Enciclopédia e Hipertexto

Aby Warburg (1866-1929). The Survival of an Idea

Mathias Bruhn


Prof. Martin Warnke, who is head of our department kindly asks you to excuse that he couldn't come; he would have been able to deliver his talk in Portuguese. Unfortunately, I am not able to, in spite of the many occasions to get used to it, since people from Portugal belong to the streetlife of Hamburg; in the quarter where I live you will not only count several Portuguese restaurants, bakeries, or a football club; there’s also a weekly sunday mass in Portuguese. As a port city exchanging goods with trade partners from all over the world, it is no surprise that the city of Hamburg has a old relationship with Portugal.

As a document of this relationship, the most important medal that is awarded to Hamburg citizens is the so-called Portugaleser; this used to be a coin in silver that was slowly adopted by Hamburg merchants in the 16th century before it became an official currency as the so called silver Bank-Portugaleser. This coin expressed not only the importance of Portugal in sea-trade but also stood for the tolerance of liberal Hamburg that accepted Portuguese merchants of all confessions to live and work in the city. You can deduce this e.g. from the fact that these two different versions of the medal already know a christian and a jewish symbolism.

     I do not mention this for reasons of politeness. Aby M. Warburg, the person I’d like to introduce you to tonight, came from one of the richest bankers’ families in Germany, and the name Warburg is usually not associated with the scholar, but with the Warburg Bank that is a global players with headquarters in New York or London. Although the young Aby refused succeeding in the family tradition and decided to study the humanities, the world of trading and the mechanisms of social exchange remained one of the threads of his methodology. Not by chance Warburg took a look at the arts from the viewpoint of economic history, and studied the patronage of merchants and bankers. To a certain degree, the Portugaleser medal might stand as a symbol for various problems Warburg had to face and the questions he had raised.


Aby Warburg was born in Hamburg in 1866 as the first heir of a Bank that had played a central role in pre-war imperial Germany. The legend says that he "sold" this privilege of being the future head of the family for his brothers' promise to support the scholar until the end of his life. The brothers accepted this condition and so allowed Warburg to fully concentrate on his studies, to travel, to support and engage assistants and gather an impressive collection of books.

Warburg studied archeology and art history – while he was as well interested in medicine, psychology, or the history of religion - in Bonn, Munich, and in Strassburg where he finished his doctorate thesis on Sandro Botticelli's two paintings "Birth of Venus" and "Primavera". He continued his work by travelling to Florence and producing a number of small studies on single works of art and their wealthy patrons, in particular bankers themselves, like the Medici or Sassetti, who mediated between the demands of civic representation and the ideal principles of high art; and, perhaps better known, by going to the United States and the reservs of the Hopi Indians in 1896, in order to study the ethnological aspects of rites and ceremonies in other cultures and their difference to or similarity with the so-called western world.


After his return Warburg decided to set  up a library that would serve as a private collection and as an institution for public education. He called it "Kultur-wissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg". As has sometimes been stated, Warburg’s dissertation could be read as the mission statement of the library and its future structure; the study on Botticelli synthesized philology, style analysis, iconography, and other fields in order to produce a more comprehensive picture of the artistic process. His main assertions were:



1. Classical patterns have always attracted artists for they keep the „energy“ of antiquity and recharge any work of art they’re implanted into. The Renaissance is characterized not only by the use of these antique patterns, but also by the fact that they can always be distinguished by both their gestures and their accessories from their environment on the painting (e.g. the hair of Venus). Applying these antique forms means to surrender to the power of eternal forms that lead their own life in the new context of the image. Certains forms thus become containers for what Warburg would later call Pathosformel and  „moved accessories“.

2. Secondly, the "program" of the paintings discussed here, commissioned by Lorenzo de' Medici, was delivered by the famous poet Poliziano. All structures of the paintings have their textual correspondence in his poem La giostra as well as in the sources he has used himself. The works can be explained only by combining philological and visual analysis.

3. Both paintings belong together in that they not only tell the story of Venus but were to commemorate a most beautiful Florentine woman, Simonetta Vespucci, a painter’s wife who had died in her early years and who is depicted here, so Warburg demonstrates, as the Spring goddess.

