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Aby Warburg: His Study of Ritual and Art on Two Continents Author(s): Kurt W.

Forster and David Britt Source: October, Vol. 77 (Summer, 1996), pp. 5-24 Published by: The MIT Press Stable URL: Accessed: 08/06/2010 03:37
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Aby Warburg: His Study of Ritual and Art on Two Continents*

Translated by David Britt As a young man, intensely concerned in the first few years after his doctorate with the anthropological basis of the art history of his time, Aby Warburg returned from a year's military service to the study of Renaissance civilization in Florence. In his thesis, he had described one pronouncement of Jacob Burckhardt's as correct; namely, that "Italian festive pageantry in its more elevated "infallibly" cultural forms" is "a true transition from life into art."1 His work on paintings by Botticelli and Ghirlandaio had led Warburg to an understanding of art as deeply tied to historical reality and, indeed, inextricably bound up with the fortunes of patrons and artists. He traced the evidence that led him from Florentine Renaissance life to the form of its pictorial representation. This was partly a counter to his own tendency to melancholia, but at the same time, he was undoubtedly projecting his own conflicting interests and concerns out of the present and onto the seemingly lifeless terrain of the historical past. A fortuitous discovery in Florence gave him an opportunity to gauge the mythographic and poetic implications of Burckhardt's view of the relationship between life and art. What he found was a collection of Buontalenti's designs for the highly artificial intermezzi that were contrived for the wedding of Grand Duke Ferdinand to Christina of Lorraine in 1588. Warburg's attention was mainly attracted by the third intermezzo, in which Apollo does battle against the dragon Python. De Rossi describes with relish the horrors of the action:
* An earlier German version of this article was published in Aby Warburg, Akten des internationalen Symposiums Hamburg 1990, ed. Horst Bredekamp, Michael Diers, and Charlotte Schoell-Glass (Weinheim: VCH, Acta Humaniora, 1991), pp. 11-37. See also my "Aby Warburg's History of Art: Collective Memory and the Social Mediation of Images," Daedalus 105, no. 1 (1976), pp. 169-76; and "Ekstatische "WarburgsVersunkenheit," in AbyM. Warburg: Nymphe... trauernder Flussgott,"Portraiteines ed. Gelehrten, Robert Galitz and Brita Reimers (Hamburg: Dolling and Galitz, 1995), pp. 184-206. I am currently preparing the English edition of Warburg'sCollected Writings (Gesammelte Schriften [Leipzig-Berlin: Teubner, 1932]), which will be published in the Getty Research Institute's book series 7exts & Documents.Permission to print David Britt's English translation of this essay has been granted by The Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, Santa Monica, CA. 1. Schriften1 (Leipzig-Berlin: Teubner, 1932), p. 37. Warburg, Gesammelte
OCTOBER 77, Summer 1996, pp. 5-24. ? 1996 Kurt W Forster. 'ranslation ? 1996 7'he GettyResearch Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities.


The fearful serpent that here Spits out flame and fire,
Snorts and roars ....2

To the accompaniment of stage machinery and illustrative music that exploit the mythic terror of the monster purely as a source of dramatic titillation, Apollo vanquishes the hideous offspring of primeval Nature and thus affirms both his own power and, simultaneously, the rule of the Medici. There is a smooth transition from "Dio chiaro e sovrano" [resplendent and sovereign god] to the "fortunate ville" [blessed villas] and "fortunati colli" [prosperous hills], and the people "went on their way singing and joyfully returned whence they had come." To restore harmony and to guarantee future peace, a blood sacrifice is required, and so Apollo slays the Python. Victory is total, and terror is banished. This triumph of imperious light over the primeval forces of darkness is not without an inner contradiction of its own-even where, as in this case, the confrontation takes place on the plane of learned allegory, and the forces in play are tempered by poetry. To so close a reader of Warburg as Gombrich, it was clear that he did not see the operatic presentation of ancient myths primarily as an instance of the survival or "afterlife" of antiquity: "On the contrary, the surviving elements of antiquity were always seen [by Warburg] as a potential threat to human values, but also as a potential guide towards their expression."3 For family reasons, Warburg traveled to the United States in the fall of 1895. There, "the emptiness of civilization on the East Coast repelled me so much that I simply chanced a flight to real objects and to scientific pursuits." More than a he gave for his visit to quarter of a century later, this was the justification to consult the collections and the researchers of the Smithsonian Washington Institution, and for his subsequent journey to the Southwest, far from any railroad and as far as possible from the white man's world. "Moreover," he added, "I had acquired an honest disgust of aestheticizing art history."4 What Warburg observed at Walpi and Oraibi, in northeastern Arizona, and amplified through a reading of the recent ethnographic literature,5 long remained
2. Ibid., pp. 259-300: "Lo spaventoso serpe: in questo loco vomita fiamma, e foco, e fischia e rugge ... An Ernst H. Gombrich, AbyWarburg, Intellectual 3. (London: Warburg Institute, 1970), p. 79. Biography 4. See especially Warburg, Schlangenritual,mit einem Nachwort von Ulrich Ratilff (Berlin: Klaus Wagenbach, 1988), p. 65 passim. Hereafter cited as Schlangenritual.This essay has been translated in English as Imagesfrom the Regionof the PuebloIndians of NorthAmerica,translated with an interpretative essay by Michael P. Steinberg (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995). All page citations are from the German edition. 5. Warburg was thoroughly acquainted with the researches of Adler, Cushing, Mooney, and Boas; fiundamental for his tinderstanding of Moki dances were the studies of Jesse Walter Fewkes on the Annual Reportof theBureauof snake ritual at Oraibi ("TusayanFlute and Snake Ceremonies," in Sixteenth AmericanEthnology, 1894-95 [Washington, 1897], pp. 273-312, and Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of AmericanEthnology,1897-98 [Washington, 1900], pp. 957-1011, as well as "A Few Summer and 2 Ceremonials at the Tusayan Pueblos," AJournalof American Ethnology Archaeology [1892], pp. 38-43. The Warburg Archive in London [46.1.68], holds extensive notes on, and translations of, this last

