Detail of a portrait of Aby Warburg by Rudolf Dührkoop, 1925.
Detail of a portrait of Aby Warburg by Rudolf Dührkoop, 1925. Photo: Bundespressekonferenz.

*By Rafael Cardoso

At the exact moment when the Berlin Biennale is making its contribution to the effort to make the art scene more inclusive and current, two important exhibition spaces in the German capital turn their attention to the work of an art historian, who died more than ninety years ago. , specialist in Italian Renaissance. the exhibitions Aby Warburg, Mnemosyne Image Atlas: The Original e Aby Warburg, between cosmos and pathos: Berliner works from the Mnemosyne image atlas, occupy respectively the cult Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) and the Gemäldegalerie museum. What makes Warburg's work so relevant to the present that it deserves this double highlight and, even in times of a pandemic, attracts a growing audience?

Aby Warburg. Reading room at Warburg Cultural Studies Library, Heilwigstr, Hamburg, February 1927. Photo courtesy HKW.
Reading room at Warburg Cultural Studies Library, Heilwigstr, Hamburg, February 1927. Photo courtesy HKW.

Aby Warburg (1866-1929) is no stranger to the history of art, but rather one of the great names of the generation who theorized a “science of images” (Bildwissenschaft, in German), at the beginning of the 20th century. With the resurgence of this type of approach, in the wake of followers such as Georges Didi-Huberman and Horst Bredekamp, ​​his intellectual reputation grew to the point that he became a fad among art scholars. The problem is that Warburg is one of those authors more referred to than read. Many of those who invoke his name do so only to justify approximations between works from different contexts. Calling himself a Warburgian became, in the curatorial environment, a license to mix garlic with junk. The call pseudomorphism (this looks like that, so there must be a relationship) is a common side effect of taking Warburg pills outside the indicated dosage.

Much of the disorientation surrounding Warburg stems from the fact that his latest work, possibly his greatest, remained unfinished. When he died in 1929, the author was working on an atlas of images entitled mnemosyne – in honor of the Greek goddess of memory, mother of the nine muses. Following his own logic, Warburg mounted images on panels, organizing them by thematic groups and keywords, pointing out persistence and coincidences, looking for echoes and repetitions between works not necessarily originating from neighboring cultural contexts. This allowed for comparisons, sometimes brilliant, sometimes tortuous, between antiquity and modernity; East and West; sky cards and tarot cards; Renaissance drawings and advertising posters. Based on his vast erudition and historical knowledge, he developed an original method of thinking not only about the meaning of images, but also the way they signify.

Aby Warburg. Assembly of the "Atlas Mnemosyne". on display at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. Photo: courtesy of the museum.
Assembly of the “Atlas Mnemosyne”. on display at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. Photo: courtesy of the museum.

At the time of Warburg's death, the atlas set consisted of nearly a thousand plates spread over 63 panels. The rise of Nazism cast doubt on the fate of his library in Hamburg, and his disciples organized the transfer of the books and iconographic materials to London, where they formed the basis for the creation of the Warburg Institute in 1934. Since then, there have been several attempts to publish versions of the atlas, in whole or in part, which only increased disputes over the meaning of the work. The current exhibition at HKW aims to reconstitute the “original” version, mined in extensive research in the archives of the Warburg Institute, where the boards were scattered among thousands of others. In parallel, the exhibition at the Gemäldegalerie brings together half a hundred works studied by Warburg and included in the panels of mnemosyne through reproductions. Together, the two shows offer a unique opportunity to glimpse the processes behind his thinking.

What is the relevance of this intellectual legacy for today? There is no doubt that Warburg was a pioneer in conceiving images in a widespread and universal way, without hierarchical divisions between cultures and media. For him, a photograph interested as much as a painting, non-European peoples as much as Europe. He was a pioneer not only in his look at the language of forms – the so-called iconology – but also in his interest in ethnographic studies as a tool for understanding art. He was a thinker who understood human culture as a whole and sought to follow the development of images as a clue to unravel what we have in common. He anticipated, in many ways, the ideas of visual culture and global art that today challenge not only historians but artists as well. We can learn a lot from his work – above all that the best visual thinking requires deepening the repertoire. Mnemosyne, after all, is memory. From her womb, arts and history sprang up.

* Rafael Cardoso is a writer and art historian, PhD from the Courtauld Institute of Art. He is a member of the Postgraduate Program in Art History at the UerJ and works as a research associate at the Lateinamerika-Institut of the Freie Universität Berlin. He is the author of several books on the history of art and design, as well as four works of fiction.

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