The German Jewish art historian Aby Warburg (1866–1929) is regarded as a practitioner of visual studies avant la lettre. Born in Hamburg into a well-established family of bankers, he resigned from his birthright to the business and studied art history, archaeology, history, philosophy, and, briefly, psychology. Among his teachers were the classicist Hermann Usener, the art historians Carl Justi and August Schmarsow, the historian Karl Lamprecht, and the archaeologist Adolf Michaelis. In 1895–1896 Warburg went on an ultimately formative field trip to Arizona and New Mexico to study native Indian culture before he focused on Italian Renaissance art. In 1897 he settled in Florence for nearly five years to fathom the fundamentals of 15th-century art and culture in local archives. After his return to Hamburg, he decided to establish a library for his very own enterprise. Warburg refused two professorships but accepted the honorific professorial title in 1912. A lifelong suffering from bipolarity aggravated during World War I. Warburg’s condition led to a psychosis and subsequent hospitalization. He recovered only slowly to a final productive period from 1924 to 1929 when he embarked on his major work, the Bilderatlas titled Mnemosyne. During Warburg’s illness his assistant, librarian, deputy, and follower Fritz Saxl (1890–1948) seized his chance to turn Warburg’s enormous collection of books—idiosyncratically structured according to basic forms of expression—into the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg. Aby Warburg’s main achievements are the widening of the field of art history to include all types of artifacts and the transformation of the preexisting study of styles and schools into a transculturally oriented historical discipline. He called this discipline Kulturwissenschaft (science of culture), himself a Bildhistoriker (image historian), and his method iconology: literally a combination of the study of word and image that relied on merging a historical with a meta-historical approach to various forms of visual expression. Warburg’s pioneering meta-historical turn of the study of art owed much to contemporaneous psychology, anthropology, and the analysis of religious beliefs. At the same time, he promoted a historical turn that relied on close attention to the political and social ramifications of culture. Warburg thus combined the evolutionist theory of his days with a positivistic study of historical documents. After focusing first on the Italian Renaissance, he turned his attention to the German Reformation and to the subsequent scientific revolution. Crucial times of crisis, he believed, had activated an evolution of thinking toward the Enlightenment, although any human being maintained the potential for regression to irrational behavior. Enlightenment as a remaking of Classical Antiquity—both intellectual and material—was, according to Warburg, achievable only through a necessary balance between individual experience and the perception of generally comprehensible abstracted “symbolic” forms. Such forms, he believed, were coined in archaic times and peaked in Classical Antiquity. Subsequently all his studies were dedicated at a phenomenon that he called the Nachleben der Antike (Afterlife of Antiquity).
While the literature on Warburg is vast and the number of publications has increased dramatically with the so-called iconic turn and subsequent rediscovery of his work, comprehensive general overviews are rare. Before Gombrich 1986 was first published (in 1970), a proper insight into the remains of Warburg’s ambitious attempt to sketch a theory of expression throughout Western civilization was restricted to his former inner circle, namely Fritz Saxl (1890–1948), Gertrud Bing (1892–1964), and Edgar Wind (1900–1971). Two of their firsthand accounts, Saxl 1922 and Bing 1965, are reliable succinct descriptions of Warburg’s aims and overall achievements. Gombrich was, however, the first author to give an impression of the full range of Warburg’s projects—finished, unfinished, or abandoned—to an Anglophone audience. Many authors have since relied on Gombrich’s book with its many quotations from unpublished texts and notes, but, like Forster 1976, often pursued a distinctively different scope. The same is true for Didi-Huberman 2002. The author stresses those aspects of Warburg’s work that precisely contradict Gombrich’s interpretation. Only a few other scholars have tried to grasp and explain Warburg’s work in its entirety by focusing on one dominant aspect, such as Böhme 2004. Böhme emphasizes the fundamental significance of the theory of religious belief for Warburg’s science of culture, whereas Warnke 1999 and Schoell-Glass 2007 are both concise accounts of Warburg’s role with regard to the discipline of art history. The only proper yet improvable introduction to Warburg for undergraduates is Rösch 2010.
Bing, Gertrud. “A. M. Warburg.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 28 (1965): 299–313.