Aby Warburg:His Study of Ritual and Art on Two Continents

no more than an episode-an episode that left no immediate mark on Warburg's own academic work. He returned to Florence and there wrote his first key works on the survival of antiquity in the Quattrocento. It was not until 1923, as an inmate of the Binswanger psychiatric clinic at Kreuzlingen in Switzerland, that he reverted to the subject of his visit to the North American Indians by way of proof that, like them, he too could confront reality and overcome the perils that faced him. The impressions Warburg had gained in America had marked the beginning of his autonomy as a scholar; the paper in which he presented them at Kreuzlingen dates from just a few years before his death.6 How does Warburg's unexpected reprise of his early interest in Indian culture relate to the renewed scholarly vigor of his last years? And what were the influences, from whatever sources, that colored his reflections on the role of works of art in European society? In this context, it is certainly not irrelevant that in Arizona Warburg had reached the remotest point of his geographic and historical experience. Whatever boundaries may have existed for him, it was on that journey that he overstepped them, and the symmetry is reinforced by the fact that he took those same observations as the theme for the overstepping of another boundary; namely, his return from the clinic to real life. At first sight, it is a matter of sheer chance that Warburg's last work beforehis visit to America had culminated in his suggestive comments on the Florentine intermezzo of Apollo and Python, but this acquires a unique significance from the fact that at the other end of his journey it was once again the serpent that he the nature and symbolic significance of the beast had encountered-although now swung over to its polar opposite. Warburg described the most intense form of this magical attempt to approach Nature by way of the animal kingdom ... among the Moki Indians in the dance with live snakes at Oraiba and Walpi .... For here the dancer and the living creature form a magical unity, and the surprising thing is that in these dance ceremonies the Indians have succeeded in communing with the most dangerous of all animals, the rattlesnake, in such a way as to tame it without doing it any violence. The creature readily... takes part for days on end in ceremonies that in European hands would certainly lead to catastrophe.7 Those Indians were undoubtedly grappling with natural forces and dangers as great as any personified in the Florentine intermezzo of Apollo and Python. There
mentioned and other articles on Indian rituals. Warburg continued to follow ethnographic research on "Pueblo Indians" throughout his lifetime). It can serve as an index of the fault lines dividing modern scholarship that a popular book such as Vincent Scully's Pueblo: Mountain, Village, Dance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975, 1989) lacks any reference to Warburg. 6. The text of the lecture Warburg gave in the psychiatric clinic of Dr. Binswanger at Kreuzlingen has been established by Fritz Saxl and Gertrud Bing on the basis of variant versions and notes by the author. This edited version is reprinted in Schlangenritual. 7. Ibid., p. 41.

AgostinoCaracci.Stagesetfor third intermezzo La Pellegrina. 1589. of

A. F HammerSnake Dance Ritual of the Moquis Indians. 1884.

Aby Warburg:His Study of Ritual and Art on Two Continents

is, however, one crucial distinction: classical culture could envisage no resolution of the conflict without a decisive victory for Apollo and a sacrificial death for the beast; by contrast, at the end of the Indian ceremony the snake could return to Nature, unharmed. To the Moki, the snake, which dwells in the folds of the earth, shedding its skin to live again, represents the earthly form of lightning: celestial energy that discharges from the clouds and dispenses life-giving rain. Of course, Warburg was well aware that he was not observing an intact Moki practice, but his response casts considerable light on his own "dialectic of enlightenment." He concluded the paper he read at Kreuzlingen with some disturbing and mysterious thoughts that must be understood not as telltale signs of his mental illness, but as hard-won insights into the nature of culture itself. They have lost none of their relevance today. Warburg began his concluding remarks by saying that the serpent ritual showed the "primal state" that modern civilization had undertaken to "refine and abrogate and replace."8 This unpunctuated sequence of ideas, "refine and abrogate and replace," anticipates certain phases of present-day cultural evolution. It implies a historical process, beginning with the "refinement" of sensibility-as embodied, say, in Art Nouveau-proceeding by way of a dialectical "abrogation," as in nascent modernism's annulment of its own premises, and concluding with a state of "replacement": the media age with all its surrogates and simulations. In a flowing unpunctuated sequence, Warburg deduced these successive stages from his own understanding of the "primal state" of all culture as he encountered itin however corrupt a form-among the Moki. It is probably inherent in the nature of this search for origins that it casts far more light upon what follows than on the origins themselves. In the white man's America, too, the Apollo and Python syndrome had taken hold. Warburg remarked laconically, "The rattlesnake holds no terrors for the modern America. It is killed; at all events, it is not worshipped as a god. The answer it receives is Extermination."9 Far worse, the answer received by the bearers of the Indian culture was also physical annihilation. It would be an impertinence, not to say a lapse of taste, to work back from the symptoms of Warburg's illness to the motifs of his work. But certain of those symptoms are directly relevant to his scholarly activities, particularly to his view of books-of their location in relation to other books, and of their use by the scholar. Warburg's decision to create his own academic library bore witness to of youthful enthusiasm and a burning something more than a combination eagerness to press forward into areas inadequately covered even by the university libraries of his day. The frequent assertions of Warburg's colleagues that his
8. Ibid., p. 58. 9. Ibid., p. 58f. As a curious instance of transcultural migration of a ritual practice, one should mention rodeo sideshows like the "Texas Snake Handlers." On these occasions, Caucasian cowboys handle rattlesnakes with their bare feet. It is clear that, contrary to the Indian practice, daredevil performance and the "masteryof nature" have regained their place as the purpose of these public spectacles.