Only by referring to a variety of sources, like classic literature, contemporary coins and medals or medieval wallpaintings Warburg can trace down the hidden meaning of the painting’s elements and solve the riddle. This is what turns the complexity of Botticelli’s paintings, though strange in their composition and simple in their overall object (the admiration of a woman), into high art worthy of a noble patron. Warburg’s study on Poliziano as the „programmer“ in Lorenzo’s service and Botticelli as his servant was in itself a concept and an idea that required a different type of a library and should survive in an independent institution, his later KBW.


But their was one obstacle to this project. At the time of Warburg’s promotion, there was no university in Hamburg; public lectures where organized and held by private individuals and societies; renowned teachers of this time, like young art historian Erwin Panofsky, were not exactly professors but served this privately organized "Vorlesungswesen".

For this reason Warburg who knew Panofsky well, was one of the initiators for founding a university, improving the intellectual situation of the public and through this promoting new fields of research, and Panofsky was appointed one of its first professors together with Warburg. Panofsky applied Warburg’s ideas in a slightly different sense as he stayed in the realm of traditional art historical objects; nevertheless his study „Idea. A concept in art theory“ that narrated the development of the mannerist „concetto“ was a tribute to Warburg’s own dissertation and helped it survive. With Panofsky’s emigration to the United States in 1933 Europe lost one of the most distinguished scholars who transplanted the tradition of German art history to the United States (here a photo with two other emigrants: H. Janson and W. S. Heckscher) and thereby continued to write the history of an idea, the survival of antiquity in different cultures.


Warburg himself did not live the rise of Nazi-Germany or the outbreak of a second world-war - he had died in 1929. But still, the setting up of an institution and his personal mental disposition consumed his energies. After his return from Florence in 1904 he had started employing assistants for a professional library and invited scholars to his private house; but only in 1919 the University became reality, and only in 1926 the library building, next to his own home, was finished. Having accomplished what he always contended, Warburg was hardly able to enjoy this late success. He was hospitalized in Ludwig Binswanger's renowned neurological clinic in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland from 1921 on.

     Warburg suffered strong depressions and symptoms of schizophrenia, and his assistants, in particular Fritz Saxl (whom you see in the left figure below), had to manage not only the entire library but also its ongoing research for a whole couple of years. When you read the early lectures of the Warburg Library in Hamburg, you have to realize that most of them were delivered in his private home, and some of them in the absence of Warburg who had initiated it all.



This is for example when the later president of Hamburg University, the famous philosopher Ernst Cassirer (right figure) presented his ideas of what he called the "symbolic forms" of man: the different means of expressing human needs and notions, and the relation to their media, like language, pictures, rites, dance etc. Cassirer, a Neo-Kantian theorist by training, was a faithful grateful in Warburg's rich but still private library since it covered all aspects of ethnology, religious history, philology, or astrology, and he also visited him in Kreuzlingen to support his colleague.
Cassirer appreciated Warburg's approach, and it encouraged him to continue his manuscript on the "symbolic forms" - an ambitious project which, in the end, resulted in a 4-volume "philosophic encyclopedia" of mankind and its symbols. It became clearer and clearer  that Warburg’s research was not only devoted to art historical subjects and historical empirism, but that the central idea of his work was of a purely inter-disciplinary kind.

When the new library was opened in 1926, it was already a monument for the history of human thought and the afterlife of antique tradition. From this moment on, Cassirer and his colleagues were welcomed by an inscription above the inner door of the library where Warburg had placed the greek word MNEMOSYNE for "memory", maintaining that the institute was devoted to the study of the "survival of the Antique" (Nachleben).

     Warburg applied the concept of exchange and migration not only to different epochs; he also assumed that the various parts of Europe, the north and south, communicated with each other, and that there was no supremacy of one over the other. Looking at flemish tapestries (1907), he described how the energetic patterns of farmers working in the woods, depicted on these images, echoed classical forms and thus, folklore belonged (as so-called low art) to the same cosmos of art historical style analysis as high art. As all the others methods of art history, „Style“ could be integrated into his set of tools. He shows that pamphlets enabled people across Europe to share a common Leidschatz, the common treasure of elementary passions and gestures.



