Walter Benjamin was one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century, having published a range of works on culture and society. But he is perhaps still best known for his ideas on art and authenticity; challenging, as he did, the assumption that the original artwork was more valuable to society than the photographic reproduction of that artwork. He was associated with a group of German intellectuals and philosophers who were known collectively as the Frankfurt School though he did not always share their radical political views on the nature of modern society.

His essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936) was an incisive analysis of the social importance of photography, while his Arcades Project (1927-40) helped set the foundations of what became known as critical and cultural theory. Though relatively unknown in his own lifetime, his writing had a profound impact on subsequent aesthetic theory, cultural and literary criticism, artistic practice, and the emergence of various postmodern art movements.

Born into a Jewish middle-class family, his education took him to Berlin, Munich and Bern before he returning back to Berlin in his late twenties. A student of philosophy, Benjamin had been intent on a career as an academic but his ambition was thwarted when the University of Frankfurt dismissed his doctoral thesis (on the origins of German tragedy) as outlandish. He worked as a literary critic, essayist, and translator before relocating to Paris in 1933 following the rise of Nazism. In Paris he continued to write for literary journals but when Paris succumbed to Nazi occupation, he fled toward Spain where he hoped to gain onward passage to America. Having reached the Franco-Spanish border town of Portbou he was mistakenly told by a border official that he would be turned over to the Gestapo. In despair, Benjamin took his own life.