The Eloquence of Symbols: Studies in Humanist Art

By Edgar Wind; Jaynie Anderson | Go to book overview

Appendix
On a recent Biography of Warburg

THE cultural significance of pagan revivals, as sources both of light and of superstition, may roughly be said to have been the theme of Aby Warburg's bold researches. A seemingly threadbare academic subject, the so-called 'survival of the classics', was here freshly attacked from such unexpected angles, and with such a wealth of new documentary evidence on the underlying social, moral, and religious forces, that it could justly be said by a famous German art historian, availing himself of a phrase of Dürer's, that Warburg had opened up 'a new kingdom' to the study of art.1

Today that kingdom is associated less with Warburg's own writings, which are virtually unknown in England, than with the great library which he built up in preparing them, and which is now the property of the University of London. A biography of the man could well have helped to redress the balance, on the assumption that it would introduce the reader to the large number and wide range of Warburg's factual discoveries and to his new method of compact demonstration, in which divergent disciplines are fused together as instruments for solving a particular historical problem. However, as the author of Aby Warburg explains at some length in the introduction, this book was conceived under an ill-omened star. The work was forced on E. H. Gombrich by circumstances beyond his control, and it is clear from the depressing tone of much of the writing that he found himself faced with an uncongenial task. It might well be asked whether it would not have been better to leave a book on such a difficult subject unwritten rather than to write it against the grain. But Professor Gombrich has made his choice, and one must discard one's sympathy, and say what has gone wrong.

Some of the weaknesses of the book are foreshadowed in its plan. It sets out to be three things at once and, consequently, never does full justice to any of them: first, a presentation of some of Warburg's unpublished notes and drafts in what purports to be a usable edition; second, a biographical history, to serve as a 'scaffolding' for the notes in place of regular annotation; and third, a conspectus of Warburg's research and of his growth as a scholar. That these three aims, although supposedly dovetailed, constantly get in each other's way may account, at least in part, for the dragging pace of the book. The claim that in this sluggish progress one of the most alert of historical explorers 'speaks in his own words' is absurd. The fragments quoted from unpublished notes, drafts, diaries, and letters, and indiscriminately mixed with pieces torn from finished works as if they were fragments, are drowned in a slow-moving mass of circumlocution which determines the tone and tempo of the book.

____________________
A review of E. H. Gombrich Aby Warburg. An Intellectual Biography ( 1970), in The Times Literary Supplement, 25 June 1971, pp. 735-6. Notes and references have been added from Wind's papers.
1
E. Panofsky, "'Professor A. Warburg†'", obituary notice in Hamburger Fremdenblatt, 28 October 1929.

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