One of the most famous articles by Warburg was on „Schifanoia and international astrology“ (from 1912), astudy on the Schifanoia Palace in Ferrara, Northern Italy, commisioned by the Este family and executed by Francesco del Cossa (and Tura). The astrological programme was closely related to the biographical dates of the patrons, and Warburg could once again develop the idea of „programming“ the arts by disposing of classical and non-classical sources. Warburg was now able to draw on his abundant account of methods and links; he demonstrated that the structure of all paintings follows a certain zodiacal scheme that is based on oriental visual and literal sources.

     Warburg himself claimed that the Symbolism of the series is complicated, phantastic and not easy to read. But clever decipherment of a detective, in oder to impress the reader with erudition, was not his first intention, since most of the analysis had already been done by Heidelberg religion historian and orientalist Franz Boll (Sphaera, 1903). Warburg the respected expert for Renaissance art, wanted to show that Renaissance is an unsufficient term that neglects the open borders of human knowledge and collective memory. He wrote:

Kommilitonen! Die Auflösung eines Bilderrätsels – noch dazu wenn man nicht einmal ruhig beleuchten, sondern nur kinematographisch scheinwerfen kann – war selbstverständlich nicht Selbstzweck meines Vortrages.



Having studies the exchange of north and south he now turned to the meeting point of east and west, not looking at melting pots like Jerusalem, Venice, or hellenistic Greece, but at the east within the west and its products. His plaidoyer for an interdisciplinary psychology of human expression was not yet the schizophrenic and complicated theory that Gombrich later saw in it, even though the immense number of references and evidences and the pathetic language of the author seemed to betray the increasing degree of mental irritation and puzzling. This is the first article where Warburg turns his results enthusiastically into a political statement on the situation of art and cultural studies. He argues against a „border patrol of disciplines”, and he does so two years before world-war one, an event that would destroy all his optimistic hopes of acommunication between different worlds. Nevertheless Warburg went on studying his “international” subjects, and in the 20s once again presented his results on the International Art History Congress in Rome, where he once again used photograps, fixed on black boards, to illustrate his topics. This was the modell for a later project, the famous Mnemosyne Atlas that nowadays receives the most attention. More about that later.

     As I have mentioned, Warburg died 3 years after the library had been opened. Another 4 years passed by, and the political change had made it impossible for the Warburg circle to remain in the city. The assistants Fritz Saxl and Gertrud Bing as well as young scholars Edgar Wind or Raymond Klibansky organised the transfer to London, pretending that it was a temporary loan to the London University. The 60.000 volumes, notes, some 20.000 photographs as well as all files and furniture never came back to Hamburg. After the war the library was re-opened in London by Saxl and Bing to be incorporated into the University, now to be called The Warburg Institute, with Saxl as its first director. Different in size and attitude, it somehow tried to preserve the interdisciplinary idea and the classification system of Warburg, but was soon forced to abandon the open structure as it grew to one of the biggest art historical libraries in the world. MNEMOSYNE now took on a second meaning: the survival of a methodological concept within a professionalized research and education environment. The original German word for Mnemosyne, the Nachleben or Afterlife, became a metaphorical term for this always ambivalent situation.


If you visit the library today you will still see this inscription; but you have to keep in mind that you’ll find a building that didn't serve the public but for a few years. In former times the library consisted of 4 floors with book stacks plus the contents of the impressive, oval reading room. The order of the different floors and the ways the library was organized has caused some dispute among scholars since it was assumed that the KBW was more than just as storage for books, but that it had, in a certain sense, envisioned the idea of a library as a creative place, a “generator” that combines objects and concepts of all kinds in a limited space and thus could be compared to a Kunstkammer rather than to a museum..



