For most of us, it’s natural to look at many pictures at the same time. We do it every day via internet searches and digital pinup boards — even refrigerator doors have become ad hoc photo albums.
But viewing fine art pictures in this nonlinear way, with no accompanying text and outside of a museum, was radical 100 years ago. This is partly what makes Aby Warburg’s “Bilderatlas Mnemosyne” (“Mnemosyne Atlas,” in English), an encyclopedic collection of almost 1,000 images, so significant.
Warburg, a German art historian and cultural theorist, worked on the atlas from 1925 until his death in 1929. To make it, he took reproductions of artworks and images of coins, celestial maps, calendars and genealogical tables, as well as advertisements posters and postage stamps, and pinned them to wooden boards covered with black cloth. He rearranged the panels in his library in Hamburg and used them in lectures, and wanted to publish the atlas as a book.
The work’s title comes from the Greek goddess of memory and mother of the Nine Muses (Zeus was the baby daddy). Warburg was convinced that antiquity was a starting point for the study of artists of the Renaissance, but also that its themes had emotional meaning that resonated for modern times — particularly in a period of instability and change.
The one exhibition I was most excited to see this year was “Aby Warburg: Bilderatlas Mnemosyne — The Original,” which was to open in March at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt contemporary arts center in Berlin, organized by Roberto Ohrt and Axel Heil in collaboration with the Warburg Institute in London. Consisting of 63 panels composed of the 971 original illustrations from the last documented version of the atlas, in October 1929, the display would have been presented as Warburg had intended — for the first time. It has now been postponed until the fall because of the pandemic, but some of its images can be viewed on the center’s website; in a new book devoted to the “Mnemosyne Atlas,” published by Hatje Cantz; and on the Warburg Institute’s webpage devoted to the atlas.
Warburg (1866-1929) was a curious character. “Jew by blood, Hamburger at heart, Florentine in spirit,” is how he described himself. Born into a rich banking family in Hamburg, he completed his doctorate in 1892, writing on Sandro Botticelli’s paintings “Birth of Venus” and “Primavera” (“Spring”) from the 1480s. In the 1890s, Warburg traveled through the American Southwest and witnessed rituals of the Pueblo and Navajo people, which made a lasting impression — especially a dance in which Native Americans dressed as antelopes, and a Hopi rite using live snakes.
Modern art was burgeoning at the time, but he continued to focus on art from the Italian Renaissance. He set up a library in 1909, and a research institute in 1926 with the help of the Viennese art historian Fritz Saxl, who created “exhibitions” with photographic reproductions of art during World War I. The institute moved to London in 1933 to flee the Nazis, and the library there still reflects Warburg’s far-ranging and sometimes esoteric interests: sections are devoted to amulets, magic mirrors, medieval astrology and the Evil Eye. (Subjects not uncommon for European intellectuals questioning “modern” society in a state of upheaval.)
Because of mental health issues, from 1918 he spent more than half a decade in institutions. The last part of his life was devoted to the “Mnemosyne Atlas,” creating what he called a “comparative view” of objects and visual perspectives to highlight the “afterlife of antiquity,” or how ancient ideas — like astrology — persisted into the Renaissance and even the present. In other words, how the idea of memory and trauma functioned in civilization.
Back in Hamburg, he began work on the enigmatic atlas. Panels A, B and C serve as a preliminary guide — sort of — laying out the project’s grammar or “syntax.” In these lettered panels, Warburg used maps, diagrams, calendars, transcontinental migration routes and genealogical trees to consider how ideas, rituals and images persist throughout history, and how humans relate to the cosmos. Historical time is collapsed: Panel C, for instance, includes photographs of a zeppelin, diagrams of planetary orbits and medieval renderings of Martians.
Warburg’s beloved Botticelli is the star of Panel 39, with black-and-white reproductions of “Venus” and “Primavera” joined by “Pallas and the Centaur” from the 1480s. Other panels explore human and animal bodies, from Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” to isolated organs. Panel 1 has reproductions of bronze Etruscan casts of sheep livers, since the liver was considered in some ancient cultures to be the center of emotion and intelligence.
Violence proliferates, since Warburg was interested in how Renaissance artists reconciled the gory scenes of ancient art — whose stories and imagery they copied assiduously — with Christian theology. Pathos and suffering in art were explored. Panel 6 has an illustration of the first century B.C. sculpture “Laocoön,” featuring a Trojan priest killed by sea-serpents sent by Apollo. It also recalls the Hopi snake ritual Warburg witnessed in the American desert.
Panel 77 includes images of paintings by Eugène Delacroix, but also a photograph of Erika Sellschopp, the 1929 German golf champion, and an advertisement for a fish cookbook, which makes it comparable to the Dada collages and photomontages of Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Höch or John Heartfield, or Pop Art’s obsession with mass-media images.
Warburg found writing difficult; he preferred to move pictures around to express ideas. Nonetheless, the “Mnemosyne Atlas” became a project of art history lore, predating works like Marcel Duchamp’s “Boîte-en-valise” (1935-1941), a retrospective of Duchamp’s own work in miniature photographs collected in a suitcase. And the waves made by Warburg’s atlas still ripple in works like Gerhard Richter’s “Atlas” (1962-2013), comprising collections of photographs, newspaper clippings and sketches, and Hito Steyerl’s video installation “Liquidity Inc.” (2014), which includes a Tumblr-style arrangement of reproductions of Hokusai’s famous Ukiyo-e print “The Great Wave” from the 1830s.
The atlas was what we would now call transdisciplinary: putting art history in dialogue with the fields of archaeology, anthropology, psychology and literary criticism. Warburg, however, was also forwarding an argument about the Renaissance as a time of transition and uncertainty. He felt that images were viral: They couldn’t be held within their discrete, historical containers. He showed, for instance, how a famous fresco cycle in Ferrara, Italy, was inspired by a ninth-century Arab treatise on astronomy by Abu Ma’shar.
Warburg was concerned about technology — the Wright Brothers were modern-day “Icaruses” and telegram and telephone technology were threatening myth and nature — as well as anti-Semitism. In a 1924 letter to the German anthropologist Franz Boas, Warburg wrote, “We have been thrown into this frightening World War not least by the superstition that has deluded us into the foolish certainty — from which we must indeed awaken — that racial traits are somatic manifestations of something spiritual.”
Boas replied: “Racial prejudices seem at the present time to be epidemic all over the world, and we are not by any means free of it here.”
Now, we are in the midst of a pandemic that reveals the limits of modern science — but also our interconnectedness with “nature” and, if you will, the cosmos. Warburg was interested in creating a visual system that would help us understand how we came to be where we are, and how we are profoundly tied to the past and to the natural world.
At this moment, when museums, galleries and art schools are shuttered and we sit looking at a multitude of virtual images, Warburg’s project — what he called “the foundation for a new theory on the function of human visual memory” — resonates. Perhaps the “Mnemosyne Atlas” might inspire novel ways to create connections through what Warburg envisioned as a collective psychology and historical trauma embedded in images. How do we confront the past and shape the present and future? Those of us who’ve devoted our lives to art, like Warburg, often start with pictures.
By Martha Schwendener