Warburg, Aby

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WARBURG, ABY . Aby Moritz Warburg (18661929) was a German art historian and Kulturwissenschaftler (scholar of cultural studies) who developed new concepts in the understanding of the cultural expression of human consciousness and behavior. Although he was not well known during his lifetime and long after that remained a mere name to all but a small circle of art historians, Warburg has gradually become recognized as a major figure in the study of religion. His importance for contemporary research lies not only in issues connected with iconology; his profound curiosity for both psychology and anthropology allowed him to develop new and successful strategies for deciphering complex and impenetrable imagery, and his interest in the nature of communication and the transformation of the symbolic meaning of signs established him as an exponent of the modern study of symbolism.

Warburg was born in Hamburg on June 13, 1866, the firstborn son of the banker Moritz Warburg and Charlotte Oppenheim Warburg. According to the Warburg legend, Aby Warburg rejected his birthright as his father's successor in the firm at the age of thirteen. He instead demanded not only an allowance according to his financial needs but also the financing of an expensive life devoted to research, which achieved its climax in the public activities of the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg (KBW, later known as the Warburg Institute) and the outstanding scholars associated with it.

Warburg's Work

In 1886 Warburg began his studies in art history, history, and archaeology in Bonn at one of the most famous German universities of the late nineteenth century. From 1888 to 1889 he attended a seminar of August Schmarsow in Florence. From the writings of Giorgio Vasari interpreting the rise of painting as an increase in the ability of artists to copy nature, Warburg learned that the artists of the Florentine Quattrocento were not the faithful and dedicated imitators of natural appearance that they were reputed to be. In particular the drapery style of Filippino Lippi and Sandro Botticelli deviated from realism in the addition of swirling garments and flying hair. In his Ph.D. thesis, concerning Botticelli's Geburt der Venus und Der Frühling, Warburg made a convincing argument for this unexpected observation by uncovering the historical circumstances of its making. He was able to prove that antiquity was visualized with the aid of dynamizing formal additions because the poets and philosophers in the immediate circle of Botticelli's patrons derived a certain mental image from ancient writers who delighted in descriptions of enchanting movement. Only in the High Renaissance was the illustration of imaginary themes as visualized through fantasy developed into a language of idealization that became the typical stylistic idiom of the period.

Warburg's new inclination to explain stylistic elements and their change in psychological terms was partly influenced by his teachers in Bonn and later Strasbourg, where he completed his dissertation. Hermann Usener, whose lectures on Greek mythology Warburg had attended, focused on the problem of mental mechanisms as reflected in the origins of mythology. Influenced by the Italian evolutionist Tito Vignoli and Charles Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Warburg was able to trace human expression back to animal reactions deriving ultimately from fear. By interposing an interval of reflection between impulse and action, human beings are capable of turning the uncontrolled reactions of emotion into symbols of gesture and art. Warburg's monistic psychology of art, however, is not only based on this early theory of stimulus and response, a predecessor of ethology, but also on theories derived from John Locke's associationism, as specified by the German philosopher Johann Friedrich Herbart. According to the historian Karl Lamprecht, one of Warburg's teachers in Bonn, the collective mentality of a society was determined by the character of inherent mental images (Vorstellungen ) as symbolized in art. Warburg used these new and scientific approaches to get at the mental images that become apparent behind art, literature, and religious ceremonies.

In conveying his program Warburg concentrated mainly on the elucidation of the rather narrowly confined cultural circle of the Renaissance. After his marriage to the artist Mary Hertz in 1897, he moved to Florence (18971904) to bring the famous patrons of Florentine art and their concerns to life. The complexity of the Florentine society of the fifteenth century was reflected in the famous works of art commissioned by Lorenzo de' Medici and his circle. At the artists' studios in Florence a new style emerged out of a renewed study of antiquity that contradicted the usually accepted costume realism alla franzese (French style of representation) that dominated art up to that time. It was not the dismissal of a too earthbound and materialistic fashion in order to reveal the body and its language of passion that puzzled Warburg but the discovery that the artistic loyalties of Lorenzo's circle were by no means undivided. On the contrary, the classical ideal had to overcome a heavy medieval style of calm realism originating in Flanders, and this struggle against strong opposing forces was the reason for the assertiveness and strength of the finally triumphant style alla antica (antique style of representation). Antiquity, with its language of passion, therefore could only be welcomed when it helped to squash the tendency toward nonreflective, shallow realism. Without a counterpoise, or in Warburg's terms, without a sense of distance, the same images would lead to empty rhetoric and eventually to the degradation of art.