"Medicine bowl" altar of the Hopi Indians (after Geertz). 1984.

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by way of compensation, must-be library was an achievement that could-and, ranked with the best of his scholarly work, strike me as expressions of a rather conventional view. We have it on Warburg's own testimony that, to him, the of the books was a crucial matter to which he devoted constant arrangement effort. From the very start, Warburg's commitment to his library was total and mental construct was as necessary to him as life itself.10 His very passionate-this hair turned gray in the process. As he wrote to his brother at the age of thirtyseven: "I have acquired 516 books in the course of the past year.... But then, in the past year I have also acquired at least 516 gray hairs."1 As is so often the case, the joke reveals how much he was in earnest. It is no to say that Warburg's treatment of his books-for every one of exaggeration which there was a gray hair and which he always regarded, collectively, as his "investment"12-was well-nigh fetishistic. This becomes apparent in a variety of in the shifting, but always purposeful, systems according to which ways, notably he arranged them, and in the principle of hidden affinities that made the grouping of his stocks into an objective correlative for a conceptual order. This is all the more surprising inth that, apart from three exiguous volumes in paper covers, Warburg himself never wrote a book as long as he lived.
e See Tilmmann von Stockhausen, Di Kulturwissenschaftiche Bibliothek Warburg:Architektur, 10. Einrichtungund Organisation(Hamburg: Dolling and Galitz, 1992); and Salvatore Settis, "Warburgcontinuatus; Descrizione di una biblioteca," Quadernistorici 58, 30, 1 (1985), pp. 5-38. 11. Gombrich, AbyWarburg, 138. p. While still a student, Warburg declared in a letter to his mother of January 7, 1889: I need to 12. lay the foundations for my library and photographic collection; both are expensive but represent lasting value" (quoted in ibid., p. 45).

Heinrich Muller Control Room in the Power Substation Wilhelmsruh. Berlin. 1926.



The unique value that he assigned to the book among all the products of civilization reflects the illustrative and, indeed, denotative function performed by books and the whole bibliographical apparatus within the edifice of Warburg's thought. This is why the arrangement of his books could never be allowed to ossify so long as his thoughts were still on the move. Warburg associated the physical location, the ubi, of books with the irreducible rightness of things and their significances-as is clearly shown by the converse, the agonies he suffered when that order was disrupted. Carl Georg Heise tells us that Warburg "fell into frightful states of agitation if certain trifling objects on his desk were moved out of place ... or, to put it astrologically, if their mutual aspects were changed."13To disturb the relative positions of objects was to call into question their very nature and derivation: their quid and their unde. The library, which demanded a building of its own, and the scholar's desk, which as the mensaof mental labor signifies a ritual site of mental sacrifice, present positive analogies with the world of primitive religious ritual. We now know for certain-and Warburg, too, was well informed on the matter, thanks to detailed studies byJesse W. Fewkes and others published shortly before and after his visit to Black Mesa-that the so-called altar superstructures of the Hopi are based on a coherent scheme. They represent the cosmic forces that preside over Hopi life and destiny: the heavens unfold in six segments, separated by corncobs; lightning serpents frame the altar; and a meticulous sequence governs those objects between which interactive forces must operate to ensure the survival of the
13. Carl Georg Heise, Personliche an (New York:n.p., 1947), p. 42. Erinnerungen Aby Warburg



