RENEGADE ART HISTORIAN ABY WARBURG CHALLENGED THE DISCIPLINE’S ELITISM WITH PHOTOGRAPHY
I suppose I am something of an Aby Warburg agnostic. Or, I vacillate. The German-Jewish art historian (1866–1929) is known for his “Bilderatlas Mnemosyne” project, a compendium of photographs of artworks as well as other print items from across time and cultures categorized and mounted on cloth, by means of which Warburg sought to illustrate his theory of collective memory. Warburg is, to me, a figure of a certain mystery: he is now beloved by thinkers in every corner of the humanities for his innovative, comparative approach to the analysis of images, but during his lifetime his work was poorly understood. He, in turn, maintained a certain distance from academia and its tendency to privilege rote diachronic accounts of the development of art. Hailing from an immensely wealthy banking family, Warburg was able to act as an independent scholar, gathering a library of books and tens of thousands of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century photographs and other images documenting artworks that became the basis for the prestigious Warburg Institute, located in Hamburg until 1933 and subsequently in London. In a biography, eminent art historian Ernst Gombrich wrote that he sometimes felt as though Warburg “had no method, but he had a message.” His characterization gets at a major difficulty: by what criteria does one assess the work of a scholar who occasionally acted like an artist—who sought to undo what he termed the grenzpolizeiliche Befangenheit (border-police-style close-mindedness) of disciplinary practice?
Warburg began his art historical studies in a fairly standard way, completing his doctoral thesis at the Kunsthistorisches Institut, Florence, in 1892. Yet, even as he absorbed more staid philological material, he was a super-fan of two interdisciplinary works, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Laokoön (1766), a reflection on the representational capacities of painting and poetry, and Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1834), a satirical novel ostensibly about the history of fashion. The latter was the apex of critical prose, as far as Warburg was concerned. Warburg was a scholar of the Italian Renaissance, yet he was also interested the art of Greece, Rome, and Northern Europe, and was most of all invested in wide-ranging questions regarding the meaning and evolution of images. His early exploration of excessive quantities of what he termed bewegtes Beiwerk, wittily translated by Gombrich as “accessories in motion”—an inspired way of thinking about the pleats in garments worn by Botticelli’s female figures—later became a series of semi-scientific convictions about the literal inscription of memory images in the human nervous system.
At the center of Warburg’s theory were visual forms he termed Pathosformeln, or repeating, historically traceable figurative gestures and expressions. An 1895 trip to the United States led to an obsession with Hopi religious practices and dance, which Warburg saw as confirming his beliefs about cultural evolution, in which Western art represented a later stage of development in a universal process of working through violent and fearful impulses to arrive at reasoned responses to the world. He concluded, in one instance via a study of children’s drawings, that the Hopi used a symbolic snake form to represent lightning, a potentially threatening meteorological phenomenon. Warburg’s continually developing theory was profoundly influenced by Charles Darwin’s 1872 The Expression of Emotion in Animals and Men (“At last,” Warburg remarked in his diary, “a book that helps me!”), as well as evolutionary biologist Richard Semon’s Mneme, a 1908 tract from which Warburg borrowed much of his theory of collective memory wholesale.
But even as Warburg flirted with broad, sometimes simplistic assumptions and supernatural syntheses, he was devoted to detailed work on the Western canon. He had the obsessive, acquisitive eye of a collector but, unlike many individuals of his class, preferred to acquire books and photographs rather than paintings and sculpture. Warburg had forsaken his birthright at the helm of the Warburg banking enterprise in exchange for a generous budget to be used for acquiring the texts and media necessary to his research. Beginning in the 1880s, photographs were reproducible as paper prints, and Warburg took advantage of this development in his research, commissioning a small number of photographic reproductions of Renaissance artworks for his dissertation. But it was not until the 1920s that he began arranging numerous documentary photographs of paintings and other works in the set of displays that were to become his Typenatlas (character atlas) or Bilderatlas (image atlas), the compendium of types he named “Mnemosyne,” after the Ancient Greek goddess of memory, who was also the mother of the muses. At this time, Warburg was in later middle age and had already suffered a catastrophic mental breakdown that put him in a sanatorium for three years, from 1921 to ’24. When he died suddenly from a heart attack in October of 1929, a book version of the “Atlas” was still in early stages.