Despite the discussion of the original structure, its categories and keywords, it is, in my opinion, more important to stress the ambivalence of different people and mentalities coming together in this library. When Saxl classified books, gave them call numbers and entitles the different floors as “Image – Word – Orientation – Practice” he also stated how problematic it was to follow Warburg’s flexible and somewhat anarchistic practise. Warburg always moved the books and re-classified them according to his personal assumptions and spontaenous ideas, for the significance of every book depended on its context within the library, its neighborhood on the shelf. In this respect, the entire library was moving most of the time during its setting up in Hamburg. Assistants, at least two on each floor, supervised by Saxl and Bing, had to take care that Warburg’s anarchism did not interfere with their duties as library servicepeople. It was also Saxl who introduced the series of lectures in 1921 in order to protect Warburg’s achievements from oblivion, and to gather a community of researchers around him; and it was him, with Edgar Wind and Gertrud Bing, to continue the work on poster like picture displays that summarized central interests of Warburg’s work (see Gombrich). In the end, the collection became a mixture of both a private, mobile, thematical reference library, and a public library with a fixed system of call numbers. The library was partly integrated into the academic structures of the young university, and Librarian Fritz Saxl finally managed to include it into the Prussian inter-library loan system, as he later succeded in making it funded by the London University.

     Even though they did their best in supporting Warburg’s research they could not avoid standardizing the library, its divisions and contents in order to keep them usable. Even though, for example, the Warburg Institute in London imitated the original building by erecting a house with four floors in order to mirror the central issues of Warburg's iconology, Gertrud Bing, Warburg’s second assistant, had to change the order of books into Image – Word – Orientation- Practice, turning the classification system into an ontological struture that ascends from the religious reveration to enlightened practise. Following generations themselves considered Warburg's discoveries as "bookish", daring and abstract, have altered the notion of what the KBW was about.


As late as with the director Ernst Gombrich, famous for his easy-to-read "history of art" and himself being an emigrant from Vienna, a certain distance to the confusing treasures of Warburg's collections became apprehensible in the London institute. Gombrich clearly expressed his doubts in his first comprehensive biography of the scholar. Still the Warburg Institute is devoted to Warburg’s original fields of research. It investigates the iconologic relation of word and image; the passage of symbols throughout history; the revival of antiquity in Renaissance and its presence in modern life; the role of northern art, especially Dürer or Flemish North, for the lasting success of the Renaissance in the West; but on the other hand, the Warburg is now identified as a typical art historical institution. To a certain degree, this is not a proof for a lack of originality, but also a consequence of the fact, that so many ideas of Warburg have been adopted and popularized as art historical methods.



One of Warburg's and Saxl's last and unaccomplished projects was the Mnemosyne Atlas: Even though I can’t go into detail here it is worth outlining its history and drawing some general conclusions. The “Atlas Project” is now often quoted in academic lectures, and one might compare it, in its size, its infinite structure and ambitious intention, to collective projects as Proust's Recherche de la temp perdue. The title of it as well as the description of its function was the object of long discussions between Warburg and Bing and took years to develop. Menmosyne Atlas is thus only an abbreviated title for a much longer description, and the word Atlas refers to the German meaning of it as “Album” or “printed collection”.

[The following paragraphs have not been part of my lecture; they paraphrase a publication by Dutch Art Historian Peter van Huisstede who has written about the project in 1998.]



What is nowadays referred to as “the Mnemosyne Atlas” in fact consists of the remains of a project that was unfinished when Warburg died in 1929. As mentioned, the idea came from using images placed on large screens as instru­ments for the preparation of lectures and exhibitions, like in his Roman Schifanoia conference. Only much later, nearly at the end of his life, somewhere in the summer of 1927, Warburg formulated the idea of producing a systematic Bilderatlas, based on suggestions made by his assistants, making his lectures and small exhibitions a “spin-off” of this larger project in which he sought to present his scientific work, old and new, methods and results, in a coherent and novel way. It was presumably Saxl once again who hoped that, if Warburg is no longer able to publish linear texts, this would at least furnish him with a means to document the width of his focus and his ideas. But once again, Warburg took his time to move and re-arrange and explain, and so only a few number of photographs has been taken from the different walls, which are preserved in the archive of the Warburg Institute in London.While the first series consisted of about 43 screens, the second one, with a slightly different focus, had grown to already 71 screens. And the experiment went on. Logically there have been attempts to reconstruct the original structure, in particular by Bing and Gombrich in the 1930s, in order to demostrate the programme of Warburgian research, but all attempts have been considered as unsatisfying.

     Most of the screens are devoted to Warburg’s classical subjects as the relation between Northern Europe and Italy; the survival of the Pathosformel through the interest of Renaissance artists; the role of astrology; or the cultural aspects of festivities (Festwesen); Florentine civic culture etc.

