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Rescuing the Past

This could be called a circular argument, for painters and poets could have influenced one another equally; but Warburg had found one of the great themes of his scholarly life.

Warburg’s thesis proved to be productive in more than one direction. It was written at the crucial moments around the turn of the century when studies of art history—and of culture in general—were turning toward a new empiricism on the basis of psychology. Warburg himself hoped that the demonstrations in his dissertation could be interesting “für die historische Pyschologie.” In 1892 he had gone to Berlin to attend lectures in psychology intended for medical students. Gombrich deals with the different versions of “psychology of culture” Warburg became acquainted with in his student days, and in a review of Gombrich’s book Felix Gilbert adds still further examples.2 But while accepting these modern trends, Warburg remained faithful to the concept of cultural history developed by Jacob Burckhardt and Carl Justi, who stressed that art and painting should be studied alongside Renaissance poetry, pageantry, and theater, and that the symbols and ideas used in each could illuminate the others.

This attitude distinguished Warburg fundamentally from other great pioneers of modern art history—Wölfflin and also Alois Riegl—who began to separate art from life and who insisted that formal or internal qualities of painting and sculpture could take on a special meaning of their own. At a time when the trend toward the nonfigurative in art was gaining momentum, the ideas of Wölfflin and Riegl had immediate success. But in the long run it was Warburg’s approach that proved to be richer and more promising. “Art history as a humanistic discipline”—to use Panofsky’s words—owes most to him, to the library he shaped and the studies that came from it. True, the comfortable specialization in iconology and symbolism that became fashionable for many years lost the anthropological dimension—the larger quest for cultural meaning—that had made Warburg’s explorations unique. Indeed, it was Gombrich who early raised his voice against the growing deterioration of Warburg’s legacy.

As influential as Warburg’s efforts to connect Botticelli’s paintings with Poliziano’s poetry proved to be for the development of art history, more fateful was the other aspect of his dissertation, which concerned—to use his own words—the “ideas about antiquity in the Early Italian Renaissance.” He tried to show that the visual heritage of the ancients lived on not only as an example of quiet grandeur, as Winckelmann had taught, but that it functioned also as a catalyst for representing movement, passion, pathos—“expression” generally. Certainly, the awareness of the dark and jagged sides of antiquity was no longer a novelty in 1893. This awareness, however, had been limited to historians of religion and philologists. Nietzsche had first formulated such a view in his famous essay of 1871, The Birth of Tragedy, but it was Warburg who applied it for the first time to the visual heritage of antiquity—who “declassicized” the classics—and who showed how this awareness of the pathos of antiquity could be applied to the study of its survival in the Renaissance.

Still, while the ideas of Winckelmann and Warburg may seem opposed, there remains a hidden parallel between them. When Winckelmann looked back with nostalgia to the statues of the ancients, he was convinced that they reflected a condition of freedom that was denied to him and his contemporaries in the depressing moral and political circumstances of their own time. More than one hundred years later—at the end of the Victorian age—Warburg’s ideas on the survival of antiquity as a catalyst for movements and free expression sprang from a similar reaction to social conditions.

The emancipated slaves of ancient pathetic mimics”—this is how Warburg described the agitated figures, drawn in the all’antica manner that he had discovered on the margins of the solemn frescoes and paintings from the Florentine Quattrocento. Is it by mere chance that he traced this new “search for freedom of expression” mainly in female figures—youthful, volatile, and swinging, wearing loose floating garments and with wild waving hair? Partly as a joke and partly in earnest he spoke of the “Ninfa Fiorentina,” who rushes into the “slow-moving respectability” of Ghirlandaio’s Birth of John the Baptist like “a pagan stormy petrel.” Gombrich is certainly right to remind us that “we are in 1900. It is the period when the fight for the new woman, for liberation and emancipation, did away with the whalebone and stiffcollar; she asserted her right to wear free-flowing garments.”

The swirling presence of Warburg’s “Ninfa” next to the stiff and heavily clothed figures in Ghirlandaio’s fresco recalls the dramatic moment in Schnitzler’s Fraulein Else, when the unexpected disappearance of the undressed heroine suddenly tears up the veils of bourgeois respectability and hypocrisy. Warburg’s thoughts on the “Ninfa” were, however, of a more complex and contradictory kind. What struck this emancipated son of a Hamburg banker’s family in watching the frescoes commissioned by the Tornabuoni and the Sassetti—Florentine bankers from four hundred years ago—was the stern effort to keep a balance between traditional beliefs and habits and the intrusion of new expressive freedom and buoyant self-consciousness.

The two heraldic mottoes he found in the manuscripts of Francesco Sassetti, the haughty A mon pouvoir and the cautious and wise Mitia fata mihi—Fate be good to me—seemed to sum up this problem in a fateful way. His article “Francesco Sassetti’s Last Will and Testament” is probably the richest of Warburg’s Florentine studies, but like some other great historians, Warburg may have recognized in the mirror of the past his own problems, and his own very peculiar social position. The paper was published in 1907. Around this time Warburg turned “to the stars,” as Gombrich says, and began to study astrological imagery.