One of only two publications on Warburg by Gertrud Bing. Focuses on Warburg as a tireless fighter for the reformation of art history. Stresses the shift in the reception from his factual achievements to the method he applied. An important account of one of Warburg’s closest collaborators. Conceived as introduction to Warburg 1966 (cited under Editions: Collected Works) and also published there in Italian.
Böhme, Hartmut. “Aby M. Warburg (1866–1929).” In Klassiker der Religionswissenschaft: Von Friedrich Schleiermacher bis Mircea Eliade. Edited by Axel Michaels, 133–157. Munich: C. H. Beck, 2004.
Originally published in 1997, Böhme’s article offers a comprehensive critical analysis of Warburg’s ambitious attempt to develop a fundamentally syncretic theory of visual culture. Discovers parallels between Warburg’s Kulturwissenschaft (science of culture) and the anthropological turn in the study of religion. Stresses the resulting unsolvable tension between a structural and a historical reading of the genesis of civilization. Reprinted in Kulturwissenschaften. Konzepte, Theorien, Autoren, edited by Iris Därmann and Christoph Jamme, 243–267 (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 2007).
Didi-Huberman, Georges. L’image survivante: Histoire de l’art et temps des fantômes selon Aby Warburg. Paris: Éditions du Minuit, 2002.
A reading of Warburg’s work in the light of early-20th-century theory, in particular Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis. Stresses Warburg’s notion of residues of uncivilized behavior in every human being as alternative to Gombrich’s interpretation of his work in the light of evolutionary theory; yet Didi-Huberman forces his case very much, and at times he loses touch with Warburg’s writings.
Forster, Kurt W. “Aby Warburg’s History of Art: Collective Memory and the Social Mediation of Images.” Daedalus 105 (1976): 169–176.
A succinct characterization of the essence of Warburg’s ideas. Relying on Gombrich’s work but different in scope. Explaining how human expression, its formation, storage, and re-emergence became “the central focus” of Warburg’s studies and “the true category of his library” (p. 171). For Forster’s extended introduction to Warburg, see the English translation of his writings (Warburg 1999, cited under Editions: Collected Works).
Gombrich, Ernst H. Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography: With a Memoir on the History of the Library by F. Saxl. London: Phaidon, 1986.
Originally published in 1970, this is the standard monograph on Warburg’s life and work, based on a review of all of his writings. Contains long quotations from unpublished materials. Although Gombrich emerges as a subtly biased narrator who explains Warburg’s ideas largely in terms of a Hegelian construction of history and heavily influenced by evolutionary theory, the book has not been surpassed by any similarly informed study.
Rösch, Perdita. Aby Warburg. Uni-Taschenbücher 3343. Paderborn, Germany: Wilhelm Fink, 2010.
A short introduction to Warburg for undergraduates. Contextualizes Warburg’s life and work, highlights his innovations, and offers summaries of his most important texts. At times the text is too detached from the material it introduces. Appears as a digest of the secondary literature of recent years and posthumous editions. The bibliography is slim and concentrates on German authors.
Saxl, Fritz. “Rinacimento dell’antichità: Studien zu den Schriften A. Warburgs.” Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft 43 (1922): 220–272.
An introduction to Warburg’s ideas. Saxl stresses Warburg’s results rather than his theory. He singles out two aspects: the influence of both physical and emotional movement on the formation of style and the revival of the Olympian gods in Renaissance Italy. As a contemporaneous elucidation of Warburg’s aims through examples, Saxl’s text is essential reading.
Schoell-Glass, Charlotte. “Aby Warburg (1866–1929).” In Klassiker der Kunstgeschichte. Vol. 1, Von Wickelmann bis Warburg. Edited by Ulrich Pfisterer, 181–193. Munich: C. H. Beck, 2007.
A concise chronological overview of Warburg’s works and the method he developed with them. Stresses his public engagements and the fortuna of his achievements; adds a short bibliography.
Warnke, Martin. “Aby Warburg (1866–1929).” In Altmeister moderner Kunstgeschichte. Edited by Heinrich Dilly, 117–130. Berlin: Reimer, 1999.
First published in 1990, arguably the best concise and comprehensive overview that covers Warburg’s life, the meaning of his work for the history of his discipline, as well as the foundation and impact of the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg (KBW).
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