Magazine article Artforum International

Into the Wild: Daniel Birnbaum on "Atlas-How to Carry the World on One's Back?"

Magazine article Artforum International

Into the Wild: Daniel Birnbaum on "Atlas-How to Carry the World on One's Back?"

Article excerpt

LONG FABLED as the father of iconology--indeed, of modern art history--Aby Warburg has of late assumed the role of its crazy uncle. In contradistinction to the plodding, fact-finding, tamed iconography that followed in his wake in the early twentieth century, in recent years Warburg has been revalorized as advancing a radical anachronism, discontinuity, and antipositivist turn in the understanding of images and objects. A leading figure in this revival is Georges Didi-Fluberman, who in 2002 published a major study of the visionary German art historian and is a curator of one of the past year's most curious and fascinating exhibitions: "Atlas--How to Carry the World on One's Back?," which premiered at Madrid's Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia and then traveled to the ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany, where I saw it this summer. {It is currently on view at the Sammlung Falckenberg in Hamburg.) Seemingly tidy and scholarly but on closer inspection wild and adventurous, this is an exhibition in which to get lost, an imaginary labyrinth that soon expands beyond the confines of the museum. Its inspiration comes from Warburg's legendary last project, the "Mnemosyne Atlas," 1 924-29, for which he brought together various combinations of photographs from his research on a large-format plate covered with black fabric, which he then photographed in turn. At the time of his death it comprised seventy-nine panels, on which were shown some thousand photographs. Like all of Warburg's works, this vertiginous archive of images was an attempt to demonstrate the Nacbleben, or "afterlife," of antiquity in the imagery of later epochs, from the Renaissance and the Baroque all the way up to Warburg's own time. As the eighteen reconstructed panels in Didi-I luberman's show make clear, Warburg included a great variety of material that must have been surprising to his more conventional academic colleagues: Besides drawings, paintings, and sculptures, there are photographs of ornamental textiles and carpets, newspaper clippings, genealogical tables, illuminated manuscripts, astrological and esoteric diagrams, stamps, and mass-produced leaflets and posters. Didi-I Iuberman reveals a Warburg at odds with the humanist iconology that succeeded him--presenting his legacy as a worldview predicated on the loss of self rather than its redemption.

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The "Atlas," Warburg claimed, was "a ghost story for adults." It proposes a phantom science of the image, one that explores his nebulous concept of the Pathos-forme! (pathos formula), something transmitted and transformed throughout our visual history, in dances and in human gestures tout court, depicted in classical art as well as in the popular imagery and mass media of his time. (Giorgio Agamben has described this term as designating "an indissoluble intertwining of an emotional charge and an iconographic formula in which it is impossible to distinguish between form and content.") Warburg claimed to recognize the same attitudes and expressions of hysteria and melancholy, of grace and ugliness, of desire in movement and of petrified terror, in ancient Roman sculptures and in documentary photographs of Hopi snake rituals (one of his most famous examples). He created startling visual links between the body of Mussolini as he signed a concordat with the pope and the Eucharist's version of the body of Christ; or between astrological representations of the sun and the moon and Babylonian images depicting a sheep's liver in which people believed it possible to read hidden messages about the future.

Warburg's "Atlas," which has been characterized as an amalgamation of the Internet and the Talmud, proposed a new gay science of the creative gaps between pictures, of the in-between, and of the charged relationship between seemingly disparate and radically unrelated images. This methodology, which Warburg dubbed "montage-collision," has been compared to Sergei Eisenstein's "montage of attractions" as well as to the dialectical text-image juxtapositions of Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project (Benjamin cited Warburg in his work). …

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