An unfamiliar language of images

by Roberto Ohrt

The Mnemosyne-Atlas by Aby Warburg is one of the few art historical works that has received more attention from the art world than from scholarly research, as the most recent in a long series of examples showed at the Italian Pavilion during this year’s Biennale di Venezia. In Spaces of Memory, artists such as Vanessa Beecroft, Mimmo Paladino and William Kendridge presented their reactions to the work of the Hamburg cultural historian. It was no different 50 years ago, merely a little less spectacular: at a time when nobody in art history showed any interest in this unusual tool, an artist was already on the case. Ron B. Kitaj requested a viewing of the photos in the early 1960s in the Warburg Institute, which we have to thank for the preservation of the 63 plates. They are not particularly large prints, but through a magnifying glass a lot of things can be seen, more than on the illustrations that, years later, would bring a handful of the plates to the attention of a wider public for the first time (in: Ernst Gombrich, Aby Warburg – An Intellectual Biography, London 1970). Even the larger format of the publications that have, since 1994, displayed the entire Atlas, merely offers a heavy curtain of matrix dots if the viewer wants to look at it in greater detail.

Studying the details has now become rather easier (see, or, although scepticism within the scholarly field continues unabated. Many art historians ignored the Atlas or dismissed it as a failed experiment long into the 1990s, not least Ernst Gombrich, the long-serving Director of the Warburg Institute. So it was left to artists to recognise the work’s potential, and despite the poorly legible images, they were able to make visible its modernity, its associative element and its close affinity with the technique of montage. This is a surprising recognition, as Warburg’s principal focus lay in the Renaissance, in other words, aligned with the ideals of the 19th century. Gombrich and many other art historians had firmly maintained that view. They attempted (and still attempt) to align his method with the heyday of a feudal-bourgeois canon, using a select few lines from his writings or even through interpreting his posture by the lampshade of a desk lamp. The fact that Warburg broke through the narrow confines of art history deliberately and in many ways, and in the Atlas by stepping even into the field of mass media and advertising, is evidently still held against him.

In Mnemosyne, Warburg did not only develop a conflict history of art: he was himself a figure of conflict, an apparition with many faces, turned on the one hand towards the old world and on the other hand towards the modern, at home in the rich centres of power and yet also bound to the old rites at the bleak edges of the world, driven in equal measure by the desire for temperance and by a deep pleasure in unfettered movement. All these facets have gradually become visible. Yet, evidently, the evaluation of the Atlas is to remain a cloudy impression, whether to the benefit of an artistic fascination that delights in a metamorphoric existence of the whole without wishing to view it more precisely or academically grounded reservations that sees only arbitrariness in the extant condition of the Atlas. This view argues that the constellation of the image structure would have been changed at the next opportunity; it posits that Warburg and his invention would never have arrived at a publishable product. And so scholarship must preserve the poor but fair condition in which it presented the work to the public.

Artistic fascination has certainly done more for the Atlas, but to rely entirely on good intentions would be dangerous as its prized characteristics – its elements of movement and change – would quickly lose their force under these circumstances and even play into the hands of the sceptics’ argument. Mobility, ambiguity and transformitivity are without doubt the decisive features of the Atlas, and Warburg was able to portray them: He recognises their impact, focuses their appearance and sharpens their expression. The more clearly the meaning of a single image is defined in the structure of a plate, the clearer the ideas that Warburg follows in his path through the images and their forms. Fortunately, he documented three different versions of his image story, and a comparison shows definitively that the web of meaning in his constellations becomes ever clearer with each step; Warburg was thus by no means a victim of the never-ending dance of a kaleidoscope.

The contribution of art history can therefore not be avoided, but it should not result in a beautiful knowledge of the facts. There are a number of clues to a better use of knowledge in Warburg’s focus. For one thing, he was interested in conflicts and not in success. Thus he stepped away from the established High Renaissance and looked back to an era in which the Renaissance was still forming and in which it was not at all certain that its values would assert themselves. Warburg saw these values as linked above all with a female figure, the fleet-footed, hurrying nymph, and with the problem of the sacrifice that she carries on her head or in her arms or casts down with the sway of her movement. Christian art had damned woman to immobility, making not just her body into a sacrifice: on this basis, the life of humans overall was subjected to renunciation. Today, the logic of that asymmetry is more in question than ever and in this respect it is not only important to know how the Renaissance, the most significant and most successful forerunner of the modern, was constructed in detail, especially since our own era is built on its foundation. It is instead much more decisive to know whether the disintegration of female immobility can be extended to a disintegration of the cult of the sacrifice in general. This is also decisive for the role of the female body, for sacrificial cults – as is visible everywhere in the modern world of images – dominate the products of mass culture and flourish above all where the liberation of the sexes from the prescribed patterns of movement has shaken the foundations of existing society as well as the imperative of authority.

The 8th Salon, represented by Philipp Schwalb, Axel Heil, Christian Rothmaler and Roberto Ohrt, presented a close reading of 22 plates (of 63 plates in all) of the Mnemosyne-Atlas by Aby Warburg from 01 – 04 October 2015 at Villa Romana. Until 16 October, these plates could be viewed reconstructed to their original size in the exhibition rooms of the Villa Romana.