Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 21, 2004
Philippe-Alain Michaud Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion Trans Sophie Hawkes New York: Zone Books, 2004. 404 pp.; 100 ills. Cloth $37.95 (9781890951399)

While a veritable Aby Warburg industry has developed in Germany, interest has been slow to grow in Anglophone countries. It is ironic that one of our first Warburg monographs is an English translation of the first book on him to be written in French, Aby Warburg et l’image en movement (Paris: Macula, 1998), written by Philippe-Alain Michaud, film curator at the Musée national d’art moderne at the Centre Georges-Pompidou and with an introductory preface by Georges Didi-Huberman, the distinguished French art historian. Didi-Huberman published a book on Warburg four years later, L’Image survivante: Histoire de l’art et temps des fantômes selon Aby Warburg (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 2002). These two volumes are linked: the idea for Michaud’s book originated in a seminar held by Didi-Huberman. As Didi-Huberman observes in the preface, Michaud did not feel bound by the conventions of art-historical discourse, and Michaud’s “central interests—inasmuch as the idea of ‘center’ has any currency in a problematic of displacement—extend from the Byzantine quarrel over images in contemporary cinema” (9). This is not conventional art historiography; rather, it draws on Warburg’s interest in the representation of movement, the legacy of his Mnemosyne Project, and Sergei Eisenstein’s notion of the montage of attractions to create its own montage of Warburgian work interspersed with the history, and theory, of film.

Conceptually, Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion is a retrospective view, looking back at Warburg’s work through the Mnemosyne Project and the lecture that he gave, “Memories of a Journey Through the Pueblo Region,” in Ludwig Binswanger’s asylum in 1923. The book cover is decorated with images of butterflies, alluding to Warburg’s period in the asylum when, Binswanger recorded, he “ ‘spoke to butterflies’ for long hours on end” (14). Didi-Huberman comments: “One might say that Warburg never managed—or wanted—to cure himself of his images. Was not speaking to butterflies for hours on end the definitive way of questioning the image as such, the living image, the image-fluttering that a naturalist’s pin would only kill?” (14). In his early work, Warburg did believe that he had pinned down the images, after a long process of self-debate to be sure. Fritz Saxl’s inspired idea of giving him blackboards on which to organize and reorganize his growing assemblage of images on his return to his library enabled him to be active without having to work on a single coherent narrative. The blackboards also served as conversation pieces for his various visitors. We await the publication of Warburg’s Tagebuch to find out what he might have said (see Charlotte Schoell-Glass, “The Last Plates of Warburg’s Picture Atlas Mnemosyne” in Art History as Cultural History: Warburg’s Projects, ed. by Richard Woodfield [Amsterdam: G+B Arts, 2001], 183–208).

After Didi-Huberman’s foreword, the book contains an introduction and chapters on “New York: The Movie Set”; “Florence I: Bodies in Motion,” which juxtaposes Warburg’s interest in nymphs in motion with Étienne-Jules Marey’s photographic studies of movement; “Florence II: The Painted Space,” which invites comparison between Thomas Edison and William Kennedy Laurie Dickson’s “optical phonograph” and Warburg’s transference of individuals into images; “Florence III: The Theatrical Stage,” outlining Warburg’s work on the Florentine Intermedi of 1589; “Among the Hopi,” on Warburg’s account of his 1895 visit to the Hopi Indians presented to an audience in the Bellevue clinic on April 21, 1923; and “Hamburg: The Art History Scene,” which draws the entire book’s material together. There are four appendices: “Zwischenreich: Mnemosyne, or Expressivity Without a Subject,” on the “iconology of the intervals” (Warburg’s expression); “Crossing the Frontiers: Mnemosyne Between Art History and Cinema,” on precisely that; “Memories of a Journey Through the Pueblo Region,” a useful transcription of Warburg’s lecture notes; and “On Planned American Visit (1927),” another useful transcription of five typewritten pages from Warburg’s personal archive.

