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An encyclopedia of cumulative art history. Aby Warburg's mission impossible

Johannes Saar (1/2024)

Johannes Saar


In the late autumn of 2023, Uffizi Galleries in Florence provided yet another piece of evidence of an increasing shift in art theory – a retrospective of the German art historian Aby Warburg's (1866–1929) century-old endeavours. Preceding the Florence exhibition were comprehensive retrospectives in Hamburg, Bonn and Berlin, each recalling in various ways the Bilderatlas Mnemosyne – Warburg's ambitious attempt to compile an encyclopedia of historical archetypes in European visual culture, ranging from antiquity to interwar Germany, with extended excursions into late medieval astrology and the Italian Early Renaissance.

These retrospectives illustrate a phenomenon in art historiography that could be described as the "Warburg Renaissance" of the 21st century – the fact that, in recent decades, the author of the Bilderatlas has begun to overtake his renowned student Erwin Panofsky (1892–1968) and his posthumous disciple Ernst Gombrich (1909–2001) in terms of fame and citation frequency. The reasons have to do with cultural theory and can be traced as far as back as the 1980s.

Initially, there was a departure from a narrowly construed canon of masterpieces in art history, a focus on great works that had found their way to the top museums. Under the aegis of visual culture, the field of research expanded, declaring all visual creations as part of culture – children's drawings, road signs, commercial images – everything that had previously carried the derogatory stigma of cultural marginalia. This comprehensive approach to pictorial anthropology favoured the study of masses of images in their contexts of origin and everyday roles, advocating for their return to the social world, the living society, rather than locking them away in museums.

The rise of pictorial anthropology was complemented by the emergence of cultural memory studies, also at the expense of research into canonical history. Instead of identifying historical events, the focus shifted to studying ways of remembering and historicising – the capacity of collective memory to "create" the past according to present needs and the presence of the past in today (naturally extending to the study of variations of historical interpretations in different memory communities, social and ethnic groups).

Warburg began his studies in art history and reached intellectual maturity in the late 19th century, when European universities were infused with fresh new scientific disciplines – Darwinian evolutionary theory and psychology. This also influenced the young scholar; at university, the psychology of religion drew his attention away from art history, as he focused more on the problems in Johann Joachim Winckelmann's (1717–1768) immeasurable cult of antiquity and Jacob Burckhardt's (1818–1897) idealised and somewhat static conception of the Renaissance. The narrowly formalistic pictorial analysis of representatives of the Vienna School of Art History, such as Alois Riegl (1858–1905) and Heinrich Wölfflin (1864–1945), which reflected the positivist trend in art history of the time, remained entirely foreign to the newcomer.

Already in his 1893 doctoral thesis on Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445–1510), the future compiler of the Bilderatlas argued that complexities in meaning always complement variations in formal language. There is always added ambivalence, variations in timbre and associations, often also varying the psychological or emotional impact on the viewer, which purely formalistic, style critical art history fails to capture.

In his dissertation, he worked through all the literary sources of antiquity that might have circulated as reading material among the Florentine bourgeoisie of the 15th century and could have prompted the creation of Botticelli's "Primavera" (1475–1485) and "The Birth of Venus" (1483–1485) as idealised representations of antiquity, and the addition of metaphorical allusions to favourable winds, which, as we know, could be interpreted as shoring up the merchant client's overseas business interests.

Warburg was not convinced by attempts to place the starting point of the present in 15th-century Italy – as if modern man, individualistic and acquisitive, and modern culture, secular and vain, had begun then and there. Warburg's conception of time is cyclical and circular, like the changing of the seasons – everything returns from the past always and forever in a changed form in the next cultural cycle; all present culture is historically given to us, and all preceding history is present in today's culture as metaphors. The only process is that of the cumulative presence of the past within the present. This cumulative view of history cannot acknowledge periodisation or ruptures, but it does acknowledge transitional periods – continuation.

In line with the tidal wave of cultural morphology in the early 20th century, Warburg contributes his own original object of study for art history – the concept of Pathosformel (something like an "emotionally laden visual image"). In Warburg's vision, this is an archetypal formal element from which the entire corpus of European pictorial culture is combined and to which it has essentially remained true despite its subsequent kaleidoscopic variations and changes.

Warburg develops the idea that the meaning of each Pathosformel is ambivalent; it even consists of radically contradictory meanings, a thesis and an antithesis. During times of great crises, social collisions and wars, the dangerous, destructive and even deadly meaning of visual images is heightened. Conversely, during periods of cultural stability and flourishing, the same images have a healing, elevating and harmonising meaning.

For Warburg, the afterlife of biblical paraphrases and metaphors in the Renaissance and in the evolving literary culture of modern Europe serve as undeniable evidence of the eternal recurrence of cultural leitmotifs and symbols and their antithetical bipolarity.

From 1918 to 1924, Warburg, having already been poor in health and emotionally unstable since childhood, resided in psychiatric clinics. His diagnoses ranged from schizophrenia to manic-depressive psychoses. In 1924, having recovered, he returns to work, supported by family, friends and colleagues.

Fritz Saxl (1890–1948) introduces him to modern slide projectors and methodologies for creating chronological sequences of images and comparing pairs of images. Between 1927 and 1929, three consecutive versions of a pictorial atlas of the visual archetypes of European pictorial culture materialise in the silence of Warburg's new private library. The last one, like the other two, remains unfinished – due to a heart attack in 1929. What remains are 61 large panels covered in black cloth, with 971 photographs of paintings, friezes, sculptures, journalistic illustrations, medieval astrological charts and more.

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