouraged by Bauman's clear distinction between the past and the now, I wonder how can we honor and respect the cry of the victims without giving power to their persecutors. Don’t we need to constantly dust off our metaphors? How can we remember, yet not allow the horror of the past to rule over our present? I also wonder about the "angelic" aspect of the figure Paul Klee drew. Was it an angel or a demon? What should it be to us?


  1. First thing first. The Angel, or whatever suits the viewer. An Angel is actually a quite confusing term for this thing, at least for me. Why? My first glance at the picture, left me with a vision of some sort of a mystical creature (suits an angel as well), then I tried to concentrate on its face, to try to find some emotion, one emotion. I took a look at its teeth. Something weird about them, they are ugly, not straight, with gaps between them. That's not how I would see an Angel. Actually while looking on it for the third time, I even might consider that the angel or whatever, is uhm... positivly shocked with something that's probobly appearing in front of him. I'm fare away from agreeing with Benjamin, but than again, we all look from diffrent perspectives. In his times the drawing would suit his ideas about it. Also in the times Paul Klee made his drawing, there was a lot of factors that could influence the look of it (the end of the I World War, and the dark times after it). So summing up, it looks like the thing on the drawing will be always an open interpretation, for the generations that are to follow us. But enough on the angel.

    Trying to answer your questions, Pawel, which are by the way HUGE questions. They're especially good questions for Polish people, because in this country especially the past lives wery strongly, and influences a lot in this country. It's kinda weird to me, of course some might say that it's easy to me, because I've never seen the horrors of World War II or the Holocaust. But then I see how other countries found the balance between the past, present and future.
    Anyway, I think there's no way to talk about the victims without mentioning their prosecutors. The bond between them is just to strong to be forgoten.
    Enough for now.
    By the way, instead of asking just questions, why dont you try to find out the answers on your own? ;)

  2. I appreciate the comment and fully agree with it. As per seeking my own answers: "I am trying Ringo, I am really trying.” I was my intention to put some of it into the watercolor demon, part 2 post. A full disclosure can only happen on the screen. It’s in the works. Thanks for encouragement!

    I got a question: which countries in your opinion found the balance? (I can think of two: Finland and Japan.)

  3. Finland and Japan for sure, but then the Finnish people actually acted quite selfish and fightet for what would be best for them, which when to think about it is the right thing to do. But then their situation was totally diffrent, than for example ours.
    I think that USA also found the balance (but then again they did not loose as much as the central European countries).
    Actually the balance thing is hard to define. I just think of it, as a way of handling stuff. I mean of course there was the big bad war (like all wars), but then you cant still live like it would be the main thinking factor. So of course past is very important, and historia est magistra vitae, but it cant come up in each comparison, or political decision. But then there's always dirty politics.
    So anyhow, i think France and Great Britain are also handling it quite well, Norway and Holand. My observations might be inaccurate, but as far as I'm concered, they dont have all these problems that the Polish people seem to have, starting on War memorials, ending in politics. Whats left is to hope that time is a healer, and with years things will get better. Or just flee from the country.