Walter Benjamin was obsessed with images. The philosopher, essayist, and critic was drawn to them as possibilities for insight beyond discursive reasoning, by their specificity and materiality, and by their power to slip free from the intentions of their creators. He was taken in particular by the power of images to enter into unruly, productive relationships with texts. In his literary criticism and political theory, he explored how criticism and theory can overcome aporias and dead ends by substituting juxtapositions—or what Benjamin called “constellations”—of images and texts for more familiar methods of exposition and argument.
This fascination with image-based thinking led him to the intersection between theology and materialism and to deep engagements with sources as varied as baroque allegories and rebuses, the earliest years of portrait photography and advertising, the advent of cinema and the technological transformation of seeing, and Surrealist montage. His work returned again and again to the revelatory moment where the combination of image and text generates insight transcending the limits of subjective intention, whether of images’ creators, their consumers, or the theorist trying to interpret them.
Benjamin hoped that this new, image-based method of theorizing would culminate in his Arcades Project. Centered around the glass-encased shopping arcades of nineteenth-century Paris, the book was to excavate and expose the origins of a new urban material culture in commodities, literature, architecture, and modes of experience. It would have consisted largely, perhaps entirely, of constructed juxtapositions of images and captions. The center of this method was the “dialectical image,” a constellation of otherwise scattered visual and textual fragments so precisely constructed that a kind of abrupt, intuitive truth would be released, obviating the need for theoretical interpretation entirely, disclosing otherwise masked truths about the “dream time” of modern capitalist culture. The project was never completed: it ended in 1940 when Benjamin, in flight from Nazi-occupied Paris, committed suicide after being denied entry into Spain.
Benjamin appears to have understood his own peculiar, hard, and abbreviated life more in imagistic than narrative terms as well, returning again and again to a deeply private store of images to make sense of his experiences. At times, these highly personal, idiosyncratic attachments to particular images cross over into his published work. Of all the images that Benjamin saturated with both personal and theoretical significance, none rivals Paul Klee’s small, early oil transfer and watercolor Angelus Novus of 1920, which Benjamin purchased for a modest 1,000 marks ($14) in Berlin in 1921.