Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 18, 2000
Aby Warburg The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity: Contributions to the Cultural History of the European Renaissance Trans David Britt Getty Trust Publications, 1999. 859 pp.; 232 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (0892365374)

To tell the story of Aby Warburg is a daunting task, even if one just tries to restrict oneself to the essays, lecture notes, aperçus, and secondhand testimonials collected in the weighty Aby Warburg: The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity. Yet even this unwieldy tome does not represent the full and wondrous scope of Warburg’s thought, since it is a 1999 translation of the original 1932 edition, with the essays thematically grouped and edited by Gertrud Bing. Indeed, Bing had planned to edit the complete works, but time and circumstance curtailed the project. Notably absent in this new Getty edition is the striking piece on the Hopi serpent ritual, an essay that gives as much insight into Warburg’s mind as it does his method. The question to ask of this new translation is not only the one to be voiced by Michael Roth in a session at the upcoming CAA conference, “Why Warburg Now?,” but also “Whose Warburg Is He Anyway?”

The most apparent answer to both questions is nevertheless a startling one. After decades of pseudo-scientific, positivistic, traditional and rational art historical practice, both European and American thinkers have ransacked Warburg’s writings because he is so “irrational,” so patently unsystematic and unconstrained when it comes to talking about why images look and feel the way they do in a variety of times and places. Both his life and his work provide alternatives. To German art historians, for example, the celebration of the Jewish Warburg offers a way of incorporating into German intellectual life the contributions of a thinker who was rejected during the period of National Socialism. His preoccupation with the dark forces that forever challenge enlightenment values also clearly has resonance. Holding historiographic conferences on his work, in fact, has itself recently become an academic industry in Germany. For Anglo-American theorists, Warburg offers a legitimate precedent for their contemporary critical commitments. As Kurt Forster claims in his introduction to the English edition, “The reason why he so long remained remote from the mainstream of academic research is also the reason why he seems to be so close to its present-day problems” (2).

The fascinating details and complexity of Warburg’s life are masterfully recreated by Forster, the founding director of the Getty Research Institute, in his thoughtful preface. Born into a wealthy Hamburg banking family in 1866, Warburg devoted his considerable financial and intellectual resources to his library, despite a lifetime of psychic torment. His obsession with articulating the struggle between the forces of reason and those of unreason that fixed the Renaissance character (and, by extension, the modern) in its psychological polarities contributed to his personal turmoil. On the verge of mental collapse, Warburg was confined in 1921 to a closed ward in Ludwig Binswanger’s sanatorium. In his three-year absence, his able assistants, Fritz Saxl and Gertrud Bing, transformed his private library into a public research institute and initiated a publication series; many famed scholars of the Renaissance, such as Ernst Cassirer, Ernst Curtius, Francis Yates, and Erwin Panofsky, consulted its esoteric resources. Warburg devoted the last five years of his life (he died in 1929) to assembling his vast Mnemosyne project: a series of large canvas exhibition screens on which he compulsively arranged and rearranged a compendium of images from the past and the present. He attempted, simultaneously, to chart the migratory routes through which Renaissance artists derived their sublime serenity from the taming of pagan passions, and to monitor the Dionysian forces that continued to erupt in the tumultuous history of the twentieth century. The library itself was moved on the eve of World War II from Hamburg to London, where it still thrives today.

One cannot deny that the fears and passions of Warburg’s psyche nourished the idiosyncratic triumph of both his library collection and his scholarly investigations. The connection between the life he lived and the work he did is transparent. He was intrigued, on the one hand, by enduring ancient gestures (such as those of the Nympha in Ghirlandaio’s Birth of the Virgin), which periodically resurfaced in Quattrocento painting, and, on the other, by the survival of pagan astrological gods and demons long after they had considered to have been put to rest by the enlightened thinkers of the Renaissance. All this and much more is on parade in the vast range of essays and lectures collected in this painstakingly translated anthology, which spans topics as thematically diverse as “Francesco Sassetti’s Last Injunctions to his Sons” (1907), “Airship and Submarine in the Medieval Imagination” (1913), “Pagan-Antique Prophecy in Words and Images in the Age of Luther” (1920), and “Dürer and Italian Antiquity” (1905). In general, Warburg’s lifelong intellectual project was devoted to the afterlife of antiquity and its role in determining the psychological substratum of Renaissance artifacts and attitudes.

As a young man, Warburg delightedly took up residence inside the “inexhaustible human riches of the Florentine archive” (249) and engaged in arcane and esoteric research on Botticelli’s allegories. His dissertation on the Quattrocento painter’s Birth of Venus and Primavera (1893), while ostensibly devoted to the twinned subjects of patronage and iconographic program, was clearly also driven by a kind of urge toward a “psychological aesthetics” (89). Although the study is typically framed and supported by a formidable number of learned footnotes, its principal interpretive commitment is to explaining the resurrection of antique attitudes through the motifs of rippling garments and flowing locks of hair—each invoked with the purpose of uncovering the pagan intensity that still literally moved through the images and imaginations of the Renaissance. Another constant concern lay with the connections not only between Northern and Southern art and attitudes, but also between words and images: the “stormy petrels” born from “the invention of printing” had taken wing and “darted from North to South and back again”; “the art of pictorial printing enabled images—their language an international one—to fly far and wide” (622). Warburg’s classic study on the source and meaning of the astrological frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara (1912) set the combative tone and hewed the path for art historical inquiry for a whole generation. Dubbing his broad investigations into the mythological program painted by Cossa “iconology,” he stressed that his “extension of the methodological borders” was not “about solving a pictorial riddle for its own sake” (585): “I have not tried to find a neat solution so much as to present a new problem” (586), one whose analysis “can range freely, with no fear of border guards, and can treat the ancient, medieval, and modern worlds as a coherent historical unity” (585).

