Some of the most important 20th-century books were unfinished: Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953), Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project (1927–1940), Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1922–31), and Aby Warburg’s picture atlas, Bilderatlas Mnemosyne. Mnemosyne was the Greek goddess of memory. The Renaissance reworked the remembered artistic motifs of antiquity in this afterlife. And now, in a fascinating self-referential way that its creator could not have anticipated, Bilderatlas Mnemosyne too, has an afterlife.
Warburg (1866–1929), scion of a grand Jewish banking family, was an independent scholar, free to develop at his own speed. Thanks to the family’s financial resources, he founded the Warburg Institute in Hamburg. Near the end of World War I, he suffered a breakdown and spent almost five years in a Swiss asylum. Soon after his death, when Hitler came to power, his library was transferred to London, where it remains today as an important scholarly resource.
The new edition includes just 20 pages of editorial material and a six-paragraph highly elusive introduction by Warburg himself. But most of the book is devoted to a reconstruction of his picture atlas. Warburg collected arrays of pictures, old master paintings, contemporary works, prints and also newspaper clippings and other materials from popular culture placed on large screens. He assembled some 60 screens, each two meters high, displaying in all over a thousand images. Panel B is labeled “different degrees in the application of the cosmic system to mankind”; Panel C “evolution in the conceptualization of Mars”; and Panel 3 “Orientalizing of antique images.” Some themes are relatively clear. Panel 20, for example, presents “Development from Greek cosmology to Arab practice.” So too is Panel 58, which is devoted “Cosmology in Dürer.” But I am not sure what to make of a British postal stamp and the photograph of a German female golfer in Panel 77. Nor is it clear how to synthesize these materials into theory of visual memory.
Warburg wanted visitors to see the connections amongst these images. Of course, any group of images will, with persistence, appear connected. But how can groups of images communicate if there is no extended text accompanying them? Sometimes Warburg’s prior publications provide guidance. “Italian Art and International Astrology in the Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara” (1912), a famously brilliant lecture is republished in his The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity (1999).) I once carried a Xerox to the Palazzo, and tested the claims presented here in Panel 27. The conclusion is plausible and clear:
The grandeur of the new art, as given to us by the genius of Italy, had its roots in a shared determination to strip the humanist heritage of Greece of all its accretions of traditional “practice,” whether medieval, Oriental or Latin.
Consider, however, another case where that publication doesn’t provide Warburg’s text: Panel 25 “Rimini pneumatic conception of the spheres as opposed to the fetishistic conception.” That title is baffling. I know the Tempio Malatestiano, a once-famous early Renaissance church because an obscure English art writer I greatly admire, Adrian Stokes, published Stones of Rimini (1934). And so I see that panel in Stokesian terms, which I suspect have little or nothing to do with Warburg’s concerns.
Erwin Panofsky, Edgar Wind, and the other Warburgians who emigrated were erudite miners of his ideas. And so, as Georges Didi-Huberman notes in The Surviving Image: Phantoms of Time and Time of Phantoms: Aby Warburg’s History of Art ), there’s a real danger of projecting historically backwards on Warburg later ways of thinking. Now, however, his worldview is devilishly hard to recover. An old joke goes: there are two kinds of philosophers, those who study the history of philosophy and those who study philosophical issues. Analogously, nowadays there are two kinds of art historians, those who study the history of their discipline; and those who study art.
Bilderatlas is beyond difficult for it is not really a book at all, but an exercise in visual free association. It raises many obvious questions that it doesn’t answer. What in the world did Warburg have in mind when he assembled these materials? Did he envisage himself as a creative artist, like John Heartfield who also did collages? Is the sequential arrangement of materials within individual panels important, as it would be in a visual artwork? Warburg presents many tarot cards and astrological pictures, materials from popular media set alongside old master prints and paintings. Was he interested in theorizing the gap between high and low culture? Many themes of his panels relate to those of his publications. How, then, did he think that these materials added together? I had one editor who wrote “OTT” (over the top) in the margin when I went too far. Bilderatlas should carry that label.
A critical account of Warburg’s ways of thinking would require an elaborate lengthy discussion. Indeed, as Christopher Johnson notes in his useful commentary Memory, Metaphor, and Aby Warburg’s Atlas of Images (2012), Warburg never settled on the final form of his book. Perhaps the very fact that Bilderatlas is so obviously personal, and so open to varied interpretations, means that it will influence contemporary artists and scholars who have deep pockets or a good library. This very expensive book ($240 from the publisher) is a relatively inexpensive, gloriously puzzling work of art. Ponder these images. Take a look, for example, in Panel 32 at the 15th century German etching of women who “Fight for the trousers.” Warburg did have a sense of humor.