Who the ideal reader of the book is or was, in its earlier French incarnation, I’m not quite sure. Didi-Huberman points out that French art historians never had any interest in Warburg: André Chastel, for example, “described the bacchic movements of Florentine art and Botticelli’s nymphs without ever mentioning Warburg’s fundamental notion of Pathosformel” (7). Perhaps Didi-Huberman is right that “[Warburg’s excess from the traditional constraints of art historical exegesis] … is dangerous for history itself, for its practice and for its temporal models: for the symptom diffracts history, unsettling it to some degree, since it is in itself a conjunction, a collision of heterogeneous temporalities (time of the structure and time of the rending of the structure)” (12). This way of conceiving Michaud’s project is well put. As images emerge from, and in, history one is not compelled to look at them in terms of temporal unfolding but instead in terms of their potential collisions, conjunctions, and transformations. Considered from this point of view one can, for example, ask how the emergence and filmic depiction of both movement and dance might open new vistas onto the representation of movement and dance in quattrocento Florentine painting, and vice versa. Such a question would not be historical in nature but interpretative, and would reveal a gaping hole in what David Carrier has called “art-writing”: as art is considered in the academy it has no rigorous equivalent of literary or film criticism. Of course there is no compulsion for self-respecting art historians to engage in such criticism, but it can lead into such insights as might otherwise not emerge.

Warburg’s famous comment on the “border guards” of art history was made in his paper “Peasants at Work in Burgundian Tapestries,” and those guards that he referred to were the historians who were not prepared to consider “this ‘inferior’ region of Northern European applied art” (Aby Warburg: The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity, trans. David Britt [Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 1999], 319). The “border guards” preserve the distinction between high and low art. With this in mind we can reapproach Michaud’s project.

There are alternative models to account for the way in which the sophisticated spectator might view the combinations of images on panels that Warburg assembled for the Mnemosyne. Michaud tells us that “the very development of the concept of the interval on which the structure of the Atlas rests, which would remain the dominant concept of twentieth-century montage, dates from 1920s Russian film theory” (283). This appeal to Eisenstein had its difficulties in terms of the control that the filmmaker has in the sequencing of shots into longer narratives, which is not comparable to images interspersed on a panel that can be looked at in sequences not dictated by the author’s control. I am not persuaded by Michaud’s suggestion that “even if nothing in Mnemosyne is related to film technique per se, it is a cinematic arrangement. The black backgrounds on which the play of the sequencing and displacement of images is organized serve the same function as the space described by Dickson in his first films created against the backdrop of the Black Maria” (244). It has been a long tradition to put black-and-white photographs onto black paper to aid the reading of them. Again, montage in film is different from montage in painting, Dadaist photo works, and Victorian photographs, all of which operate on a cut-and-paste principle. Why not accept Ernst Gombrich’s explanation in terms of the difficulties that Warburg faced in constructing a single narrative with the example of Adolf Bastian, “the ethnologist … with whose work Warburg had come into contact in his formative years, [he] had accompanied one of his most theoretical books, Die Welt in ihren Spiegelungen unter dem Wandel des Völkergedankens (‘The World in its Reflections in the Changing Thought of the Peoples’), with an ‘ethnological picture-book’ in the form of an ‘atlas’ ” (E. H. Gombrich, Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography [Oxford: Phaidon, 1986], 285).

There can be no doubt that Warburg had a “thing” about images, not in the abstract sense of an art historian but in the highly specific sense of a cultural pathologist. His images were “charged.” Speaking of a drawing entitled Study for a Composition of Venus Emerging from the Waves (fig. 21) Michaud writes, “Botticelli’s student … seems to have used a work of Antiquity, including its deterioration [author’s emphasis], to express the phenomena of appearance and disappearance, seeking to reproduce not so much the figure depicted as much as the fact of figuration itself, and the pulsing of presence and absence conditioning it. Far from being a sketch, the student’s drawing demonstrates that motifs from Antiquity were used by Renaissance artists as a means to analyze the mechanisms of representation and the way in which figures resurface, in a mixture of persistence and effacement in which the secret work of visibility unfolds” (72). Shades of Russian formalism! Does this not undermine Warburg’s notion of a drawing being an historical document referring to the psychology of human expression? This book should generate an interesting debate.

Richard Woodfield
Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham; Editor of The Essential Gombrich