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Rescuing the Past

Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography

by E.H. Gombrich
University of Chicago Press, 376 pp., $29.95

Over the threshold that leads to the library in the Warburg Institute at Woburn Square in London looms the word “Mnemosyne,” memory. The inscription reminds the visitor that the books awaiting him inside are not dead containers of neutral information but voices from the past, reminders of sunken and often faraway traditions. For more than forty years the Warburg Institute has been part of the University of London and its name ranks high today in academic life. But even now this astonishing collection of books and pictures—a sort of Noah’s Ark for Mneme in the deluge of modern forgetfulness—bears the mark of Warburg’s peculiar genius, of his imagination, his restless curiosity, and also his idiosyncracies. The word “Mnemosyne” written over the entrance door in London sounds an unintended but distinct biographical undertone. The long shadow of Aby Warburg remains very present among the shelves of the library, which had first been his personal instrument for exploring the secrets and above all the darkness of the past.

Aby Warburg (1866–1929) was well known as a scholar and collector, but—to use a phrase of Paul Valéry—his fame remained a sort of “presence d’absence.” Born into the prominent Hamburg banking family, Warburg refused to take up any conventional career—whether as a banker or as a professor; he twice rejected the offer of a chair for art history from renowned German universities. Yet his influence as a private scholar soon became immense and profound. After 1918 one of the most stimulating intellectual centers in Weimar Germany formed around the library he built in Hamburg. Not only did the library transform studies in the field of art history, but it was under the influence of the Warburg library that the “neo-Kantian” philosopher Ernst Cassirer began to reflect on myth and symbols and that the philologist Ernst Robert Curtius turned from his essays on Proust and Joyce to the tradition of the Latin Middle Ages. Even the young Walter Benjamin, when he wrote his book on “Das deutsche Trauerspiel,” seems to have been under the Warburg library’s spell.

But as magnetic as the stimulus of Warburg and his library proved to be in the nervous upheaval of the German Twenties, he himself published relatively little. Moreover, in what he did write his keenest ideas remain entangled in a dense network of antiquarian erudition. When he died at the age of sixty-three in the fall of 1929, Warburg was working on his “opus magnum,” an atlas of pictures called “Mnemosyne.” The project remained little more than an unfulfilled prophecy. So it was not astonishing that the memory of Aby Warburg lingered on as a kind of myth and the sinister course that German history began to take soon after his death made the fate of his fortuna even more poignant.

In 1932, three years after Warburg’s death, the library published two volumes of his collected essays under the title “Die Erneuerung der heidnischen Antike,” “The Revival of Pagan Antiquity.” All of Warburg’s published texts, from his dissertation of 1893 to his last essay of 1927, were faithfully reprinted with additions either by Warburg himself or by the editor. But these collected essays were thought of as only the first part of a much longer series that was to include all his unpublished papers and his many unfinished papers and projects. In a brief introductory note Fritz Saxl, who had become head of the library, announced five more volumes. Volume three was to contain “Mnemosyne,” in which Warburg wanted to demonstrate with sequences of telling images his ideas on how the survival of pagan antiquity had served various expressive functions from the fourteenth century on. The next volume would present lectures and shorter papers followed by fragments of Warburg’s never completed “theory of expression on anthropological foundations.” Letters and autobiographical notes would fill volume five, and a catalog for the library was to form the conclusion.

The monumental range of this project explains something of the fascination Warburg’s legacy must have held for those who had worked under his influence during the last Hamburg years. But it is also evident that carrying it out depended on an intimate knowledge of Warburg’s way of thinking and working and especially of his very personal, highly aphoristic language. When in 1933 the “Bibliothek Warburg” had to move from Nazi Germany to England, the publication project of 1932 met with obstacles that in the long run proved to be insurmountable. Neither Warburg’s “atlas” nor his fragments on expression nor his lectures and letters were ever printed. The problems of translation and more still of transplantation into a different cultural milieu were such that no book of Warburg’s collected essays has ever been published in English.

It is necessary to recall these facts in order to understand the origins of the book under review. Ernst Gombrich came to the Warburg Institute in 1936, seven years after the death of its legendary founder. He became its director in 1959. After the death of Saxl in 1948 and of Gertrud Bing, Warburg’s last assistant, in 1964, it fell to Gombrich to fulfill at least part of the promise of 1932. This meant writing Warburg’s biography, a project originally entrusted to Gertrud Bing, and giving an idea of the content of his unpublished papers and of the structure of the unfinished atlas, as well as defining Warburg’s scholarly approach. The attempt to do justice to all these tasks has led to the unusual and somewhat ambiguous literary form the author calls “an intellectual biography.” When it was first published in 1970, the book had a number of long reviews, some critical. This is the second, unrevised, edition with a new preface and an additional bibliography. It appears in a climate very different from that of 1970—a time of unrest and intellectual confusion, of new fears and new cults, in which the fascination of Aby Warburg has become all the more intense.

