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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

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. 1

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

  2. 2

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

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