tribe.'4 In the same way, Warburg sought to create, by way of experiment, a precise ordering of reified ideas that would set up a flow of thinking, like a galvanic current. The library thus becomes a battery, an accumulation of thinking in which, through books connected "in parallel" by Warburg's ordering principle, the current of ideas is induced to flow. The scholar's desk is the site of a ritual invocation of those forces that impel, and also those that assail, human beings within their culture. Not only the scholar's desk, but also the painter's paper and canvas, can serve to invoke forces far older in origin than the practice of Western art. In 1886, a few years before Warburg's visit to the Indians of the Southwest, Wassily Kandinsky undertook an ethnographic expedition to Siberia and published his findings.15 Many years later, in his book of reminiscences, Ruckblicke, Kandinsky had some extremely revealing things to say about the venture.16 Unlike Warburg's visit to Indian territory, which was made for reasons of his own and without a scholarly mission of any kind, Kandinsky's expedition to the Government of Vologda had a clearly defined, professional purpose, which then a student of law, fulfilled by publishing his observations Kandinsky himself, in meticulous detail. For Warburg and Kandinsky alike, these studies were isolated, one-time reconnaissances; for both, the impact of the ethnographic experience without was a paradoxical one, retaining a profound personal significance or academic elaboration. The unexpected insights demanding any repetition of those and the lifelong importance that both derived from ethnography, insights in their respective artistic and historical work, owe their uniqueness to a conjunction of great personal significance with complete academic and scientific inconsequence. 17 In later life, Kandinsky (again like Warburg) took his own experience of the last vestiges of archaic life as a theme for autobiographical reflection.18 This happened in 1913, at the moment when his own increasingly abstract compositions had carried him across the threshold of a new era, and again in 1936, when, in the isolation of his Parisian exile, he reached out for historical certainty. Kandinsky's ethnographic study of shamanistic invocation had afforded him an insight into the relationship between the wild gallop of the imagination and the control that the rider can exert through reason, but it had also initiated him into the invocation of spirits and forms, and this he was able to transpose out of ritual life into the
14. See Armin W. Geertz, Hopi Indian AltarIconography (Leiden: Brill, 1987), esp. p. 27f: "The altar is a model, in reduced form, of the cosmos." 15. For the full text of Kandinsky's "Beitrag zur Ethnographie der Sysol- und Vecegda-Syrjanen"of 1889, see Kandinsky, Die gesammelten Schriften1, ed. Hans K. Roethel and Jelena Hahl-Koch (Berne: Benteli, 1980), p. 68ff; and also Peg Weiss, "Kandinsky and 'Old Russia'; An Ethnographic Exploration," in The DocumentedImage: Visions in Art History, ed. Gabriel Weisberg and Laurinda S. Dixon (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1987), pp. 187-222. 16. (Berlin: Sturm-Verlag, 1913). Kandinsky, Riickblicke 38 See Claudia Naber, "Pompeji in Neu-Mexico: Aby Warburgs amerikanische Reise," Freibeuter 17. (1988), pp. 88-97, esp. n. 28. 18. Kandinsky compared the gestation of a work of art with cosmic events: "Technically, each work evolves as the cosmos did-as a result of catastrophe" (Ruckblicke, vii). p.

on Gerhard Langmaack(modeled a designby Warburg). Readingroomin Institute.Hamburg.1926. the Warburg

Kiwa at PuebloBonito (afterE Waters). New Mexico.



work of the artist. In 1935, when Kandinsky reflected on the basic elements of his own paintings, he did so in the invocatory words of a shaman: "Black circledistant thunder, a world in itself that seems to care for nothing, a withdrawal into itself, a conclusion on the spot. A 'here I am' spoken slowly and a little coldly."19 Kandinsky'simagery did not all spring, as has often been supposed, solely from his youth in the city of Moscow, with its celebrated evening twilight and its polyphonic, polychromatic life-there was surely something in him that was far older and went far deeper. In Siberia, and in certain sleepy country areas of Germany, Kandinsky responded, with an ethnographer's sharpness of vision, to the archaic, "magical" strangeness of what he saw: "It was an unreal journey. I felt as if in defiance of all the laws of nature some magical power had carried me, century by century, deeper and deeper into the past."20 As a student, Kandinsky had imagined that ethnography would give him
"the soul of the people";21 later, in both the Riickblickeand the "Toile vide . . ." he

considered the painting itself as the place of evocation of cosmic forces: "Painting is a thunderous collision between different worlds, destined to create, in and from A the conflict between them, the new world that is the work."22 condensed, formulaic, clenched definition to which Warburg might have subscribed, word for word. Kandinsky was oppressed by a question that also haunted Warburg: "are intuition and logic equal partners in the production of the work? This important, apparently simple, but truly complicated question is now taking on a crucial significance."23 Warburg reduced his own observations of the serpent and rain-making rituals to a pithy formula: "Here magic and technology collide."24 In this context, he defined the purpose as "the provision of food for society." Transposed to his own library, this would become "feeding the individual mind," with rituals of invocation that sought to unite the rapidly proliferating resources of technology-photography, slide projection, international library services, telephone, pneumatic dispatchwith the magic of inductive thought. In 1928, the faithful Fritz Saxl put it thus: Ever since his return from a visit to the U.S.A. in 1896, which played a decisive role in his life, he had been conscious of a profound debt to the American ethnologists.... His experiences there placed him in a position to recognize and to comprehend the existence of this dual nature of truth, and to understand that to people in the age of the Renaissance, no less than to the Indians, there are two largely independent realms of fact: the world of rational experience and that of magic.25
19. Kandinsky, "Toile vide ...", Cahiersd'Art10, 5-6 (1935), p. 117. 20. p. Kandinsky, Riickblicke, v. 21. Ibid., p. vii. 22. Kandinsky, "Toile vide ...", p. 117. 23. p. Warburg, Schlangenritual, 25. Ibid. 24. Fritz Saxl, "WarburgsBesuch in Neu-Mexico," reprinted in Aby M. Warburg: 25. Schriften Ausgewdhlte ed. und Wiirdigungen, Dieter Wuttke (Baden-Baden: Koerner, 1979), p. 317.

