Penny McCarthy researcher blog: Visiting the Walter Benjamin archive

Visiting the Walter Benjamin archive

About the Author

Penny McCarthy is a Reader in Fine art in the Art & Design Research Centre. She works primarily with drawing and text and is currently involved in the Beware the Cat multidisciplinary project.
In this blog post, she describes her work relating to a visit to the archives of German critic Walter Benjamin.


In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the German critic Walter Benjamin observed that modern image technology had transformed art. There’d always been ways of reproducing artworks. But with the advance of photography, every artwork can become a reproduction. I recently made a series of replicas as a means to reflect on the ways in which the making of such forms acts as a particular kind of knowledge construction with the potential to offer up alternative ways to consider archival material.

My own work is a copy of a single page from one of Benjamin’s early texts on how mass reproduction depletes the auratic properties of the original. It is striking that his note is on a sheet of paper from a café waiter’s pad imprinted with the logo for Acqua S.Pellegrino replete with an image of a bottle. Here the idea of aura is elaborated in a way that exemplifies the point that Benjamin was himself exploring. As I studied the fragment, more and more Benjaminian associations came to mind: his interest in images, in domestic ephemera and the materials of modernity – and that central red star.

Penny in the Walter Benjamin Archive

Penny in the Walter Benjamin Archive

My work is not a mechanical reproduction in Benjamin’s sense. It is a sheet of paper, painted on both sides. Maybe you’d call it a painting but its three-dimensional presence also makes it a sculpture. I wanted its verisimilitude to be astonishing, but, however faithful, my copy isn’t photographic, and it hardly could be, given that I worked from measurements and a couple of jpegs sent to me by the Walter Benjamin Archive in Berlin. This tiny work took me a surprising amount of time and multiple failed attempts, mainly because imitating Benjamin’s distinctive handwriting was such a challenge.

At some point the copy always leads back to the original. My work, made as a piece for gallery exhibition, anticipates a different kind of audience to its source, and so in this sense authenticity gives place to visibility. Benjamin identified two types of image-making ‘with one, the stress is on cult value; with the other, on the exhibition value of the work’.

Walter Benjamin's stitched library card

Walter Benjamin’s stitched library card

I was curious about the ‘cult value’ of Benjamin’s unique original texts. I also wanted to ‘test’ my replica in the context of the original. In July, with ADRC support, I went visit the Walter Benjamin Archive in Berlin where his texts are held in the Akademie der Künste. As the delicate nature of the fragments makes them archivally unstable, I had prepared to view facsimiles in the archive (as is the archive’s policy).

The Walter Benjamin Archive holds numerous scraps, shreds, rag-pickings that Benjamin wrote on over the years. Because of the precarious circumstances of his life, he wrote on whatever he could lay hands on.

I met with Prof. Erdmut Wizisla, Director of the archive, and archivist Oliver Kunisch, who introduced me to notebook texts as well as those written on prescription pads and hotel paper. Each piece is covered in tiny handwriting. One of the most poignant for me is a list of books written on library cards, held together by Benjamin’s (?) black stitches. The Acqua S.Pellegrino piece turned out to be less singular than I’d imagined as Benjamin used several sheets from the same pad. Looking at the pieces reveals connections and patterns, and the constellation processes he used. Each of these fragments, particularly because they are fragments, has a peculiar power.

Was ist Aura (the orginal)

Was ist Aura (the orginal)

My visit worked out in ways I hadn’t envisaged and couldn’t have hoped for. I was shown Benjamin’s original by the amazing archive team.  It is hard to convey my gratitude for this, and for all the support they have given me so far.

My own work, my replica, is pictured here on the right of the images.  The echo is plain, and intended. So is the difference between the original and copy. Seeing Benjamin’s handwriting on the page of waiter’s pad had a visceral effect on me. It is beautiful in the way that ordinary things can be beautiful. I felt close to tears. So very close to my work, familiar, but recognisably not the same.

Reverse of 'Was ist Aura' with copy on the right

Reverse of ‘Was ist Aura’ with copy on the right

I got the paper wrong, some of the marks and stains on the reverse are not quite right. And yet there is still something potent in the experience of handling my copy and the permission to do so, implying a strong sense of the embodiment of thought, a materialisation of the wider human context of the original. Some small sense of proximity, of hands passing through materials across time.

The original hasn’t lost its glow for me. I want to return to it. I’d like to replicate each sheet of that S. Pellegrino pad.

Penny McCarthy, July 2019