“Bilderfahrzeug” and “Bilder Omnibus” – a manuscript by Aby Warburg from 1906

Aby Warburg, draft page for the introduction of „Working Peasants on Burgundian Tapestries”, 1906, ink on paper, 33 x 21 cm, Warburg Institute Archive (III.62.1.2.2), (c) The Warburg Institute, London

“Bilderfahrzeug” – an early draft

In 1906 Aby Warburg writes about the inherent reproducibility and mobility of images in the early Renaissance, naming tapestries as a link between the fresco and the prints: „The adaptable tapestry stands between high art and printing, whose products, as a vehicle of images [Bilderfahrzeug], have usurped its position on the walls of the bourgeois home.” 

This line from an unpublished manuscript (see image) is the earliest instance in which the term „Bilderfahrzeug” can be found in Warburg’s papers. It belongs to the drafts of his article Working Peasants on Burgundian Tapestries, on which he worked between January and October 1906 and which was printed in November of the same year. While the main text deals with the social context and iconography of the aforementioned tapestries, the introduction contains Warburg’s theoretical reflections on the migration of images. Warburg there uses the very similar term “Bildvehikel”, nearly identical to “Bilderfahrzeug”, to outline in greater detail the development from the fixed wall-painting to the multiplied and mobile image. He ends with the same reference to the “bourgeois home” and underlines the connections between the past and the present in his research. 

Warburg’s initial research on the mobility of images

Though Warburg coined the terms in 1906, his research on the mobility of images began already around 1900, when he studied those Florentine paintings in which Nordic realism and classicist idealism are both simultaneously present. In order to understand the influence of Flemish art in Florence, he traced the pathways of the migration of images from North to South on the basis of the trade networks of the Medici. He looked at oil painting as well as other transportable media, such as tempera on canvas (the “panni”), tapestries and prints. 

In 1904, in a proof for an article that remained unpublished called Weltliche Kunst im Mediceischen Florenz(Profane Art in Medici Florence), Warburg elaborated on this mobility in the Renaissance. As he put it, referring to the the “panni”: “By means of their cheapness and mobility these images have become welcomed and useful vehicles [Vehikel] in the epoch of the flourishing international exchange-traffic [Tauschverkehr] of artistic forms.” He adds that shortly after the canvas-paintings “the woodcuts and engravings on paper then became the token coins in the global traffic [Weltverkehr] of images” (WIA III.66.1.1, p. 13v). “Global traffic” alluded more to Warburg’s own time at the beginning of the 20thCentury, when industrialization was international and the global traffic of steamships, Zeppelins and airplanes came into being. In turn, his choice of words illustrates the modern condition and worldview, which shaped Warburg’s perspective on the Renaissance. On the side of the proof Warburg substituted the printed “Vehikel” with the handwritten “Fahrzeuge”, again choosing the more modern formulation.

At this point, Warburg had been the first art historian to research, in depth, the mutual exchange of images between North and South. The creation of the compound nouns “Bilderfahrzeug” and ”Bildvehikel” show how close images and their mobility are connected in his research. The terms contain a whole unwritten theory.

“Bilderfahrzeuge” between past and present

On the manuscript page from 1906, Warburg added a third and more playful variant of the metaphor. He adds that in relation to the frescoes „though, the tapestries of the 15th Century have been only a more democratic image omnibus [Bilder Omnibus] for the few princely wealthy ones, a private omnibus for the princes” (the words are crossed out in the manuscript). Considering the size of the tapestries and the many figures they represent, a “bus” is indeed necessary as the means of transportation. On the other hand, the omnibus is a modern form of mass transportation “for all” (as the Latin root also indicates) while the tapestries belonged to the princes of the Renaissance-courts. Thus, Warburg directly qualifies that it was a bus only “for the few”. The humorous metaphor of the omnibus is inspired visually, but he then retroactively modified it in response to its linguistic meaning.

After this manuscript Warburg uses “Bilderfahrzeuge” publicly 1912 in his lecture Italian Art and International Astrology in the Palazzo Schifanoja in Ferrara, where he traced the migration of images not only between North and South but between East and West. He continued to use the different terms over the years, but alsoto expand the spectrum of the metaphors. In his lecture on Pagan-Antique prophecies in Word and Image in the Times of Luther(1918/20), he stated that the invention of mass printing provided the images with “wings” and enabled them “to fly far and wide”. Here, the political background of his time and the war planes and zeppelins in the air influence his research and language. And in the 1929 introduction for the Mnemosyne-Atlas he speaks of the “automobile Bilderfahrzeuge”. Be it in the “Fahrzeug”, the “Omnibus”, the train-waggon or the automobile, Warburg in his metaphors associated historical objects with contemporary phenomena. 

The connection between past and present of the “Bildervehikel” is last but not least given on the level of his own art historical working methods: Warburg saw the Burgundian Tapestries, which belong to the Musée des Arts décoratifs in Paris, first as reproductions in an art journal (the French Les Arts). He then ordered new photographs for a better identification of the details. The “Bilderfahrzeuge” of his time, photographs, were the working tools for his research on the “Bildvehikel” of the Renaissance. It can be added that he established his photographic collection of antique and renaissance artworks around the same time as he began his research on the beginnings of the migration of images. 

Today, over a century later, Warburg’s terms themselves, as well as the photographs he used, have become historical, but in view of the digital world it is not less pertinent to raise questions concerning the characteristics of the reproducibility and mobility of images in the present. 



Cite this blog post
Steffen Haug (2019, January 28). “Bilderfahrzeug” and “Bilder Omnibus” – a manuscript by Aby Warburg from 1906. BILDERFAHRZEUGE. Retrieved March 3, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/m0i9

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