Technical equipment in Warburg'sLibrary. 1926. (Photo courtesyDieter Langmaack.)

We should take care, however, not agd to see this kind of thinking exclusively in Enlightenment terms, as a a t e progression away from magic and toward science, away from the daimon and toward the logos- a progression of the kind frequently outlined, and persistently argued, i by Gombrich. In his own person, Warburg suffered the catastrophic contradictions that spring from i the mechanical and ideological subjugation of primitive forces. His ideas may seem to tie themselves in philosophical knots, but this in itself bears witness to a painful truth: the exigencies of culture are inherently irresolvable. This represents the precise point of contact with the thinking of Freud, to whom Warburg was anything but close, but whose approach to a critique of civilization he nevertheless recapitulated.26 Such contradictions underlie most of the work that Warburgdid in the fruitful years before World War I. This was the time when he looked at the principal works of late fifteenth-century Florentine art-and Ghirlandaio's Sassetti and Tornabuoni fresco cycles in particular-with eyes whose acuity not only ensures an uncommon freshness of approach but affords the reader a mental image of what Warburg saw that is animated throughout by a vivid abundance of learning. Warburg's writing is poles apart from the would-be poetic, descriptive prose endemic to the art-historical literature of the first half of the century. How tersely he makes his points, and how shrewdly he balances his interpretative equations! In one passage from "Portraiture and the Florentine Bourgeoisie" (1902), he describes the celebrated fresco by Ghirlandaio in Santa Trinita, in which, as a parallel manifestation to the Confirmation of the Franciscan Rule, Lorenzo il Magnifico appears together with his family: It is time for a scene-change. The contemporary backdrop, painted with the Palazzo Vecchio and the Loggia de' Lanzi, has already been lowered into place; the Sassetti stock company is waiting in the wings for its cue.
in 26. Sigmund Freud, Das Unbehagen derKultur (Vienna: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag, 1930), p. 136.



Enter, through a trap, three little princes and their professor-learned in all matters pagan, privy dancing-master to the nymphs of with a witty domestic chaplain and a court balTuscany-together all ready to perform the introductory intermezzo. As soon as ladeer, they reach the top step, even the confined space still occupied by St. Francis, the Pope, and the Consistory will be taken over as a setting for secular diversions.27 In such passages Warburg interweaves the threads of an essentially prephotographic, verbal "redrawing" of the paintings with the stout filaments of his own complex preoccupations. The resulting interpretation constantly fastens on points of conflict, though he recognizes in the paintings themselves an "abundance of vigorous life."28 He marries the contrasting strands by transforming the seemingly self-sufficient, purely aesthetic character of the work of art that is enveloped in the toils of his engrossing description into "something quite different." This something, which transcends the mere presence of the work, is no web of the artist's spinning, nor, indeed, has it anything to do with the viewer's perspicacity in spotting flaws in the weave. It derives, solely, from the effort of understanding that Warburg regards as essential to Kulturwissenschaft. In fact, this "something quite different" is none other than the awareness that works of art are documents.29 Warburg was undoubtedly well aware of the ambiguity of the word "document" in this context; by definition, the work of art itself is the Urkunde, the "document" whose historical coordinates the researcher undertakes to define. But the work's depth of meaning fluctuates according to the preoccupations of those who see it-it can never be plumbed, once and for all. As a document, the work of art is so overdetermined as to be incapable of any final, unequivocal definition. This in itself means that, as cultural products, works of art must, in the words of Burckhardt, "have an incessantly modifying and disrupting effect on the established institutions of life."30 However, there is more to the meaning of a work of art than the sum total of what artists, patrons, advisers, and members of the public have in mind. A work of art can unexpectedly bring to light an origin, something long forgotten. Warburg scrutinized paintings for those figures which by their presence and their actions create a discontinuity, those whose physiognomy and gesture are among those "fragments" from which, all his life, he hoped to distill a historical "science of expression." Ultimately, he was working toward a psychohistorical interpretation of human destiny based upon the corpus of documentary evidence supplied by art-or, to use his own term, from the Urkunden. Warburg had a sixth sense for telltale faults and discontinuities in works of art. Far from identifying artistic quality with aesthetic homogeneity, Warburg was
27. 1, Warburg, Gesammelte Schriften p. 115. 28. Gombrich, Warburg, 119. p. 29. Warburg's term is Urkunde,pointing up, as it does, both the archival and the archaic aspect of works of art. ed. 30. Jacob Burckhardt, Uberdas StudiumderGeschichte, Peter Ganz (Munich: Beck, 1982), p. 276.

