Aby Warburg, Images and Exhibitions

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Aby Warburg, Images and Exhibitions Review of: Aby Warburg, Bilderreihen und Ausstellungen edited by Uwe Fleckner and Isabelle Woldt, Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2012. 470 pp. ISBN: 978-3-05- 004268-8. 248 Euros

As Aby Warburg has become the object of increasing critical attention in the past 30 or so years, scholars have encountered a basic difficulty: the restricted availability of his writings. During his lifetime Warburg published only a small number of articles and essays, and plans to bring out his complete works in the 1930s stopped with the two-volume The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity, which mostly consisted of material that had already appeared in the public domain, but with the addition of synopses of some of his lectures.1 For Anglophone scholars the problem was even worse; aside from his lecture on the serpent ritual that was published in the Journal of the Warburg Institute in 1939, the only other writings that were available in English were those passages selected by Sir Ernst Gombrich for inclusion in his intellectual biography of Warburg of 1970.2

Since the mid-1990s the situation has dramatically changed. Not only did Nicholas Mann, director of the Warburg Institute, open up the Warburg Archive and encourage scholars to engage with its material, also, the Getty Research Institute funded a translation of The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity, while a revised version of his serpent ritual lecture was also published in the United States.3 As anyone familiar with the Warburg Archive in London will know, however, this represents only the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, Gombrich's biography, for all its limitations, performed an invaluable service in indicating the intellectual richness of Warburg's extensive unpublished oeuvre, from lecture drafts to notebooks and countless unfinished projects.

There have been attempts to bring some of this material to light, such as a German edition of his lecture on astrology dedicated to the memory of Franz Boll, or an Italian translation (with parallel German text) of Warburg's early notebooks 'Basic Fragments towards a monistic Psychology of Art'.4 A recent single-volume of Warburg's collected works included the contents of The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity as well as various other essays and lectures from the archive, including the introduction to the Mnemosyne Atlas and his early text 'Symbolism as the Determination of Scope.'5 By far the most ambitious project, however, has been the edition of the complete works of Warburg published by the Akademie Verlag in Berlin, of which this is the latest volume. Beginning with the re-publication of The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity in 1998, the project, a collaboration between the Warburg Institute and the University of Hamburg, will include all the significant material in the Warburg Archive.

The current volume, which gathers together the various thematic sets and series of images Warburg compiled after his return to Hamburg from Kreuzlingen in 1925, is very much a companion to the Mnemosyne Atlas, already published as part of the edition in 1999.6 Publication of the latter was already a welcome step, for although it had become the object of a considerable degree of interest, the Atlas remained elusive, its plates existing in several different versions in the Warburg Archive, successive commentaries offering only glimpses. The latest volume is not only significant in its right for making a new body of material available, it is also valuable in casting light on the Mnemosyne.

One of the key questions to do with the Atlas has been that of its status. While its format was novel, it was generally assumed to represent the culmination of Warburg's oeuvre, a synoptic presentation of the themes that had preoccupied him for the previous 35 to 40 years. Thus, familiar subjects reappear, such as the Palazzo Schifanoia frescoes, the Tempio Malatestiano, Botticelli's Birth of Venus and Primavera, astrological symbols, or the pathos formulae of Mantegna, Dürer and Rembrandt, confirming the sense that it was, in a certain sense, merely a restatement of his lifelong concerns. …

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