     From the beginning, the logic of the Bilderatlas was problematic, as the different screens had to mediate between problems on different levels: Were they to show chronologically, the tradition of forms and gestures; or were they to make invisible things, like the function of a given work of art, visible by relating it to similar or different objects? And how can the relation of Pathosformel and Astrology be shown in a single exhibition concept? Warburg makes his own experiments with layouts and headlines, and the complexity of his short languages shows in how far he overcharges the objects:

Habe angefangen, die ganze Götterwelt auszuschneiden, um sie zunächst kos­mologisch-monströs, tragisch-griechisch, römisch-heroisch zu ordnen als chro­nologisch-historisches Phänomen.

Saxl’s idea to apply movable images as a visual aid proved indeed to be fertile soil for Warburg’s work with images. Warburg was used to work with sets of images and already in 1920 he spoke generally of a kulturwissenschaftliche Bildgeschichte. Furthermore, throughout Warburg’s work we find “story­boards” for lectures and articles. There he would draw small rectangles and squares standing for works of art and use lines and colors noting relations between these elements. Also very often we find sheets with a textual syn­opsis on certain topics, and drawings combined with text that layout the structure of a manuscript.

     Several notes from summer 1927 inform us that Warburg contemplated on a printed collection of images forming an Atlas that contained both research topics, astrology and Pathosformel, hitherto treated separately. Only some weeks later another one states optimistically that

[...] der Gesamtrahmen für den Atlas formuliert sich (kulturwissenschaftliche Beschreibung) Von überlebenden Prägekraft antiker Ausdruckswerte im europäischen Geisteshaushalt (Kulturkreis) [...] .

At the end of November 1927, Warburg returns from a journey to Italy. During his absence work must have continued. At the end of 1927, first parts of the publication are presented to visitors of the KBW. As Bing writes in the following entry of the scientific journal, work goes on without interruption. Warburg himself was very eager to complete the project and looked out for an ade­quate title. He discussed it via the diary entries with Getrud Bing, but he is not satisfied with the first attempts which read: Mnemo­syne. Kulturwissenschaftliche Betrachtung über Stilwandel in der Menschendar­stellung der europäischen Renaissance. Now he suggests

Titel: Mnemosyne. Bilderreihen zu einer kulturwissenschaftlichen Betrachtung der europäischen Renaissance.

After Bings comment to this Warburg, at half past four in the morning, comes up with the following proposal:

Titel: Mnemosyne. Bilderreihen zu einer kulturwissenschaftlichen Betrachtung antikisierender Ausdrucksprägung.


Warburg died on the 26th of October 1929. The journals make clear that texts would constitute an important part of the publication of the Atlas; to inter­prete it as ‘Art History without words’ would clearly oversubtilize the mat­ter. As we see, the Atlas was a highly dynamic project: it changed, travelled, was used to design exhibi­tions, and stayed, until its very end, work in progress.

     There were other problems that made the work on the Atlas an infinite endeavour. Warburg was a technophile. He was interested in telecommunication, the press and travelling; all these new technologies enabled new forms of travelling, but also prolonged the old idea of migration that connected civilizations from the beginning. Technology, for example in the form of printing,was also the direct link between Dürer’s engravings and the 28 telephones in his avant-garde library building. He had already written an article entitled „Airship and submarine in medieval imagination“ that suggested that former societies had anticipated what he called “vehicles of thought” and imagination that we dispose of today. Images were their vehicles.





The Mnemosyne Atlas was not only an invention of the KBW – it had predessors in other published forms of encyclopedia and collections in the mid 19th century when the term “Atlas” was introduced into the German bookmarket language. But the Mnemosyne Atlas was insofar the formulation of Warburg’s ultimate problem as it reflected the collision of individual interest and collective research, the analysis of mass images versus the estimation of high art, the reproduction of art and its original process of production as an expression of cultivation of mind and life through art. To a certain degree, Warburg was overstrained by the possibilities of new media and the simoultaneous wish to communicate the value of classic art. He took close looks at popular, moving, and reproduceable media that could even more assert the survival of forms and their intrinsic energies. His objects of study where carpets, stamps, postcards, pamphlets, chap books and even technical media. This was a reason why he was read, after his death by Ethnographers and Anthropologists, Orientalists, or Philosophers rather than by art historians. These disciplines never intended to distinguish between high or low art, popular or court culture, and they have done more for Warburg's reanimation than the art historians of the 1950s and 60s.





