The four versions of Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Picture Atlas.

Fig 1 Aby Warburg, Ovid Exhibition, Reading Room of the K.B.W.. Photo: The Warburg Institute.

Most discussions of Aby Warburg’s picture atlas understandably focus on issues of iconography and iconology. In contrast, this blog concentrates exclusively on aspects of its material history and the photographic campaigns that guaranteed the survival of the various stages, or ‘series’ of the Atlas. Much of this history has been discussed by Claudia Wedepohl and the curators of the recent Mnemosyne atlas exhibition, Roberto Ohrt and Axel Heil, in their monumental publication Aby Warburg: Bilderatlas Mnemosyne – The Original [1]. The present blog revisits these issues with a tight focus on the questions ‘What did the original atlas in Hamburg consist of?’ and ‘How many times was it photographed?’ While I propose a different answer to the second question than the above mentioned authors, with regard to the first one, my aim is rather to present in greater detail the basic facts. I am doing this not least to counter some misconceptions of the original presentation of the atlas in the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg (K.B.W.).

Fig 2 Aby Warburg, Mnemosyne Picture Atlas, First Series, panel 40, May 1928. Copyright: The Warburg Institute.

Ohrt and Heil rightly separate the atlas panels from the Image Sequences or Exhibitions, Warburg displayed in the K.B.W. Reading Room (fig. 1). These were coherent exhibitions, staged on removable horizontal panels that formed part and parcel of the library’s furniture. The atlas panels in contrast were free-standing ones, c. 1.5m tall and 1.2m wide, assembled with a future publication in mind and therefore in an upright format. They were never photographed other than individually, though some shots show several of them standing in front of each other. This has led some, including myself, to assume that there were never more than 6 or 10 panels up at any one time. However, as discussed by Claudia Wedepohl in her article, there is clear evidence that Warburg had as many boards or ‘Gestelle’ as his Atlas had panels. The K.B.W. diary with its entries, mainly by Warburg and Bing, makes this very clear:[2] on 28/04/1928 Warburg mentions 39 panels, with another 6 on order, on 02/05/1928 he records that 670 images were on display on 40 panels, not including those relating to the figure of Perseus, and he gives the overall number of images as c. 750. On 29/07/1928, 53 panels were recorded with 979 images.

Fig 3 Aby Warburg, Mnemosyne Picture Atlas, Second Series, panel 45, August/September 1928. Copyright: The Warburg Institute.

On 14/08/1928 Warburg had a discussion with the maker of these wooden boards, ‘Spundflasche junior’, and agreed with him that future panels would cost only 18, and no longer 21 Marks. The 1933 Hamburg telephon book confirms that this was the carpenter (Tischlermeister) J. H. A. Spundflasche of ‘Hamburg 13, Milchstrasse 4’, just over a mile away from the K.B.W. and even closer to the old family home where Warburg had grown up. Two weeks later, Warburg triumphantly records ‘77 panels with 1292 images ready’. Unsurprisingly, these panels asserted their presence: on 10/06/1928 Warburg wrote about a visitor that the K.B.W. had never seen anybody ‘amongst its panels’ approaching the project with such an open mind, and elsewhere we learn that they were positioned in every large space available: ‘in the two large rooms of the old house [Warburg’s home]’ and ‘in the entrance area [Vorplatz], and the Reading Room’ of the adjacent library building (02/05/1928). Occasionally, particularly qualified or keen visitors were shown individual atlas sections in one or two of these rooms. It is, however, hardly surprising that the photographs taken by Warburg’s photographer never show any of this. Their function was to record displays before they became inaccessible; exhibitions were occasionally photographed in their entirety and/or thematic sections, as well as panel by panel, but the Mnemosyne panels only one by one – their numbering guaranteeing the correct order.

Fig 4 Aby Warburg, Mnemosyne Picture Atlas, Penultimate Series, unnumbered panel [C], September 1929. Copyright: The Warburg Institute.

