From Symbol to Allegory: Aby Warburg's Theory of Art

Article excerpt

Recent years have seen a remarkable reawakening of critical interest among Anglophone art historians in the German roots of their discipline. In particular, Michael Podro's book The Critical Historians of Art has seemingly acted as a catalyst for renewed attention to a subject that has more usually been restricted in its appeal, for obvious reasons, to German scholars.l However, while Podro's book deals with a broad tradition extending from Kant to Panofsky, discussing the more famous figures in German art history as well as lesserknown writers such as Adolf Goller, Anton Springer, or Gottfried Semper, the main beneficiaries of this new critical interest have tended to be Erwin Panofsky and Alois Riegl. The reasons for the interest in Panofsky are fairly clear; having immigrated to the United States during the 1930s, Panofsky was already prominent in the field of AngloAmerican scholarship through books such as Studies in Iconology or Early Netherlandish Painting.2 Hence, the "return" to Panofsky consisted largely of an extension of interest in his work to encompass those writings produced before Panofsky's departure from Germany.3 Riegl, on the other hand, has benefited from the recognition of surface similarities between his structural analysis of the grammar of form and the current "linguistic turn" in the social sciences. It is this topicality of Riegl, perhaps, that motivates Margaret Iversen's study of Riegl.4 In addition, at the time of writing, not only has Riegl's Stilfragen been translated,5 but also translations are currently under way of Das Hollandische Gruppenportrat and Spatromische Kunstindustrie, the latter having already been translated once (though poorly) little more than ten years ago.6

Within this context one person remains notable by his absence. I am referring to Aby Warburg, and it is all the more curious that he should have suffered relative neglect, given the continued existence of the institute bearing his name. It is important not to read such an observation as recommending that we merely resurrect his writings, as if the investigation into the origins of art history were merely an archaeological exercise. Indeed, if the return to the origins of art history has any meaning, it can only be because the thought of the discipline's German and Austrian "grandfathers" is still felt to be of relevance today.7 Rather, I draw attention to the neglect of Warburg precisely because it is through an engagement with his thought, more than with that of Panofsky or Riegl, that the continued importance of the philosophical concerns of the art history of the beginning of this century becomes most evident. And yet, if the example of Warburg can serve above all as the locus of a meaningful dialogue with art history's past, it is also the case that he has frequently been seen as an antecedent, his work treated as a prelude rather than as meriting substantial attention in its own right. Consequently, since Sir Ernst Gombrich's worthy study of 1970,8 very little has been written in English on Warburg,9 an omission that stands in contrast with the situation in Germany.10

In this paper, therefore, I intend to indicate some of the philosophical, psychological, and art historiographical concerns of Warburg's work that suggest why it should remain an object of more than mere historical interest. Central to my argument is the contention that in many respects the character of Warburg's interest in the "Nachleben der Antike" has been misrecognized. In particular, I intend to demonstrate that Warburg's researches, symbolized perhaps in his dictum "Der liebe Gott steckt im Detail" (God is in the detail),11 have often been interpreted, wrongly, as involving little more than the amassing of philological data. This view of Warburg thereby pays scant attention to the general cultural-theoretical perspective underpinning his work. Undoubtedly, Warburg's own immersion in often arcane and esoteric bodies of knowledge has contributed to the underplaying of the philosophical basis of his thought. …