During his lifetime, Warburg was well-known among academics, and he also had bigger local audiences when giving lectures in Hamburg or appearing on international conferences. Nevertheless, he never became an intellectual star like, for instance, Sigmund Freud or Friedrich Nietzsche who are so well-known even outside the university. He also did not cultivate close relations with art critics and artists, for his time was fully devoted to reading, writing, and travelling.

     His own life being a travel of ideas and an attempt to lay his personal map out on the world, he didnt have the spare time to exchange and mingle with painters or politicians, even though he sometimes tried. To a certain degree, of course, he didn't need to. But Warburg's character made it harder for his reputation to persist after his death and survive the effects of emigration, prosecution, and destruction, or the political tensions of post-war restauration, cold war and finally the social revolution of the 1960s and 70s. Also in his lifetime not everyone could intrude his elite cosmos, as Wolfgang Kemp has shown when describing Walter Benjamin's failing attempts to be admitted to this circle.

     The remaining building in Hamburg was abused by Nazi organizations; after the war it was no longer wanted back by the Warburg Family - the loss of this institution was seemingly a too open wound to be cured; so the building was transformed into a film studio and occupied by promotion agencies, even though, from time to time, journalists or writers reminded of the unsolved problem of neglecting Warburg's heritage.

     In 1990 an international conference, organized by Hamburg scholars Michael Diers, Horst Bredekamp, and Charlotte Schoell-Glass, found such an extraordinary resonance that it became impossible to ignore the current situation of the former library building any longer; and finally in 1995 the premise was acquired by the city of Hamburg.

     Shortly before, Martin Warnke, who had contributed to Warburg's memory by publishing a series of articles about him, was awarded an important research grant that enabled him to extend his own project called “political iconography”. This project had tried to apply Warburg's methodology to a smaller but more actual aspect of artistic production: politics. Warnke tries to uncover the languages of fine arts in terms of their patronage, political meanings, and public functions, in order to distinguish it from mere “classical” or "christian interpretation. Warnke’s approach is less esoteric or complex, but clearly more pragmatic. Disposing of a larger amount of money, he could create a collection of photographs and books that explicetely followed some of Warburg's principles, i.e. a) using the "good neighborhood" of objects being brought in variable contexts and b) using images to visualize abstract processes and ideas. This collection was considered the proper follower of Warburg's own one and it was thus decided to place it in the former KBW in 1995. It is today called "Research Department for Political Iconography" and it formally belongs to the University's Institute of Art History. Other parts are the Warburg Archiv that contains original and copied documents of his history as well as all his publications, and the Archive of Scholarly Emigration. When most of the members of the German community and the Hamburg schoo in particular were expelled, they turned to London, the U.S., Southern America or Israel. By this, Warburg's method of Iconology became one of the most applied methods in art history, even though people associated it more with the Warburg Institute and did not read his writings in detail. 


Warburg did not describe the development of the arts or the history of Western culture; he was looking for the meaning and the functions of art for different societies, their role for different social classes and the energy of cultural memory they preserve. This is what must be called “iconology” (even though the terms is often used in other misleading senses). Warburg used his "laboratory of the mind" (so he said) to cure the world from the ignorances of its heritage, making the reader in his lecture room a "patient" to be cured from narrow-mindedness, from the defects of western culture and psychic dependence. This is the main difference between a Cultural history (written by contemporary scholars like Karl Lamprecht or Georg Steinhausen) and a Library for Cultural Studies, searching for the presence of a problem. Defining the relevance of the Antique was to go beyond modern history back to the roots of culture, where east meets west. Unlike famous Swiss Historian Jacob Burckhardt, who was admired and criticized as the "wise man from Basel", history was nothing to be narrated or reported as an event. "Detail" did not so much mean the details of historical events, but the traces and clues within an work of art that lead the interpreter beyond its framework. The arrangement of the library therefore did not attempt to gather a large number of historical documents, but to combine them in different and multi-dimensional modes. The detail of the image is not only a sophisticated quotation of contemporary ideas, it is a hyperlink to cultural history.