The classical elements and their change of meaning in particular led Warburg to a line of research that nearly dominated his career after about 1908. The Quattrocento frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia depict the Greek planet deities in their typical manner of representation according to medieval traditions of mythology but also the illustrations of fictitious constellations, the Decans, astrological imagery that reached the Renaissance through Arabic sources. Only the High Renaissance succeeded in surmounting the demons of astrology and allocating them to the aesthetic and distanced sphere of pure beauty. The different renderings of the planet gods from medieval disguise to their former Olympian form is a perfect illustration of how primitive anxieties influence people's mental images. From a psychological point of view, the constellations that humans project onto the bewildering quantity of stars and their identification with mythical beings has to be understood as a first step toward orientation in a hostile world. This distance, as acquainted by the power of reflection, gets lost again if the same images evolve into a mere screen for contemporary fears and wishes.

During that time Warburg's interest in questions of mastering fear with the help of cultural media was not only theoretical. Personal experience with a life-threatening illness and the ubiquitous menace of Jewish existence had frequently led to attacks of anxiety that colored his philosophy of culture. With the collapse of Germany after World War I, Warburg's mind was unable to withstand the threatening impressions, and his referral into psychiatric clinics in Hamburg and Jena became inevitable. Only the skilled Swiss psychologist Ludwig Binswanger finally succeeded in reintegrating Warburg's personality. During his stay at the sanatorium in Kreuzlingen, Warburg struggled to regain clarity by giving his lecture "A Serpent Ritual" to his fellow patients. This lecture was based on a journey he took in 1895 and 1896 to the United States, where he had studied the culture of American Indians at the Smithsonian Institution and in the Indians' genuine Lebensraum on the arid plateaus of New Mexico. The recourse to his visit to the Hopi Indians in 18951896, which supplied him with material for later reflection, was significant when considered under different aspects. The study of traditional religion and art, with its primitive and violent emotions, led him back to the supposed origins of culture, where ritual and symbolic processes develop a particular sense of distance, acquired through reflection, that allows the sublimating transformations of frightening impressions into a fragile sophrosyne (the antique virtue of self-possession and composure).

During Warburg's illness his assistants Fritz Saxl (18901948) and Gertrud Bing (18921964) did much more than continue the work of the KBW, which had such an eminent and probably even sacral meaning for their mentor. The library was more than a systematic collection of books shaped for Warburg's special research program; it was the reflection of his thought and mental process. Warburg, who never tired of shifting and reshifting his books in accordance with his actual system of thought, looked upon his library as a fortress against the forces of darkness and hell. In this sense the library, with its ties both to science and to an obscure and demonic world, became a "consecrated space" where the fight against demonic forces in his struggle for clarity derived its greatest strength.

In the years of Warburg's recovery Saxl completed a paper by Warburg on astrological prophesies in the period of the German Reformation. In addition Saxl and Bing began preparations for an extensive project that was planned as a comprehensive study of the results of Warburg's former work. As soon as Warburg's health improved, he and his assistants began to pave the way for the Mnemosyne-Atlas, a reflection of the ancient images and symbols as preserved in the collective memory of the European race. According to Warburg's theory, any experience leaves an engram in the nervous system, which acts as a sort of energy storage space. This accumulated energy becomes tangible in paintings and symbols. In this context the act of painting, as well as the act of symbolizing in ritual, is a process of progress in the sense that it is an attempt to control a threatening energy that is fed by the collective memory of the societies under question. Warburg was not able to finish his life's work. He died in Hamburg in October 1929 at the age of sixty-three.

Continuing His Work

Warburg's death, although a great loss for his family, friends, collaborators, and disciples, was by no means the end of the research program he had summoned into existence. During Warburg's illness Saxl had opened the KBW to the public and had transformed the formerly private institution into one of high-level research. It is mainly due to Saxl that an interdisciplinary circle of scholars, including Ernst Cassirer (18741945) and Erwin Panofsky (18921968), became attached to the Warburg Institute. During their long cooperation Saxl not only looked after Warburg's publications and popularized his research but, together with Bing and Edgar Wind (19001971), carried on Warburg's mission and saved the library for generations to come.