Such photographic campaigns happened at least three times: the first in May 1928 was triggered by a planned absence of Warburg, during which he wanted to have a portable set ot photographs of the panels (fig. 2). A second series was produced in September 1928 before Warburg and Bing went to Rome, the final one after his death (fig. 3). These campaigns must have been big events: the photographer did not move; to have good and consistent light conditions, the panels were brought to the camera. As a result, the photographs of each series show the same backdrop.

Talking about separate series is of course problematic; it arguably over-accentuates what may be seen as merely transitional states. Admittedly, there was a rush to complete the atlas before each campaign, but during Warburg’s life time, the panels were never dismantled after such a shoot. Rather, their transformation proceeded, in May 1928 even during Warburg’s absence, with changes requested by post (07/05/1928).

Fig 5 Aby Warburg, Mnemosyne Picture Atlas, Final Series, panel 8, October/November 1929. Copyright: The Warburg Institute

Studying the various series with their different backdrops, it becomes however apparent that there were four rather than three. The First, Second and Final Series (fig. 5) have already been mentioned; their dates (May 1928, August/Sept. 1928 and Oct. /Nov. 29) are undisputed. However, the archive holds evidence for a remodelling of the second series. In her doctoral thesis on the Atlas, Katia Mazzucco has interpreted this as the creation of a second version of the same series.[3] While the Second Series originally consisted of 69 panels (labelled ‘1’-‘68’ and ‘77’), this new version is made up of 65 panels. However, in addition to 9 unaltered images and 45 renumbered photographs where the numbers on the glass negatives had been changed to indicate the individual panel’s different positions in the new series, this version also includes eleven newly photographed panels. Of these eleven, some are variations of earlier panels, others wholly new assemblages. I should therefore rather suggest that this constitutes a new, the Third Series.

But when was it made – before or after Rome? There is one copy of the Second Series in the Archive that was rearranged in an order that anticipates the Third. Mazzucco identifies September 1928 as the date for this interim arrangement. However, when it comes to the finalization of the Third Series, there are some indications for a date in September 1929. The eleven new photographs can be distinguished by their backdrop, which, at the top, includes a drawn curtain. This also features in shots of three separate, unnumbered panels, suggesting that they, too, are part of the same campaign and therefore also of the same series (fig. 4). These are clear predecessors of panels 46, 72 and 79 of the Final Series. Two prints of these unnumbered panels bear a date in Warburg’s hand: ‘13/09/1929’. In the library diary that date does not feature, but the entry for 12/09/1929 expands into the following day, and, here, Warburg mentions indeed the moving of panels into the Reading Room. On 14/09/1929 he records preparing for a trip to the North Sea island of Heligoland where he intended to stay for at least one week. Taking photographs of a new, if only slightly and slowly altered, series, may again have been triggered by an absence, however brief this turned out to be.


[1] Claudia Wedepohl, ‘The Making of Warburg’s Bilderatlas Mnemosyne’, in Roberto Ohrt and Axel Heil, eds, Aby Warburg: Bilderatlas Mnemosyne – The Original, Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2020, pp. 14-19; see also Roberto Ohrt and Axel Heil, ‘The Mnemosyne and its afterlife’ in the same publication, pp. 11-13

[2] Nine volumes of this library diary of the years 1926 to 1929 are kept in the Warburg Institute Archive (WIA, III.15). They have been published as volume VII in the Aby Warburg Gesammelte Schriften series: Aby Warburg, Tagebuch der Kulturwissenschaftlichen Bibliothek Warburg mit Einträgen von Gertrud Bing und Fritz Saxl, eds: Karen Michels and Charlotte Schoell-Glass, Berlin, Akademie Verlag, 2001.

[3] Katia Mazzucco, Il Progetto Mnemosyne di Aby Warburg, (unpublished doctoral dissertation, Università degli Studi di Siena, Facoltà di Lettere e Filosofia, 2006). A copy of this dissertation, donated by the author, is kept in the reference library of the Warburg Institute Archive.


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