Gombrich has arranged his book so as to allow the reader to participate in the gradual growth of Warburg’s understanding of cultural history and of his ideas concerning the migration of myths, symbols, and images. In contrast to other reviewers I have the impression that Gombrich’s use of long excerpts from Warburg’s published and unpublished texts serves this purpose perfectly. Starting in 1893 with a study of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and of his Primavera, Warburg expanded his research rapidly beyond the frontiers of traditional art history to such subjects as pageantry and costume, tapestry and playing cards, heraldry and primitive woodcuts. His curiosity was aroused by the tribal rites of the North American Indians, whom he visited in 1896, and by the changing uses of astronomical and astrological imagery in antiquity and afterward. Toward the end of his life he tried to trace the survival of ancient images and symbols in the illustrations of newspapers, the figures on postage stamps, of which he was an eager collector, and even in the shape of the recently invented airship.

From the vantage point of 1987 it is not easy to grasp the novelty of such an approach at the beginning of our century or to understand its original meaning. We have long been accustomed to taking seriously all sorts of images that are no longer bound to any hierarchy of values. Comic strips and posters have for years been used in classrooms of art history as just another addition to the normal curriculum. It would, however, be a delusion, and an utterly naive one, to believe that this situation reflects a posthumous triumph of Warburg’s “method.” The trivial images that are showered on us from walls and screens usually appear without any reference to their historical setting or their affinities to similar images in other periods. But every example that Warburg chose—as far-fetched and as incidental as it might seem—was for him concentrated on the one central theme of his life: Mnemosyne. He saw the semeuse on a French postage stamp as the descendant of a classical nymph and he could find in a newspaper photograph of a golfer evidence of the trivialization of classical gestures. He transgressed the borderlines of convention but he felt emotionally bound to tradition. One might even say that he was engaged in a permanent search for forgotten traditions and that this was the reason why he had to flout conventions.

Yet in alienating himself from established academic fields, Warburg faced a dilemma. He was asking an anthropologist’s questions about the broad functions of art in culture, but he wanted a historian’s answer in which uses of particular images would be precisely explained. Out of this conflict grew the astonishing range of his curiosity, of his interests, and above all of his obsessed book collecting. The price was an insurmountable tension between his general ideas and the obligation he always felt to back them up with detailed research and irrefutable proofs. The notorious sentence, “God dwells in minutiae,” is said to have been one of his favorite quotations and, in relation to him, suggests heroic and tragic despair.

In the preface to his dissertation on Botticelli, Warburg declares that he wanted to relate the images in the Birth of Venus and the Primavera to corresponding ideas in the art theory and poetry of the time in order to show what really interested the artists of the Quattrocento in antiquity. Warburg’s problem, then, was not—as is often said, sometimes pejoratively—to pin down the literary sources of Botticelli’s mythological paintings. Certainly he wished to trace the contemporary literature the artists would have drawn on, but he referred to such writers as Poliziano and Alberti in order to solve an aesthetic and psychological problem, not a textual one. How did it happen, so he asked, that antiquity did not suggest to Botticelli the model of quiet idealized beauty—as anyone who had been brought up on the legacy of neoclassicism might expect—but, quite to the contrary, images of movement, of life infused with emotion, passion, and pathos? In order to find an answer that would help to explain the historical background to his visual discovery, Warburg cited verses from Poliziano’s “Giostra” such as his lines describing the birth of Venus:

Vera la schiuma e vero il mar diresti,
e vero il nicchio e ver soffiar di venti:
la dea negli occhi folgorar vedresti,
e’l ciel ridergli a torno e gli elementi:
l’Ore premer l’arena in bianche vesti:
l’aura incresparle é crin distesi e lenti:
non una, non diversa esser lor faccia,
come par ch’a sorelle ben confaccia.

You would call the foam real, the sea real, real
the conch shell and real the blowing wind; you
would see the lightning in the goddess’s eyes,
the sky and the elements laughing about her; the
Hours treading the beach in white garments, the
breeze curling their loosened and flowing hair;
their faces not one, not different, as befits sisters.
(translated by David Quint)1

  1. 1

    David Quint, ed., The “Stanze” of Angelo Poliziano (University of Massachusetts Press, 1979), p. 51.

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