In 1997 when the funds of our research department were nearly consumed, a new project was given to the institute, and it was called "Warburg Electronic Library". The WEL is mainly based on the collections of the research department and tries to digitize and classify its contents in a new way. Librarians in the audience may know that the term "Electronic Library" is a technical one, that means, it does not only stand for books on the shelf, but it means an information system where all objects can be individually arranged and resorted, turning the public library of a database into the personalized, the reference library of an individual.

     Also the WEL is not a library in the traditional sense, but a multimedia information system containing images, texts, an other files, classified according to a flexible web of indexes. It is entirely built on Internet technology and can be consulted through the www. Like in Warburg’s – or in Martin Warnke’s card box, all cards are classified thematically, i. e., not by names of kings or artists but exclusively by keywords like "Piece" or “Arrival”; this is a merely comparative access in Warburg’s tradition. This is only possible when connecting all entries by hypertext in a quasi three-dimensional way. Since we know Warburg's fascination for technology, we assumed that he would have applied the computer in precisely this way and felt therefore legitimized to name the project after him.

     Peter van Huisstede has produced electronic versions of the Bilderatlas in oder to prove their complexity as well as their history; this is an alternative of what could be done with Warburg's heritage. Another one is the project I have been responsible for during the last couple of years and which intends to preserve some of Warburg’s ideas not materially, but in litteris, by establishing a digital information system and to set up a flexible tool for art historical research that not only stores and provides objects but also documents the use of these objects.


It is interesting to see that Warburg's person and his ideas, after having been neglected for a certain period, have become recepted once again and even stronger than while he was alive. Even though most art historians in the U.S. have somehow been influenced by what we call the Hamburg School, that is the emigrated and expelled members of our local institute and their direct descendants in America, the name Warburg was usually combined with a different institution, the Warburg Institute in London that keeps up his tradition as well as it houses all his former collections of books, photographs etc.  The discussion of his works in France and their recent translation into English have changed the situation dramatically. There is no conference where his name wouldn't be mentioned at least once. When I attended a meeting in the U.S. some weeks ago, almost every speaker quoted him.

     When the interest in his work remained restricted to a small community, it had various reasons: His refined and creative style of writing (which is, indeed much easier to read than sometinmes pretended, but you have to read him very slowly); the limited number of publications in relation to the lenght and intensity of his studies; and finally the complexity of his method that he developed and refined during his lifetime and that provoked other scholars - even friends - to draw the conclusion it may sometimes be advisable not to follow and not to believe the author in spite of the fact that he was right, due to the intensity and scrutiny of his being a detective of cultural history in all its details (Der liebe Gott steckt im Detail). In the end, Warburg became one of those tragic names of academic life that are always mentioned with reveration, but no longer really read.

     This situation changed when, maybe by accident, scholars and biographers in the United States, in England, France and Germany, started re-reading his texts after the war and realized how much it had to to with all of their single disciplines. The Holocaust memory made the idea of collective memory that Maurice Halbwachs had expressed a general metaphor for the global catastrophe of modernity and the suffering of a whole generation. His memory was never lost among scholars like Jean Seznec (Survival of the pagan gods), Pierre Bourdieu (On the symbolic forms), Francis Yates, and through them it became known among artists, journalists, and filmmakers. Artists like Richter, Kabakov, or Boltanski themselves used the idea and concept of 'Mnemosyne' to express the inexpressable catastrophe of a collapsed european memory and its self-destruction.

     By re-reading Warburg, it was realized that every page of his printed articles corresponds to 500 pages of manuscript, thousands of notes and hundreds of books. Slowly people became aware that Warburg must have produced one of the most fascinating archives and complex libraries ever done; and that his work in total was an unparalleled survey of collective memory and its various media.