A description of what the “Atlas” was—and now is, given a newly published catalogue, Aby Warburg: Bilderatlas Mnemosyne: The Original, and the delayed exhibition of the same title, currently scheduled for September 12–November 30 at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin—can help to explain Warburg’s recent rehabilitation, which began in the 1980s. To illustrate his theory of how “Western man” individually and collectively used visual representations to overcome “primitive” phobic instincts, he and other members of the Institute staff began grouping photographs of historical artworks around 1926. Starting in 1928, these groups were mounted on vertical panels of stretched black Hessian (i.e., burlap) of approximately 60 by 50 inches and displayed in the Warburg Institute’s library in Hamburg, sometimes accompanying Warburg’s lectures. Warburg collaborated closely with Gertrud Bing (1892–1964), a former doctoral student of philosopher Ernst Cassirer’s and a scholar of German Neo-Classicism who was to become the director of the Warburg Institute from 1954 to ’64. After Warburg’s abrupt death, Bing was the individual most knowledgeable about the panels and their intended destiny, as plates in a book to be titled Mnemosyne. Warburg had planned to explicate the image series in two additional volumes of text but was unable to do so; only his preface survives. Glass negatives had already been made from some of the image-arrangements, but the metal plates to be used in the printing of the book were never created. Although Bing was able to provide her own captions based on her conversations with Warburg for a number of the panels—“Superlatives of gestural language. Haughtiness of self-confidence,” for example—the images were separated from the panels, the original frames and fabric lost. During the 1930s, staff sorted these images back into the immense pictorial archive, and a subsequent re-indexing further muddled matters. The “Atlas” was considered largely lost, if not a bit crackpot.
It was only in the second volume of Warburg’s Gesammelte Schriften (Collected Writings), published in 2000, that the glass negatives created in 1929 were used to publish fragmentary pictorial evidence of the “Bilderatlas Mnemosyne.” Editors Martin Warnke and Claudia Brink produced black-and-white images from the negatives, printing them at a reduced size that tended to obscure their details. They also left off additional commentary, given the lack of extant captioning by Warburg himself. This publication was in no small part encouraged by the resurgence of interest in the works of Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), whose theories of media and history had come to seem prescient, particularly in the Anglophone world, with the 1969 publication of Illuminations, edited and introduced by Hannah Arendt and subsequently popularized by John Berger in his 1972 TV series and book, Ways of Seeing. (While Warburg was only peripherally aware of Benjamin during his lifetime, Benjamin sent Warburg a copy of his thesis on Baroque Trauerspiel, or tragic drama, which cited Warburg.) Like Benjamin, who often engaged in leaps of thought and argument by way of metaphorical image rather than logical deduction, Warburg was concerned with Zwischenräume, the spaces in between, as well as something he termed Denkraum, or room for thought.
If the “Bilderatlas Mnemosyne” shows more than it tells, this is by design. Warburg hoped to create a visual tool that would foster what he saw as art’s innate ability to generate reflective, dialectical distance for the viewer, a key to the civilizing process: by means of this Distanz, states of rational detachment can co-exist with animalistic frenzy, the sober philosopher meets the rampaging maenad, over and over through the ages. This seems like an odd intellectual goal now, but the panels hold an aesthetic fascination that either exceeds this magic theory or, paradoxically, proves it. I find them strange and hard to look away from—whether they combine depictions of “Ascent to the sun,” “The cosmic system as a dice board,” or “Monumentalizing and dissociation,” to name but a few of the trans-historical motifs studied.
The panels are particularly fascinating in the new book, published by Hatje Cantz. At approximately 17 1/2 by 24 inches and 184 pages, the volume is massive enough that I had to strain to get it up my front steps after the UPS guy deposited it there from a safe social distance (speaking of Zwischenraum). The book requires its own desk (luckily I have two in my office) or, preferably, a free-standing support of some sort, which one may discover by googling “nineteenth-century book furniture.” It is the result of a Herculean, or perhaps Cinderellan, feat on the part of historian Roberto Ohrt and artist Axel Heil, who rediscovered the 971 original images by meticulously combing through the some 400,000 now included in the Warburg Institute archive. The book is probably best handled slowly and with gloves, as the large pages crease easily and pick up fingerprints. It’s a dramatic art object in itself, one requiring a kind of physical care to which most of us, myself included, are unused, except in the context of religious practice or visits to institutional archives. Upon receiving the tome, I experienced successive waves of elation and annoyance. What an amazing achievement! I thought. Then, but why do I have to read it standing up?!
