Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

The Warburg/Arnheim Effect: Linking the Cultural/social and Perceptual Psychology of Art

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

The Warburg/Arnheim Effect: Linking the Cultural/social and Perceptual Psychology of Art

Article excerpt

Aby Warburg and Rudolf Arnheim make for rather improbable bedfellows, at least in the light of historical evidence, which does not suggest any explicit link between the two of them.1 In 1923, nineteen-year-old Rudolf Arnheim enrolled at Friedrich- Wilhelms Universität to study psychology, philosophy, art history and music history - in the same year that Aby Warburg presented his fellow patients at the sanatorium in Kreuzlingen with his famous talk on the snake dance of the Kachina Indians, which he had observed on a trip to New Mexico in 1896.2 The 1920s were a difficult time in Germany, the Weimar Republic was in the grip of catastrophic inflation, a dire omen of its impending collapse and of the tragic events to follow. Years later, describing his first year at the university, Arnheim recalled accompanying his father (the owner of a piano factory) every Friday to the bank, carrying several suitcases filled with millions of Reichmarks, hurrying to pay the factory workers' wages, which had to be paid the same day to avoid further depreciation, and he remarked on how such experiences left him feeling insecure.3 But this was also a time of extraordinary intellectual and cultural fermentation in Berlin and Hamburg, as is apparent from several events that occurred over the course of 1923.

It was in the notes for his Kreuzlingen talk in 1923 that Warburg first formulated the plan for what would become his most lasting legacy, the Kultur- wissenschaftliche Bibliothek, which he later established in Hamburg:'How did human and pictorial expression originate; what are the feelings or points of view, conscious or unconscious, under which they are stored in the archives of memory? Are there laws to govern their formation or re-emergence?'4 In that same year, Arnheim's doktorvater Max Wertheimer published an article titled 'Untersuchungen zur Lehre von der Gestalt, II' in which he outlined some of the key principles of the Gestalt theory of the Berlin School, namely, that the correct method for studying perception was von oben nach unten, 'from top to bottom', by which he meant starting with whole properties and then proceeding to subsidiary wholes and parts.5 And it was also in 1923 that Ernst Cassirer, greatly inspired by his exchanges with Warburg, published the first volume of his monumental Philosophy of Symbolic Forms.6

In the years that followed, while Aby Warburg was devoting the last intensely productive time of his life to his monumental Bilder Atlas Mnemosyne, Arnheim was enjoying the unique intellectual climate of Berlin and its university, in the company of Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, Carl Einstein, and Max Raphael, as well as his mentors at the German weekly Die Weltbühne Kurt Tucholsky and Carl von Ossietsky.7 He graduated on 19 December 1928, with a doctoral dissertation devoted to an experimental examination of physiognomic and graphological forms of expression and their underlying psychological processes.8 At that very time, Aby Warburg was preparing for one of his last public lectures, 'Die romische Antike in der Werkstatt Ghirlandaios', which he gave at Hertziana in Rome on 19 January 1929. There is no evidence that the two of them ever met during the years prior to Warburg's fatal heart attack on 26 October 1929. Arnheim's scholarly career, which was taking off around the time of Warburg's death, lasted for almost eight decades, and produced a monumental edifice of several books of seminal importance and innumerable articles and essays. Nowhere in the corpus of Arnheim's work is Aby Warburg's name ever mentioned, nor are there any references to his publications. Indeed, if one traces their scholarly genealogies, there are no points of intersection, no overlaps. Ernst Gombrich, who dedicated great effort to presenting and interpreting Warburg's heritage and engaged in spirited intellectual arguments with Arnheim, may be the main ? if indirect ? link between the two scholars. After being neglected for a time, Warburg's work has attracted enormous attention and come under intense scrutiny since the 1970s, with a veritable cottage industry emerging around his fragmented oeuvre. …

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