The Afterlife of Antiquity and Modern Art: Aby Warburg on Manet

By Latsis, Dimitrios | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2015 | Go to article overview

The Afterlife of Antiquity and Modern Art: Aby Warburg on Manet


Latsis, Dimitrios, Journal of Art Historiography


Introduction

The decided turn towards critical and academic favour that Aby Warburg's thought and works have undergone in the last three decades within Anglo-American and French scholarship has eclipsed even his revival within his native Germany.1 Indeed, Warburg is now considered a tutelary figure within fields as disparate as visual and cultural anthropology, library and information science, archive and media studies, in addition to his work's having revitalized the contextual study of art history which - at least in its English-language iteration - had long been dominated by the formalist methodology of that other great student of Jakob Burkhardt, Heinrich Wölfflin. Indeed Warburg's fortunes as a Weimar and pre-Weimar era intellectual have come close to matching those of his younger and also prematurely lost Jewish confrère Walter Benjamin. It was, arguably, critical interest in Benjamin's work that has been partly responsible for the revitalization of Warburg studies, in the guise of a 'search for origins' for a certain German intellectual tradition that the Third Reich and the long silence that followed the destruction of the 1939-45 war all but eclipsed.

Yet Aby Warburg's status as a pioneer of the anthropological study of art and culture, as a visionary archivist and collector, as a mentor and institution builder, as an innovator in the use of photography as an art historical tool and as an interdisciplinarian avant-la-lettre has still not been enough to save him from the fate described by Gertrud Bing, the colleague who perhaps knew him best, as the art historian revered by many but read by very few. This has been especially true of Warburg's status in the areas that lie outside his rather narrow published output that mostly focuses on the rapport of the early Renaissance with ancient art and on an image archaeology attuned to the circulation of antique imagery in Western art. While it is true that an increased scholarly interest in his methodology and a more rigorous, de-romanticized understanding of his biography have gone a long way towards 'opening' Warburg's work up to a variety of fields like American studies and aesthetics, 2 crucial areas of art history have seemed immune to his 'science without a name', and none more so than the history of modern and contemporary art.

It might well be true that, as the French editor of his work Eveline Pinto theorized, Warburg as the proponent of an 'asynchronous' image history is more appealing as a 'retro-modern' or even postmodern figure than as a modern thinker.3 Nevertheless the notion that he was completely indifferent to the fundamental changes taking place in art during his lifetime is highly implausible. Warburg was after all married to an artist, advised several people on the acquisition of modern art, belonged to several circles of émigré German artists and intellectuals during his time in fin-de-siècle Florence, was a major advocate of the Hamburg Kunsthalle's adventurous collecting activities in modern art and wrote many observations on the subject. The latter took forms as varied as a theatrical satire on Hamburg's modern art scene, an exegesis of contemporaneous American chap-books and an elegy on the death of his friend Arnold Böcklin. Already as an undergraduate in Munich during the 1888 International Art Exhibition, Warburg was much taken by the expressive boldness of artists like Fritz von Uhde, a full four years before the official start of the Munich Secession. Additionally, modern artworks and iconography are represented on several panels of his unfinished magnum opus, the Atlas Mnemosyne. There is even evidence that Warburg was attuned to categories like folk art, which was only later co-opted into the modern art canon.

So why does a cleavage - real or perceived - still persist between Warburg's 'psychology of human expression' and modern art as practiced in his time and the present? After all, wouldn't a psychology of creative expression benefit from an investigation into the artistic utterances of the moment just as much as those of times past? …

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