Even after Warburg's death and the successful emigration of his library to London, Warburg's former disciples and assistants kept close links to the work and thinking of their mentor. Many of the publications of Bing, Wind, Saxl, and Carl Georg Heise (18901979) grew from the distribution and reception of Warburg's ideas. Mainly by elaborating upon and systematizing Warburg's theoretical and conceptual assumptions were they able to acquire new and authentic positions in art history that made them into the leading experts in their subjects. Saxl, first interested in astrological and mythological Scripture, later included ancient religions as one of his main subjects of research. His work Saturn and Melancholy (1964), which he wrote together with the skilled historians of art and culture Erwin Panofsky (18921968) and Raymond Klibansky (1905), became influential in future research. Wind, who joined the Warburg Institute in 1928, focused on the Italian Renaissance but was also influential in developing iconography as a method in art history and the history of religions. Ernst Gombrich (19092001), a young art historian with close ties to the Viennese school, gained a leading position in the world of art historians by writing the Intellectual Biography of Warburg, which has continued to be influential in the reception of Warburg's works. Gombrich's psychological view of art as a mutuality of creativity allowed for a new concept of the history of art that includes prehistorical and non-European art and its iconography. Panofsky, probably the most renowned art historian of his century, became associated with the Warburg circle during his scholarship at the University of Hamburg. His main concern was to safeguard methodological approaches in art history. It was Panofsky who finally established iconology as a method of research and who elaborated upon its theoretical foundation. Chiefly through his synopsis of the manifold disciplines of research, Panofsky was able to carry on the inheritance of Warburg.

See Also



Böhme, Hartmut. "Aby M. Warburg (18661929)." In Klassiker der Religionswissenschaft: Von Friedrich Schleiermacher bis Mircea Eliade, edited by Axel Michaels, pp. 133156. Munich, 1997.

Ferretti, Silvia. Cassirer, Panofsky, Warburg: Symbol, Art, and History. Translated by Richard Pierce. London and New Haven, Conn., 1989.

Forster, Kurt W. "Introduction." In The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity: Contributions to the Cultural History of the European Renaissance (1932), by Aby Warburg, translated by David Britt, pp. 175. Los Angeles, 1999.

Ginzburg, Carlo. "From Aby Warburg to E. H. Gombrich: A Problem of Method." In Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, translated by John Tedeschi and Anne C. Tedeschi, pp. 1759. Baltimore, Md., 1989.

Gombrich, Ernst H. Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography, with a Memoir of the History of the Library by F. Saxl. London, 1970; 2d ed., Chicago, 1986.

Kultermann, Udo. Geschichte der Kunstgeschichte: Der Weg einer Wissenschaft. Düsseldorf, Germany, 1966; 2d ed., 1970. Translated into English as The History of Art History (New York, 1993).

Saxl, Fritz, Raymond Klibansky, and Erwin Panofsky. Saturn and Melancholoy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion, and Art. New York, 1964.

Warburg, Aby. Die Erneuerung der heidnischen Antike: Kulturwissenschaftliche Beiträge zur Geschichte der europäischen Renaissance. 2 vols. Edited by Gertrud Bing. Berlin, 1932. Translated into English by David Britt as The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity: Contributions to the Cultural History of the European Renaissance (Los Angeles, 1999).

Warburg, Aby. "A Lecture on Serpent Ritual." Journal of the Warburg Institute 3 (19381939): 222292.

Warburg, Aby M. Ausgewählte Schriften und Würdigungen. Edited by Dieter Wuttke and Carl Georg Heise. Baden-Baden, Germany, 1980.

Wessels, Antje. Ursprungzauber: Zur Rezeption von Hermann Useners Lehre von der Regigiösen Begriffsbildung. Berlin and New York, 2003.

Wuttke, Dieter. Aby M. Warburg-Bibliographie 1866 bis 1995: Werk und Wirkung, mit Annotationen. Baden-Baden, Germany, 1998.

Ina Wunn (2005)

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