Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Aby Warburg, Homo Victor*

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Aby Warburg, Homo Victor*

Article excerpt

Aby Warburg has been mostly misunderstood by the British hosts of his library. This essay will suggest that this misunderstanding has itself been misunderstood.

But first I wish to say something about art history's ancestor cult. The modern academic discipline of art history has built factions around prestigious patriarchal figures. For a long time, the focal points were the German, Austrian, and Swiss art historians who were working in the years around 1900: Alois Riegl, Heinrich Wölfflin, Julius von Schlosser, Aby Warburg, but also the American Bernard Berenson. Later, a younger generation, born between 1890 and the First World War, competed with the older figures for attention: Erwin Panofsky, Ernst Gombrich,

Hans Sedlmayr, Otto Pächt, Meyer Schapiro, George Kubler. All the national schools of art historical thought, not only German but also American, British, Italian, French, and others, look to the same constellation of scholars. They are not admired at a distance, like the starry constellations, but are read. Students are expected to discern the principles concealed within their texts: ideas about art, about representation, about history and time; hidden correlations between academic scholarship and the political and aesthetic project of modernism.

Since the 1980s, amidst expressions of disenchantment with a cumulative, progressive model of scholarship and calls for an acknowledgment of the hermeneutic and intepretative nature of the enterprise, the study of the history of the discipline has proliferated. We have book-length studies of individual art historians; countless symposia, anthologies, articles; translations of German texts; and of course the Journal of Art Historiography. All this goes on in other disciplines, too, history, classical archeology, literary criticism; but not to the same extent.

The writing of the scholars listed above are the sites where suprapersonal systems of thought find their most powerful articulations. They are also the traces real personalities, and this existential dimension lends charisma to their ideas, even exempts their ideas from the ordinary processes of consumption, recycling, and rejection.1

Everyone is seduced by Aby Warburg's personality. The few published photographs of Warburg are pored over just as are the photographs of Ludwig Wittgenstein or Walter Benjamin (fig. 1).2

Warburg's historical project is considered inextricable from his life. Ernst Gombrich in his landmark study of 1970, Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography, commented cautiously on the interconnections between Warburg's ideas and what Gombrich called his 'psychological conflicts', his neuroses.3 Georges Didi-Huberman, impatient with Gombrich's discretion, wrote more recently that 'one doesn't separate a person from his pathos-his empathies, his pathologies, one doesn't separate Nietzsche from his madness nor Warburg from the "losses of self" which put him for five years behind the walls of a psychiatric asylum.'4 It is as if the ideas articulated in Warburg's written texts were suspended in the liquid of his personality. This is a conception of humanistic research as a personal and inalienable creative project.

The ancestor cult re-enchants scholarship. The personalities persist; they are a 'standing over', a superstitio, in an otherwise rational discourse. In the premodern culture of authority, knowledge advanced by the accumulation of citations. That system was disabled by the Enlightenment. If one can no longer prove a point by invoking an authority, nevertheless the personalities of the authorities, the portraits, linger. The living presence of the scholars within scholarship is structurally analogous to the magical presence of the real Florentines inside the narrative frescoes of Domenico Ghirlandaio analyzed by Warburg: painted reports on the history of the Franciscan order, submitted to the new visual rationality of perspective and the unities of time and space. …

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