Zeitung Heute : Returning to Warburg’s House

Developing models for collaborative problem solving in the humanities was Aby Warburg’s passion – and his legacy

By Elizabeth Sears

The "New Art History" of recent decades has sought methodological stimulation in many spheres – in literary theory, social thought, philosophy, anthropology, psychology, cultural studies – and also, to a degree, in past art history. Those who dip into the writings of art historians active in the early twentieth century are often astonished by the sophistication and relevance of past analytical experiments. When in 1974 the art historian T. J. Clark called for a new social history of art in a polemical essay in the Times Literary Supplement, he referred back to the work of such thinkers as Aby Warburg, Heinrich Wölfflin, Erwin Panofsky, Fritz Saxl, and Julius von Schlosser and wondered how their ideas had got lost.

Historiographical study has in fact burgeoned since the late 1970s, and most of the art historians Clark mentioned have themselves been the object of scholarly study. But it is the first figure in his list, the Hamburg-born private scholar Aby Warburg (1886-1929), whose work has become the focus of a veritable subfield: his work has been actively "retrieved" by critical theorists and brought into current academic conversations. There are many reasons for this. Warburg's efforts to place the investigation of images on a new footing by integrating art historical work into the projects of cultural history and psychology, his impatience with disciplinary isolation, his alertness to the consequences of modernity – all have made his work seem relevant to ongoing initiatives. The private library he amassed in Hamburg (Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg) still excites wide interest, for his goal was to create – through the selection and arrangement of books – a humanistic laboratory for the collective solution of academic problems. Incomplete but infinitely suggestive, Warburg's project has drawn scholars of radically different temperaments and training to the task of mediating his heritage.

Today, when we are actively seeking models for collaborative work in the humanities, the study of the Warburgian endeavor seems timely. My current project focuses on the earliest reception and use of Warburg's work, from the 1920s through the 1960s. These were turbulent years, of course – years that saw much disruption and displacement: the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg (KBW) itself left Germany for London in 1933. I study the interweaving histories of scholars of many nationalities, of different schools and different generations during this period. All participated in a current of study understood to be in some sense "Warburgian" – sometimes called Ikonologie/Iconology – which abandoned pure formalism in favor of inquiry into the "content" of works of art in the broadest sense. My interest lies in this mediated Warburgian tradition, in the work it accomplished in its time and, more particularly, in the kinds of academic-political identities it conferred.

In 1928/29 the elderly Aby Warburg traveled through Italy in the company of his assistant, Gertrud Bing, stayed for months at the Palace Hotel in Rome, worked on his Bilderatlas, mingled with the international scholarly community, and delivered a well-attended lecture at the Hertziana (the guest list for which still survives). Warburg's scholarly preoccupations at this time serve as an effective springboard for an investigation of the Warburgian mission as understood and promoted by his immediate followers and taken up by others over time. Drawing on unpublished archival data, I describe a collective scholarly endeavor conducted in sometimes desperate political circumstances. As one becomes alert to pressures on individuals – their greater purposes, allegiances, alliances – one comes to read the published work with a fresh understanding. Seemingly innocuous historical analyses become statements in academic duels; "ivory tower" study emerges as politically charged.

Out of the Warburg Institute Archive, for example, comes the story of German-French collaboration in a time when political tensions between the two countries and cultures were high. In 1930 the young Jean Seznec, a scholar at the French School in Rome, wrote to Saxl at the KBW asking for advice on research dealing with Renaissance renderings of the pagan gods. Ten years later the Warburg Institute published his Survivance des dieux antiques – a book providing an elegant introduction to this key Warburgian theme. In the intervening years the friendship caused Saxl to think comparatively about German and French iconographical scholarship and to seek means of promoting exchange, so that one "Volk" could learn from the other. The Heckscher-Archive in the Warburg Haus in Hamburg yields other sorts of information. William Heckscher was a student of Panofsky in the 1930s. His preserved notes – including a record of a seminar on Quellenkunde (Summer Semester 1932) given in the KBW by Panofsky and Saxl - give insight into how future iconologists were trained. The papers of Edgar Wind, a philosopher and art historian who joined the staff of the KBW just before Warburg's death, are preserved at Oxford. Through Wind's correspondence it is possible to follow debates within the Institute as to what kinds of scholarly activity constituted a "legitimate extension" of Warburg's project.

My enquiry into the early reception of Warburg's work includes treatment of a good number of scholars of Warburg's generation and the next, some now nearly forgotten, who are interesting on both cultural-historical and intellectual-historical grounds. It ends at the point when narratives of the history of iconology begin to be written - the moment when codification of the method signaled the end of the initial missionary fervor, and when methodological assumptions were laid out and made susceptible to the critique that soon followed. In a paper on "The Genesis of Iconology," delivered in 1964 at the 21st International Congress of Art History in Bonn, William Heckscher undertook to lay out the stages by which Warburg had first developed his innovative "iconological" methodology. In the course of his research he asked for access to Warburg's papers. At the Warburg Institute in London, Gertrud Bing, a few months before her death, helped him to navigate through Warburg's sprawling Nachlass.

On 25 May 1964, she wrote to Heckscher saying she was pleased that his "Warburgian search has borne some fruit," adding, with prophetic intuition:

It was the first time that my attempt at getting some order into Warburg's papers has undergone a test by someone from outside, and I am glad to feel that his records are now open to scholarly inspection. It promises well for the future, because there is certainly more in them than has appeared so far. The more I get down to it the more I feel that our picture of the man is not by any means exhaustive.

It would soon be time for critical theorists to turn to the Warburgian source.

Elizabeth Sears is Professor of Art History, University of Michigan. Gertrud Bing’s quote: Heckscher Archive at the Warburg Archive of the Kunstgeschichtliches Seminar, University of Hamburg.

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