The work and legacy of Aby Warburg – born 150 years ago this month
"He would have loved today, I am quite sure. He would have been proud, he probably would have been embarrassed . . .". These are the words of John Prag, Professor Emeritus of Archaeological Studies and grandson of Aby Warburg – the German art and cultural historian who founded the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg in Hamburg. Prag was thanking David Freedberg and Claudia Wedepohl, the organizers of a three-day conference held at UCL Institute of Education in London and hosted by the Warburg Institute (where I teach Medieval and Renaissance Cultural History) to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Warburg’s birth on June 13, 1866.
More than thirty distinguished speakers and an audience of 1,200 people from all over the world gathered over two-and-a-half days to pay tribute to and discuss Warburg’s "work, legacy and promise". Prag said that Warburg would have been thrilled by today’s technology. There is no doubt that he took a close interest in the momentous industrial and technological advances made during his lifetime. He was excited and fascinated by air travel, for example; but he also warned of the impact the telephone and telegraph would have on our sense of distance, and "the space for reflection" – the precious time in which we formulate a measured response to anything that prompts a reaction. Thinking of photography, Warburg feared that the human mind was in danger of being swamped by a sudden profusion of images. What would he have made of the spread of the internet and the omnipresence of mobile phones? The question was hanging in the air when W. J. T. Mitchell compared the simultaneous display of images in Warburg’s famous atlas of images, the Bilderatlas Mnemosyne, with the world wide web.
Warburg was deeply aware of the creative tension between what he termed classical "Athens", the realm of reason, and Hellenistic "Alexandria", representing, in his view, irrational impulses and the irresistible allure of magic and superstition. Though Warburg called upon Athens to subdue Alexandria, he acknowledged that the reasonable city was ever-ready to be reconquered by its irrational counterpart. Warburg believed that the energy produced by this polarity propelled the transmission of cultures across time and space, and lay behind the survival of the classical tradition. Kurt W. Forster reminded us that the fascination with "energy" was shared by many of Warburg’s contemporaries, while Cornelia Zumbusch recalled the long history of the idea that art itself is a form of energy. Intrigued by the universal mechanisms that engender the recurrence of images in the human mind, Warburg pioneered the interdisciplinary, cross-cultural exploration of symbols that informed the arrangement of his personal library in Hamburg. In 1921, this became a research institute; in 1933, under threat by Nazi power, it moved to England; and in 1944, it was incorporated into the University of London.
Now a leading international research centre for the study of cultural history, the Warburg Institute developed from Warburg’s book collection. The conference’s declared aim was to revive and promote Warburg’s vision in the world of scholarship, but also to highlight its relevance in contemporary issues and debates outside academia, and its potential significance in the future. The objective was brilliantly met. Topics included epistemology, serendipity, morphology, 1970s art exhibitions, hieroglyphs and snails. Important figures discussed included Charles Darwin, Édouard Manet, Émile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, Wolfgang Pauli and Erwin Panofsky. We learnt about Warburg’s antecedents and followers, his times and places. Offering significant advances in our knowledge of Warburg, the papers delivered represented a rich variety of viewpoints, spanning cultural history, media culture, aesthetics, the history of science, art, philosophy and literature.
In his introductory remarks, Freedberg discussed not only Warburg’s concern with the effects of technology and the proliferation of images on human reflection and self-awareness but also his belief in the importance of the comparative study of human cultures and religions; and his vision of a comprehensive cultural science, a Kulturwissenschaft that transcends academic boundaries, embracing anthropology, psychology, politics and biology. Freedberg also noted that, approaching Warburg’s notion of Nachleben, in particular the "afterlife" of antiquity, "we should not just be studying the Nach in Nachleben but more importantly the Leben in Nachleben, the life that remains in cultural forms across time". The idea is fascinating. Why do human creations from past ages remain vital? Is there a primordial language of emotional feeling that safeguards expressive gestures across the centuries (Warburg’s Pathosformel)? Finally, Freedberg stressed the importance of what Warburg termed Brückenbau – "building bridges" across cultures and between the arts and sciences. It was a fitting birthday tribute to the grandfather of a whole way of thinking about human cultures that so many came together in London to build bridges between disciplines, forging living connections between past, present and future.
The Afterlife of the Kulturwissenschaftliche bibliothek Warburg: The emigration and the early years of the Warburg Institute in London by Uwe Fleckner and Peter Mack will be reviewed in a future issue of the TLS.