The book offers a series of eighty-three full-page color photographs of painstaking reproductions of the original “Atlas Mnemosyne” (as it is called in English), expanding on the work accomplished by the collected writings volume in 2000. It also includes black-and-white prints from the available glass negatives. On the page facing each panel image, captions parse the montages, and sometimes there are close-ups of selected images. A feeling of detective work comes with extended study of these arrangements and glosses. One believes oneself to be re-seeing long-familiar images of Poseidon or Hermes, for example, as fresh figures un-dulled by repetition in Neo-Classical marble or recent appropriation in the US for sugar-free gum branding or flower-delivery logos. In particular, the violence endemic to some Classical imagery and the repetition of this violence in the Renaissance is made, if you will pardon the pun, striking by Warburg’s constellations. There was for me an equal puzzlement at what I experienced as Warburg’s obsession with Western origins and his sometimes paranoid logic of analogy, which in panel seventy-seven, for example, brings together female figures from twentieth-century advertising for anti-aging cream with the mythical person of Medea, murderer of her own children. Here I thought of the repetitious imagery later deployed to more subversive, anti-philological ends by Pop and Conceptual artists, in particular the installations of Hanne Darboven (1941–2009), although many artists have been influenced by Warburg. The panels are hypnotic; with their clear details, they inspire hunts for correspondences that may or may not have been intended by Warburg himself. Yet I kept wondering if there might not have been another way to design the book. Its dedication to the pre-twentieth-century Bilderatlas format means that it must function like a reference volume. Priced at two hundred euros (about $222), it will be unaffordable to many.
RETURNING TO MY earlier question reimagining scholarly disciplines from the inside: the philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman has described Warburg as a ghost who haunts the discipline of art history. Certainly, Warburg worked to call many of its tenets into question, not least of all its elitism. His “Atlas” was intended to be reproducible as a book, to circulate widely; it also aimed to accomplish a kind of deskilling in relation to so-called visual literacy, suggesting that the most important aspects of art cannot be grasped through philological expertise and complex terminology. Some have solved the puzzle of Warburg’s simultaneous critique of his discipline and extreme insider-ness by thinking of him as an eccentric philosopher of typologies with a serious collecting habit, an erudite hoarder. But this is to overlook Warburg’s interest in technologies related to mechanical reproduction. Photography, among other technical means of reproducing images, became part of his intellectual practice and affected his theories and method. Although he himself did not use a camera to reproduce artworks, Warburg was in no small part a photographer. His elaborate hypothesis regarding the trans-historical transmission of images served to justify his working not primarily with painted surfaces and marbles (as many other historians of the Renaissance might) but with photographs and techniques of montage. And because he had to create his own teaching materials, he also acted as a designer. Although the “Atlas” functions imperfectly as a work of art, its multifarious author is by no means exclusively scholarly in his pursuits.
Yet, it is surprising that a scholar of the Italian Renaissance would forsake the “artist’s hand,” not to mention the original, authentic object, in favor of the reproducible photographic image. Even among more recent commentators on the history of art, it is common to hear of loss and forgetfulness associated with the proliferation of photographs. Critic Benjamin Buchloh, for one, has considered “whether, under the universal reign of photographic reproduction, mnemonic experience could even continue to be constructed.” Warburg seems to have taken a different view—one analogous to that of his contemporary Walter Benjamin. In a 1931 essay, “Little History of Photography,” Benjamin discusses the photograph’s tendency to reveal “material physiognomic aspects, image worlds, which dwell in the smallest things.” This is particularly true of early, metal-plate photography techniques such as daguerreotype, which can record minute particulars at a resolution many present-day digital cameras cannot match; as Benjamin writes, “It is through photography that we first discover the existence of [an] optical unconscious.” It is in the spirit of such an optical unconscious—a collectively authored archive of unintended and often-unrecognized visual detail—that Warburg’s “Atlas” is best viewed. This should be done in the spirit of Warburg’s embrace of photography and pursuant embrace of a “technological concept of art,” also a notion I derive (somewhat circuitously) from Benjamin. Far from despairing that the new regime of infinitely reproducible photographic images would, as Buchloh puts it, prevent the construction of “mnemonic experience,” Warburg seems to have wagered that the proliferation of images would permit us to see new, unconsciously created mnemonic worlds, ever multiplying and coalescing dialectically within images. As the existence of a related neologism, “meme,” suggests, on this point at least Warburg was right.
Date: June 8, 2020
Publisher: Art in America
Link to the essay.