Aby Warburg:His Study of Ritual and Art on Two Continents


aware from his student days that the irruption of motion into a rigid pictorial organization, or the physiognomic and gestural accents within the picture, might disclose the presence of something accessible only to a "historical psychology of human expression."31 He therefore examined with particular insistence the multifarious and multivalent relationship between pagan antiquity on one hand and Christian worship and imagery on the other: the way in which pictorial also an formulas conveying uninhibited motion introduced an invigorating-but that was equally likely to reinforce the image or to shatter it. equivocal-element he ultimately parted company with Warburg-expressed this Gombrich-though with great precision when he concluded from Warburg's thought "that the point primeval reaction of man to the universal hardships of his existence underlies all his attempts at mental orientation."32 Warburg's study of votive and donor portraits in Florence was a corrective to the then-prevalent, sanitized image of the Renaissance as an age of refinement in art. He recalled how the church of Santissima Annunziata had once looked like a gigantic storeroom, crammed with thousands of wax votive images. had a flair for all those areas-and there were many of them in Warburg Renaissance culture-that can be summarized under the heading "ephemeral art." It was an age when wide sections of the population came into contact with nonreligious art in the guise of printed ephemera, theater, and pageantry. Hence the symptomatic value of such art. Theater and ephemera provided the receptacles for things that the polished and discriminating practice of high art either excluded or passed over in silence. However subsequent researchers may choose to evaluate, amplify, or correct one thing remains clear: it was his Warburg's assessment of such phenomena, achievement to have ventured into such areas at all. He did so neither in a spirit of condescension nor with the whimsical self-limitation of the specialist in, say, tin soldiers. With care and with great sensitivity, he probed into just those marginal regions where an earlier cultural practice had remained alive, and this in itself meant that the models to which he owed most were those of anthropology and ethnography rather than those of art history. When Warburg describes the fetishism of Florentine votive waxworks and the positively totemistic way in which they were once installed en masse in one of the most popular churches in Florence, two converse historical forces are in operation. On one hand, Warburg is evoking a radically different spatial configuration that existed within the church at the time of the Renaissance-an experience that can be reconstructed only through archival research. On the other hand, certain varieties of modern ephemeral art, instead of being dismissed as merely vulgar, are permitted to emerge as the last residues of a "fetishistic iconic magic"33 with a profound religious dimension. A practice that we tend to dismiss as "barbaric,"
31. 32. 33. 2, Warburg, Gesammelte Schriften p. 478. Gombrich, Warburg, 223. p. 1, Warburg, Gesammelte Schriften p. 118.



and as both unworthy and incapable of cultural sublimation, thus releases a repressed aspect and simultaneously brings to mind the forgotten origins of all cultural practice. Something that strikes us as "alien" turns out to lead us back to home territory, but on an older and more complex human level. Warburg was, so to speak, practicing ethnology on the Europeans. On the seemingly familiar terrain of the Florentine Renaissance, he succeeded in recalling to consciousness a form of practice that was once vividly alive-but for that very in comprehending it in terms of its own historical dynamic: reason transient-and "It is only this lawful and persistent survival of barbarism, with wax effigies set up in church in their moldering fashionable dress, that begins to cast a truer and a more favorable light on the inclusion of portrait likenesses on a church fresco of sacred scenes."34 Warburg would not be the disciple of Burckhardt that he is if he had failed to furnish us with the archival documentation that alone can make a historical epoch speak. The "Portraiture" study contains a copious documentary appendix in which he quotes from a novella by Francesco Sassetti the passage in which Sassetti criticizes the votive figures as "una idolatria" and adds that "I who write these lines once saw a man who had lost a she-cat and who vowed, if he should ever find her again, to dedicate her image in wax to Our Lady of Or San Michele; and so he did." That piece of kitsch, the votive image of a lost and found cat, represents a by Christian doctrine and yet popular pagan religious practice untouched domesticated by the clergy. Warburg was always on the trail of pagan survivals of this kind. By uncovering-in place of some clear-cut conception of the pensee life-forms of a pratique sauvage, such as he himself had tangled sauvage-the pursued all the way across America, he was able to offer a new basis for the understanding of the artist's work. He thus steered clear of the suspiciously wide gap that yawns, in many artall its historical studies of the Renaissance, between the practice of art-with the impeccably high-minded and conventions-and contingencies, superstitions, information that is to be found in the philosophical and literary sources. It might be worth reflecting, too, whether the unbalanced emphasis on the universality of NeoPlatonic art theory, which dominated Renaissance studies for decades, might not have owed its persistence precisely to its ability to carry the mind effortlessly over those yawning gaps without drawing attention to the incongruities of the material. It is one of those curious contradictions and reversals that happen in the in the minds of as it were-that, destiny of methodologies, scholarly world-the American art historians in particular, Warburg's name and that of his eponymous institute have come to be associated with iconographic nitpicking and own infirmity-both anemic typological speculations. Warburg's metaphorical if anything the very reverse of this; it arose from the fact and psychological-was that every issue of consequence that can be isolated within the study of artistic
34. Ibid., p. 100.

