Aby Warburg and the Public Purposes of Art in Hamburg (1)

By Russell, Mark | Canadian Journal of History, August 2004 | Go to article overview

Aby Warburg and the Public Purposes of Art in Hamburg (1)


Russell, Mark, Canadian Journal of History


Aby Warburg (1866-1929) has been celebrated as many things: as a pioneering art historian, an historian of mentalities, an historical anthropologist, a cultural semiotician, a pioneer in the theory and study of collective memory, and as the founder of the Warburg Institute. (2) And yet, despite his current international reputation, it has often been suggested that Warburg was a hermetic scholar, a bibliophile cloistered within the library that was first opened in Hamburg in 1926 as the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg. Those scholars of German history who have turned their attention to Warburg, like Peter Gay and George Mosse, have treated him as a scholar working in relative isolation, especially in Weimar society: Gay wrote that Warburg's library did its work in "peaceful obscurity." (3) In contrast, the eminent public profiles of other members of the Warburg family have been acknowledged by scholars. This is especially true of Aby's younger brother Max (1867-1946), director of the family bank, M.M. Warburg & Company. Max attained a respected position in official circles as financial adviser to the Kaiser, financier of colonial expansion, representative of the German Treasury at the Versailles peace conference, and member of the general council of the Reichsbank. (4)

It is true that Aby Warburg remained, first and foremost, an independent scholar deeply committed to historical problems of art, culture and psychology. Especially from 1910, he was also seriously engaged in fostering the growth of his enormous private library. However, it is surprising that scholars have mostly ignored Ernst Gombrich's assertion that Warburg became "a Hamburg institution, taking a lively part in local problems." (5) Little attention has been afforded Warburg as a perspicacious observer of Wilhelmine society and culture who played an active role in Hamburg's cultural and educational affairs. In fact, by seeing him as immersed only in the study of recondite symbols and allegories, or claiming he tried to distance himself from "the onrushing life around him" and was little known outside a small group of scholars at the time of his death, some scholarship has misrepresented Aby Warburg. (6)

In a letter of 1907, Warburg exclaimed that "only the vulgar believe that scholarship and practice have nothing to do with one another." (7) Although the practical application of his thought was often of limited duration and experimental in nature, "practice" meant many things for Warburg. In 1905, he organized Hamburg's folklore congress, participated in the city's third Art Education Day, and became a member of the Ethnology Museum's commission. He joined in the creation of Hamburg's Academic Foundation, a forerunner of the university, and was appointed as an expert consultant to the city's commission for archaeology in 1909. In 1912, he took a role in the founding of the Cassel Foundation which promoted academic contacts and interchange between England and Germany. In the same year, he was hired by the Hamburg-America Line as an advisor on the pictorial decoration of the steamship Imperator, at that time, the largest passenger ship in the world. (8) His advice was sought by private citizens on the purchase of artworks and he was often instrumental in establishing contacts between artists and prospective buyers. His commitment to popular education began in 1899 with a lecture series on the Italian Renaissance for Hamburg's ministry of education. Other series by Warburg continued for several years and attracted wide interest, drawing audiences of up to 400 people. (9) In 1908, Professor Erich Marcks--historian and biographer of Bismarck--wrote of Warburg's lectures in these terms: "for these things Warburg is of absolutely the first rank, more competent than any of us, and it is a service to encourage him to public engagement." (10) Warburg was also one of the many voices calling for the foundation of the University of Hamburg in 1919 and would lecture there in the later 1920s. …

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