On the night of September 25, 1940, Walter Benjamin took an overdose of morphine pills in his hotel room in Portbou, Spain. He had just received news that the Franco government would not allow he and his party of Jewish refugees passage to Portugal and ultimately to the safe haven of the United States. Fearing that he would soon be turned over into Nazi hands, he took his own life. Benjamin’s death was a tragedy of historic proportions. He was a philosopher and aesthetic theorist whose ideas continue to be prophetic to this day. His life was lost in vain; the others in Benjamin’s group were allowed to continue on to safety the next day.
These final hours of Benjamin’s life are powerfully expressed in a collaborative artwork by printmaker Jill Ho-You and poet Richard Cole. This series forms a major, and perhaps most commanding, component of Ho-You’s show of prints Below the Mantle. It takes up an entire wall of the exhibition and consists of eight images evocatively composed of etching, digitally printed drawings and spit bite. Ho-You’s prints alternate with text and form a limited edition book, Paper Bodies.
What makes this artwork so compelling is that it transforms encyclopedic facts into a furtive glimpse of one man’s final moment. Ho-You’s depictions of body parts, such as delicately detailed ears or what appears to be a throat cavity, transport the viewer into very private spaces—so intimate that only a lover could see such detail. Cole’s poetry enhances this uncanny closeness. Small font floats on the white space of a page, bringing the viewer closer than is conventional in a gallery.
One image in this book is particularly memorable: soles of feet hover over a topographic mountainous landscape. This print surely refers to Benjamin’s escape to Spain the day before this death. On foot, with only a hand-drawn map, Benjamin and his small group of fugitives trudged through a treacherous pass in the Pyrenees. They hid under overhanging rocks to avoid Nazi detection and navigated a path that dissolved into wilderness. Benjamin was in poor heath and barely able to push on, yet he carried a suitcase containing his final unpublished manuscript. Ho-You depicts his exhausted bare feet with tender detail. This depiction is so personal that it doesn’t merely recount the story of his flight: it allows the viewer to relive it.
At the end there is no spiritual catharsis in Ho-You’s and Cole’s work. There is nothing to uplift the viewer from this dreadful moment of despair. That is a fitting tribute to a man who was not religious in a conventional sense. Benjamin grew up in an assimilated Ashkenazi family and only later grew to value Judaism’s profound contribution to western culture—a concept of religion he idiosyncratically named “cultural Zionism.” His last moments were unlikely to have been soothed by faith and this artwork offers no such comfort. Instead, it presents a profoundly intimate but cool, almost medical look into a man whose mind was sharp and uncompromising. Benjamin would not yield to hope where he saw none. In an essay he wrote long before his death, Benjamin prophetically quotes Kafka as saying there is “plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us.”
Dec 5 – Jan 17