As he studied the different ways the constellations of the night sky were interpreted, Warburg finally discovered a field in which he could follow the “survival of the pagan gods,” in Jean Seznec’s phrase, on their millennial migrations from Greece to Arabia and India through the Middle Ages to the Italian and the Northern Renaissance. In his lecture on the astrological frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia at Ferrara he proved that the detailed reconstruction of these complicated wanderings could lead to lucid iconological analysis. It was a brilliant piece of exposition drawing on erudite information from a variety of sources, and for many admirers Warburg’s fame as a scholar remains founded on his dazzling ability to produce such analyses.

But Warburg himself had warned: “The solution of a rebus was naturally not the intention of my lecture.” With the study of astrological imagery his ideas on the survival of antiquity had taken a new turn. He now recognized not only that the art of the ancients offered the models for the representation of movement and expression, but that the images of the Greek gods and myths continued to exercise a religious power on posterity. On their way to the Orient and then through the darkness of the Middle Ages, the gods were turned into demons. The constellations, which had been invented as a system of geographical orientation, became nebulous astrological superstition. It remained for the Renaissance to achieve what Warburg called “aesthetic sterilization” and to liberate these images from the sinister myths that had distorted them. Warburg concluded:

With this will to restore antiquity begins the fight of the “good European” for enlightenment.

But this seemed to him a struggle that was never-ending. In a late paper on “Ancient-pagan vaticination [i.e., prophesying] in word and image in the days of Luther” he concluded, “Athens must always be conquered afresh from Alexandria.” That sounds not unlike Max Weber’s ideas on the growing “disenchantment of the world” since the beginning of modern times. By now Warburg had left art history in the academic sense far behind him. He looked on images as documents of Western man’s eternal struggle between magic and logic.

The paper on Luther appeared in 1920. By this time Warburg had undergone a terrible crisis. During the tense years of World War I the effort to maintain a balance between the “chaos of unreason” and “retrospective reflection” had been too much for him. He had a severe nervous breakdown. Gombrich remains respectfully discreet on this period of Warburg’s life, but the days of darkness were an integral part of an “intellectual biography” that had never followed a normal predictable pattern and one would like to know more about Warburg’s fragmentary writings during the period. When he returned to work in 1924, Warburg seemed more detached. The tantalizing conflict between microscopic details and macroscopic ideas that had been the drama of his scholarly life began to subside; he could now, he thought, try to work out a unified vision of Mnemosyne. The experimental climate of the German Twenties must have favored such a development of his views; so would his contacts with Ernst Cassirer, who, curiously enough, is barely mentioned in Gombrich’s book.

In his unfinished “opus magnum,” the atlas, Warburg renounced altogether the learned discourse of the historian. He tried to reveal the interconnections between images, symbols, and gestures by the telling juxtaposition of reproductions under such suggestive labels as “Medusa and the devil,” “slaying and salvation,” “escape and triumph,” “myths and triviality.” He was moving still further away from the path of established scholarship. Instead one can discern a secret affinity between the juxtapositions of Warburg’s atlas and the archetypes of C.G. Jung and even some of the procedures of Dada and surrealism.

Gombrich’s study of Warburg is a sober and cleanly presented book. Faced with the difficult task of presenting to the Anglo-Saxon reader Warburg’s extremely idiosyncratic ideas, Gombrich has chosen a “genetic approach,” suggesting how each phase of Warburg’s thoughts emerged from what had gone before. It was a rationalist’s choice. The lucidity of this intellectual biography could not have been achieved otherwise; but it is gained at the price of an aseptic coolness that remains respectfully apart from Warburg’s pathos and wit. The interest in Warburg continues, and in a time of renewed irrationalism, when books on myths, magic, and sorcery have again become fashionable, his writings may be a temptation. But Warburg’s ideas should not be confused with those of either Tolkien or Derrida. We should not forget that he always searched for enlightenment. No “Voltairian,” he was only too aware of the dark sides of history, but he felt always bound to reason. Despite superficial affinities he is very different from Jung and, in his concern for probing analysis, he comes closer to Freud, whom he seems always to have disliked.

A few months before his death he once again described the goal of his library as one of exploring “the change of man’s orientation from myths and fears to science and mathematics.” In our own time, when the rapid progress of the sciences evokes new dangers and new fears, this program may seem to us naively optimistic. In the Germany of 1930, however, where a crude relapse into superstition and myth was imminent, Warburg’s call to reason was a moral statement—an explicit affirmation of a current that runs throughout his remarkable career.

  1. 2

    Felix Gilbert, History: Choice and Commitment (Harvard University Press, 1977), pp. 432–439.

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