The patrols Warburg railed against were those licensed by the practice of art history in his day. Mocking the “prevailing aestheticism” and formalist bias (559, 598) of his narrow-minded peers, he professed an “impatient longing for the ‘wider view,’” a sentiment that made him look into “trifles” (“low art” we would call it today) as marginal as goldsmith decoration, pageant festivities, and lids of little spice boxes (171). His desire, like Walter Benjamin’s, was to hear again “the voices of the dead” precisely because they “live on”: “the tone and timbre of those unheard voices can be recreated by the historian who does not shrink from the pious task of restoring the natural connection between word and image” (187). An iconographer by disposition, Warburg always sought out the cultural, sociological, and psychological context to explain the image, the written text to decipher the visual program. He did not actually have a method, as Ernst Gombrich puts it in the intellectual biography of his predecessor, but he always had a message.

Perplexed by the contemporary reception of this message, I turned to a few international participants in a 1999 Getty Summer Institute conference on “Visual Theory and Art History” to ask the source of their fascination: Ingeborg Bratoeva of Bulgaria, Sanja Cvetnic of Croatia, Dan Karlholm of Sweden, Jerzy Miziolek of Poland, Richard Read of Australia, Belgin Turan of Turkey, and Dirk van den Berg of South Africa. Their remarks underscored my conviction that it is how Warburg does what he does rather than what he does that counts. His mode of investigation, i.e., his willingness to go beyond and beneath, rather than his subject matter is what accounts for his continuing popularity among scholars from many nations and critical perspectives. According to Read, “his awareness of hybridity, cross-culturalism and high-low transformations seems surprisingly modern. Warburg’s celebrated ‘mood swings’ are less a matter of tortured genius than an occupational accomplishment.” Both Bratoeva and Cvetnic, respectively, point to his relevance for Central and Eastern European scholars: “Looking at artifacts with the eyes of an ethnographer, Warburg changed notions about cultural periphery and artistic center”; “His mapping of Europe with the lines of influence that go not only horizontally (from different countries in the same period), but also vertically (from Antiquity on) could be helpful in understanding the new attempts of Europe to find not only the common monetary strategy, but also some common language among its nations.” All were grateful, as I suspect many scholars worldwide will be, for this new translation and illuminating introduction. Miziolek points to the “paradox that despite the incorporation of the Warburg Library into the University of London and its great importance for the English and American humanities, only two papers of its founder have been available until now in English.” The importance of Forster’s accompanying introduction is voiced by van den Berg: “The introduction is a fine historiographical study offering more than merely another life-and-works, man-and-his-thought, biographical outline, though in the case of Warburg a personal frame is crucial indeed to anchor the vagaries and lasting contours of his work.”

Criticisms, of course, are an inevitable by-product of a powerful legacy. Turan, who appreciates the scope of Warburg’s interest, nonetheless feels that it is easy “to get lost within a cloud of thick information.” Forster, as well, would agree with her: “All of the knowledge amassed, with beelike application, does not add up to a picture of the past.” The lavish quotations in the original, the plethora of appendices, and the legions of footnotes—not to mention all the details in which “God lies”—contribute more to the size of the book than Warburg’s actual published essays, which are surprisingly few given the influence of this scholar. Even the fascination with this figure and his every biographical and scholarly detail comes under attack by Karlholm: “There is perhaps no more certain sign of a dead scholar’s cult status than when highly dispensable material is re-edited and re-published along with truly masterful pieces.” Enough said, even for a book of nearly 1000 pages. For an insightful and detailed review, see David Rosand’s recent essay in the New Republic (August 23, 1999).

“The exegetical grand tour” (650) that reading this incomplete collection of Warburg’s thinking takes us on is impressive not so much for its attempt at rational art historical inquiry, but rather for its irrational flights of fancy and exposed mythopoetic struggles. Warburg, frightened as he was by the demons that haunted him, confronted his objects of study with a profound, courageous, and personal passion. Such a commitment never grows old. We could say of his work what he said of the age of Faust, “in which the modern scientist—caught between magic practice and cosmic mathematics—was trying to insert the conceptual space of rationality between himself and the object. Athens has constantly to be won back again from Alexandria” (650). What should matter to us today about Warburg is that for him art still matters. Art historical research is never merely an academic enterprise in his eyes.

Michael Ann Holly
Director Emeritus, Academic and Research Program, Clark Art Institute