     Recently, the understanding of Warburg's method has once again undergone several revisions; two of them may be mentioned, one by Frankfurt Art Historian Klaus Herding, who connected him to Freud's concept of "Psychohistory", and one by Charlotte Schoell-Glass from Hamburg; she is editor of Warburg’s Diaries. She also demonstrated in how far antisemitism and the attempts to extinguish it by unveiling the history of cultural misunderstandings were a motor for Aby Warburg's ambitious and self-exploiting work. Warburg, a scholar from Hamburg and a cosmopolitan who called himself a Jew by blood, a Hamburger by heart and a Florentine in his soul. Schoell-Glass shows in how far Warburg's work was devoted not only to the history of culture but also to their present relevance in society; she assumes that antisemitism in particular was the motor, the hidden thread or motive for a research that tried to analyze processes of western culture in order to understand and extinct the roots of superstition, of antisemitism, or political radicalism.

Research is thus more than just objective and empirical exploration that is legitimized in itself by its unforseen discoveries. Research has to trace the social meaning of cultural and natural phenomena and contribute to a "Second Enlightenment" as Warburg called it. While Freud tried to formulate a "psychohistory" that defines man as a being that is caught in a web of subindividual forces and superindividual demands, Warburg wrote a history of images that teaches us the function of images in general, i.e.: as an organ to express social expectations and needs, and thus as a means of religious or political communication.


 I would concede that anti-semitism has increased Warburg's fears and his pessimism, adding that his personal disposition made it easier for the disease to break out, being a symptomatic expression of the difficult cultural transition of his time.


A choice of recent titles on Aby Warburg

(See also the re-edition of his complete works, Berlin 2000-)

Robert Galitz, Brita Reimers (ed.): Aby M Warburg. "Ekstatische Nymphe... trauernder Flußgott". Portrait eines Gelehrten, Hamburg 1995 (unfortunately out of print)

Aby Warburg: The renewal of pagan antiquity: contributions to the cultural history of the European Renaissance, Introduction by Kurt W. Forster, Translation by David Britt, Los Angeles, CA (Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities) 1999

Bernd Roeck: Der junge Aby Warburg, München 1997

Martin Warnke, coll. Claudia Brink (ed.): Der Bilderatlas Mnemosyne, Berlin 2000

Marc Baratin (ed.): Le pouvoir des bibliothèques: la mémoire des livres en Occident, Paris 1996

Tilmann von Stockhausen: Die Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg: Architektur, Einrichtung und Organisation, Hamburg : Dölling und Galitz, 1992

Expo. Cat. Il cosmo incantato di Schifanoia. Aby Warburg e la storia delle immagini astrologiche, ed. Cinzia Fratucello and Christina Knorr, Ferrara 1997

Charlotte Schoell-Glass: Aby Warburg und der Antisemitismus: Kulturwissenschaft als Geistespolitik, Frankfurt am Main 1998

Michael Diers (ed.): Porträt aus Büchern: Bibliothek Warburg und Warburg Institute, Hamburg - 1933 - London [Begleitpublikation zur Ausstellung in der Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg - Carl von Ossietzky, vom 3. - 23. November 1993], Hamburg 1993

Michael Diers: Von der Ideologie- zur Ikonologiekritik: die Warburg-Renaissancen, in: Frankfurter Schule und Kunstgeschichte [beruht auf Referaten des Symposiums Frankfurter Schule und Kunstgeschichte Ende Juni 1991 im Museum für Kunsthandwerk, Frankfurt am Main] Berlin 1992, S. 19-39

Horst Bredekamp / Michael Diers / Charlotte Schoell-Glass (ed.): Aby Warburg: Akten des internationalen Symposions [Hamburg 1990], Weinheim 1991

Matthew Rampley: The Remembrance of Things Past. On Aby M. Warburg and Walter Benjamin, Wiesbaden 2000

Marianne Koos (ed.): Begleitmaterial zur Ausstellung "Aby M. Warburg. Mnemosyne", Hamburg 1994

Expo. Cat. Aby M. Warburg: Bildersammlung zur Geschichte von Sternglaube und Sternkunde im Hamburger Planetarium (Katalog zu den Ausstellungen 25.1.1993 - 13.3.1993: "Aby Warburg. Mnemosyne"), hrsg. von Uwe Fleckner, Hamburg 1993

L'art et les Révolutions, Akten des 17. Intern. Kunsthistorikerkongresses, CIHA, Straßburg 1992, Sektion 5