Aby Warburg:His Study of Ritual and Art on Two Continents


context. practice remains impossible to resolve in terms of its anthropological the more narrowly the issue at hand is defined and circumscribed in Indeed, terms of its contingent historical reality, the more urgently it seems to cry out for an explanation. The conclusion Warburg drew from this has continued to influence the of his entire project, and particularly his last evaluation and understanding to which he devoted the time that remained to him after his return major work, from Kreuzlingen-the Mnemosyne Atlas.35 In this undertaking everything is idiosyncratic, starting with the method itself. Warburg was intent on tracing certain perennial motifs of motion, based on formulas, that constantly renew their freshness of gestural and physiognomic not least through the replication of those formulas. It was evident that expression in this survey of figurative formulas Warburg was allowing himself far greater latitude in the choice of material than had ever been customary in art history. Here, cheek by jowl, were late antique reliefs, secular manuscripts, monumental frescoes, postage stamps, broadsides, pictures cut out of magazines, and old master drawings. It becomes apparent, if not at first glance, that this unorthodox selection is the product of an extraordinary command of a vast field. Criticism is disarmed, and yet the principle of graphic arrangement on panels more closely resembles the techniques of the illustrated magazines of the interwar period than the layout of art-historical books. It certainly had incidental parallels in the experimental publications of the 1920s, such as those of the Dadaists and Ozenfant.36 The Atlas panels share their didactic and demonstrative purposes with countless propagandist publications, exhibitions, and posters. They have parallels in the Bauhaus, in Le Corbusier's Esprit Nouveau, and in the polemical assemblages of Hannes Meyer. In terms of technique, Warburg's panels belong with the montage procedures of Schwitters and Lissitzky. Needless to say, this analogy implies no claim to artistic merit on the part of Warburg's panels, nor does it invalidate that of Schwitters's or Lissitzky's collages; it simply serves to redefine graphic montage as the construction of meanings rather than the arrangement of forms. Certain features of the work are immediately apparent, notably the fragmentary nature of the chosen examples and the fact that their groupings invite
Atlas which Warburg assembled and left unedited is now 35. The weighty torso of the Mnemosyne being restudied and prepared for publication under the directorship of Martin Warnke, Horst Bredekamp, Michael Diers, Kurt W. Forster, and others. See also Peter van Huistede, "Der MnemosyneAtlas: Ein Laboratorium der Bildgeschichte," in Aby M. Warburg:"Ekstatische Nymphe. .. trauernder Flussgott," 130-71, and my article "WarburgsVersunkenheit" in the same volume, pp. 184-206. pp. 36. Atlas with a trompe l'oeil painting by the By confronting a panel from Warburg's Mnemosyne scarcely known Roman painter Francesco Alegiani (active in the later years of the nineteenth century), I am suggesting a profound affinity between the frequent appearance of "found images"-in the form of ephemera, clippings, reproductions, and the like-in later nineteenth-century painting and the mutation in the status of images in general. For fascinating examples of the trompe l'oeil genre and its significance in America, see my "Abbild und Gegenstand: Amerikanische Stilleben des spaten 19. Jahrhunderts," in Bilderaus der neuen Welt(exhibition catalogue), ed. Thomas W. Gaehtgens (Munich: Prestel, 1988), pp. 100-107.

Francesco l'oeilstill Alegiani. Trompe life. Circalate nineteenth century.

Aby Warburg:His Study of Ritual and Art on Two Continents


Atlas.1929. Warburg. Mnemosyne alternative interpretations. The extreme fragmentation of the images instantly calls into question the meaning of the association between them. Here, as Hegel the imagination "does not merely recall to light the put it in the Enzyklopddie, contained within it but relates them to each other and in this way elevates images them into general notions. On this level, the imagination thus appears as the activity that associates images."37 This associative activity controls the images, but only until they start to resist association and demand to be organized under such varied criteria as age, type, size, or origin. Then the controlling force must be ready to make out a case for itself or else remain content with decorative or formal arrangement. The purpose of the control becomes manifest on a higher plane of imagination, "on which the intelligence identifies its own general notions with the specific identity of the image and thus endows [these notions] with an imagic existence."38 The general notions to which Hegel refers are those that Warburg has extracted as fragments from the infinite image-continuum and has assembled in "montages"designed to make visible the accumulated strata of collective traditions of imagery. This is the third plane, which Hegel called that of "symbolizing and sign-giving fantasy."As such, it extends both to analytical and to formative activity;
37. der im Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Enzyklopddie philosophischen Wissenschaften Grundriss10, ed. E. Moldenhauer and K. M. Michel (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1986), p. 264. 38. Ibid.



indeed, it exerts its control over existing figurations in a way that endows them with new, "sign-giving" qualities. Warburg's work on the Mnemosyne Atlas precisely coincided with the age of pictorial montage, as practiced by Schwitters with the "crumbs of daily detritus,"39 or as displayed on a large scale by Lissitzky at the Pressa exhibition in Cologne in 1928 and the International Photo Exhibition in Stuttgart one year later. Many more examples might be cited, and, conceptually, all share two points of affinity with the graphic montage that Warburg assembled on his panels: first, the radical of traditional image content, and second, the equally crucial fragmentation involvement of the "symbolizing fantasy." I first mooted this idea in an article in 1976;40 and I found confirmation, and far more besides, in Werner Hofmann's essay "The Human Rights of the Eye."41 Clearly, in the Mnemosyne Atlas Warburg was putting into practice his own "the extremes of pure and applied art conviction-expressed long before-that should be studied, as documents of expression, on an entirely equal footing."42 Other aspects of the undertaking, however, also demand consideration, aspects to which art historians have tended to react with some embarrassment. One aspect of that they turn from being the context of the Atlas, as elsewhere-is images-in or representations, into reproductions. Their instrumental purpose of Abbilder, representing (something) recedes behind the simulation of other images. As the scope of historical scrutiny is widened to encompass the entire globe, a change art itself. overtakes the status-and with it every aspect of the evaluation-of Here, too, Warburg was bringing to fruition one of Burckhardt's prophetic to his course of lectures titled "On the Study of insights. In the introduction Burckhardt wrote: History" (1868), And now let us reflect on the magnitude of our indebtedness to the past, which as a mental continuum is among our supreme mental possessions. No expenditure of effort or resources must be spared in collecting anything that might in any way assist in furthering this The attitude adopted by each succeeding century to this study.... inheritance constitutes a form of knowledge in its own right: that is, something new, which the next generation will add to its inheritance as something that has passed into history.... The bondage of custom, etc., imposed through symbols, is something from which only the awareness of a past can free us.43
39. Merz 21, erstes Veilchenheft. Eine kleine Sammlung von Merz-Dichtungen aller Art von Kurt Schwitters (Hannover: Merz, 1931), p. 115. 40. "Aby Warburg's History of Art: Collective Memory and the Social Mediation of Images," Daedalus 105, no. 1 (1976), pp. 169-76. des ed. 41. Die Menschenrechte Auges:Uber AbyWarburg, Werner Hofmann, Georg Syamken, and Martin Warnke (Frankfurt am Main: Europaische Verlagsanstalt, 1980), pp. 85-111. 42. 2, Schriften p. 479. Warburg, Gesammelte 43. Burckhardt, Uberdas Studium,p. 50.

Aby Warburg:His Study of Ritual and Art on Two Continents


In Warburg's case, this "awareness of a past" extended far beyond the customary conception of pictorial traditions, sources, models, and imitations, and reached down, with conscious reference to Hegel, into the deep groundwater of culturally mediated visual conceptions or "notions." From his categorization of memory and its operations, Hegel himself concluded that "no one knows what an infinity of images from the past sleeps within; from time to time they may chance to awake, but it is impossible, as we say, to bring them to mind. These images are thus ours only in a formal sense."44 This insight was Warburg's point of departure when he took the form of continues to exist in the absence of any knowledge of its expression-which the object of his wide-ranging investigations. content and subject matter-as This was a perspective that largely leveled the conventional distinctions and entrenched value judgments that encumbered the art history of his time. They were replaced by what Walter Benjamin, referring expressly to Warburg's achievement, called "the hallmark of the new investigative spirit," namely, "feeling at home in borderline areas."45 The Mnemosyne Atlas was a bonus, as it were, on the investment represented by the Warburg library. It was intended-as Warburg told the curatorial board of this library two months before his death-to be a contribution to the process of "exploring the function of personal and social memory."46 What Warburg meant by memory was something highly dynamic and not at all the passive garnering of he layers of generalized content. In 1924, in a letter to Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, reverted to the idea of the "symbol in the rhythm of cultural history": We are entitled, are we not, to treat what we call symbol as a function of the social memory; for it gives rise to the organ of transmissionwhether inhibitory or impulsive-that operates in between the kinesis of instinctual passion and the order of cosmological theory to create both consciousness and the will to attain the sound mental balance that is the noblest of all civilizing forces.47 Note the use of the idea of "transmission"-Umschaltung, switching, commutabilityand consider the function that the library has for the researcher, who converts its static electricity into a current and makes it arc, learning to harness the lightning, the ambivalent serpent power, in analogy to the cultural process that he is striving to understand. In the plans for his institute that absorbed all Warburg's energies, such ideas found expression in spatial terms. Saxl tells us that "Kepler, who replaced the circle
44. 10, Hegel, Enzyklopadie p. 264. 45. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte 3, Schriften ed. R. Tiedemann and H. Schweppenhauser (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974), p. 374. 46. und Wiirdigungen, 308. Reprinted in AbyM. Warburg: Ausgewahlte Schriften p. 47. See Martin Jesinghausen-Lauster, Die Suche nach der symbolischen Form:Der Kreisum die kulturwisBibliothek Warburg (Baden-Baden: Koerner, 1985), p. 313. senschaftliche



with the geometrical ellipse and thus defined the orbit of Mars,"was to Warburg "a figure symbolic of those forces that create mental space."48 This mental space took shape in the surrogate form of the oval reading room of the Warburg library. But in the same year, 1926, the central building of the Wilhelmsruh transformer station of the Berlin electric power utility also assumed a pronounced elliptical shape. The power company's serried ranks of gauges were replaced, in the library, by the numberless storage cells of historical memory. This contrast between symbolic, speculative magic and technological, instrumental mensuration brings to mind once more the titanic conflict that ultimately took its revenge, in a sense, on Warburg, who had always striven to bring it under control. He knew well that the "lightning caught in the wire," "captive electricity," would call forth a completely new culture that would succeed in its ambition of subduing the "forces of Nature," although perhaps at fatal cost to itself. As Warburg concluded, "these forces of Nature [are] no longer encountered in anthropomorphic or biomorphic form but as infinite waves, ruled by man at a touch of his hand."49


ed. Reprinted in AbyM. Warburg, D. Wuttke, p. 314f.

Warburg, Schlangenritual, p. 59.