(Photo)graphic ethos formula: Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Panel 72
First Published in German as “(Foto)grafische Ethosformel. Aby Warburgs Tafel 72”, in: Seismografen und Orientierungsspiegel. Bilder der Welt in kurzen Kunstgeschichten, ed. Leena Crasemann, Benjamin Fellmann and Yannis Hadjinicolaou. Berlin and Boston 2022, pp. 76-83.
For Uwe Fleckner
During the course of the exhibition “Bilderatlas Mnemosyne – Das Original” at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin questions, arose not only about the content, but also about the mediality and materiality of the atlas. The problematic concept of the original threatens to create a new cult of genius around Aby Warburg. But perhaps, considering that tattoos of his face are already traveling across the world, perhaps this has already happened. Beyond that, however, the term “original” is in danger of developing a new aura, that now even encompasses the selected reproductions of the master. One can only imagine what Walter Benjamin would say.
Overall, the display of the exhibition was successful because each reproduction has its own history (Fig.1). Thus, the reverse sides of the images, and the inscriptions upon them, now became visible and were thus also treated like originals (Fig.2). The egalitarian side of reproduction, which in a sense, flattens the real presence of the respective object was presented in the complementary exhibition of the Gemäldegalerie, where the objects from the atlas that are heled in Berlin collections were exhibited. Before this, our view of Warburg was perhaps even more black and white (Fig.3).
What needs to be considered, however, with regard to the medial presentation of the atlas is the role of colour in Warburg’s thinking, or rather, the absence of colour, i.e. the reason for the overwhelming majority of the black-and-white reproductions in the atlas, also with regard to the relationship between original and reproduction.
Warburg himself emphasized the importance of colour reproductions (even though he was referring primarily to prints and drawings) and did not always regard them in a negative light. He made use of autochromes for his Schifanoia lecture, revealing a sensitivity towards techniques of reproduction, albeit that their function was to supporting his argument concerning content and motif.
Already Gertrud Bing had underlined Warburg’s commitment to questions of materiality as in the case of Hans Memling. The image historian, however, does not think in colour or the material nature of the picture’s surface in his scientific research – though this does not mean that he is not aware of the power of colour. Uwe Fleckner, in his contribution to Warburg’s image comparisons, succinctly summarised the significance of black and white in Warburg’s work: “The predominance of black and white in the reproductions were decisive in drawing the attention to the iconographic and formal-aesthetic substrate of a work of art.”
It is not only on plate 72 that we find reproductions other than black and white. The only reproduction on plate 72 which is reproduced in its original colour is Rembrandt’s red chalk drawing, a free copy after Leonardo’s Last Supper (Fig.4). But this, too is a monochromatic reproduction, which is characterized by the graphic-motoric quality of the red chalk. The materiality of the chalk, its grainy-haptic expressivity, disappears in the reproduction. It is, at least for Warburg, secondary.
In this panel, the paintings take a rather subordinate role. In the detail of Rembrandt’s The Blinding of Samson (now in Frankfurt’s Städel Museum, Fig.5), where Samson is spectacularly blinded by the stab of a Javanese dagger, the decisive moment of the bright red blood splatter has disappeared. What remains is the powerful thrust of the dagger.
The contrasts of light and dark in the reproductions of the Atlas seem to take grisaille as their model. Warburg made the following statement in his grisaille notebook concerning Renaissance art: “The seemingly sculptural depiction of the antique (grisaille), and similarly engraving or woodcuts, keep the shadowy outline of the pre-stamped / pre-figured Revenants at a metaphorical distance […]””, a note on sheet 32 in the Warburg Institute Archive reveals. Two things are exciting in this context: firstly, it is about the distance that is retained by motivic revenants through medial transmission, namely through the medium of grisaille. Secondly, there is the remark about the outline through a particular medium, here a print, which implicity presupposes the absence of colour and the emphasis on the line. This is the function that is fulfilled by photography in the Atlas.
At the same time, however, Warburg wrote about the nature of photography in “Dürer as Man and Artist” (Dürer als Mensch und Künstler): “Photography is a great ingratiating deceiver, it robs color, suggests a false format, just as the projection on a large screen gives quite false impressions.” What has been said about colour since the academic art theory of the Renaissance – that it is a sophistical fraud or mere makeup – is here used by Warburg in a critique of photograph. Thus this medium is responsible for the loss of the true character of the original. Elsewhere, Warburg speaks of reproductions as surrogates of image viewing.
Also revealing in this context is a comment in the Diary of the K.B.W. of February 21, 1927, which comes from Fritz Saxl, of all people, and not from Warburg, and is made with regard to the study of a single work of art: “The establishment of a pro-seminar in which the pictorial material is introduced by way of form and colour analysis, would be desirable. Perhaps in this way a higher regard for the work of art as a sui generis object could be achieved, something that I often miss.” What is important here is the emphasis not only on form analyses but also on colour analyses.
As the Atlas reminds us, however, with image comparisons the individual work of art always stands in relation to something else. As part of a whole, it is always changeable and never complete: an infinite cut and paste.
Warburg was not particularly satisfied with the photographs of works by Rembrandt in the Atlas and wanted new reproductions, which also reveals, despite his skepticism, his struggle with this particular medium. The stimulus that Rembrandt’s work provided for Warburg’s thinking came on the one hand from manual reproductions, such as his specially commissioned copy of Claudius Civilis (Fig.6), which was completely freed from the heavy Rembrandtian impasto (Fig.7), and on the other hand from photographic reproductions. Here one can see a contrast to Benjamin’s essay on the Work of Art. It is precisely through the reproduction that the revenants are preserved.
Warburg’s well-known statement about Leonardo’s Chiaroscuro, mentioned in his second lecture on the artist, in which he speaks of shadow as a “silent colour,” can be seen as a metaphor for his own medial thinking on the subject.
It is no coincidence that Warburg emphasizes the shadow in Rembrandt’s work or recommends his prints for the study of originals, thus continuing his own contradictory position, already recognizable in his work on Leonardo. As he asserts in Art Exhibitions at the Volksheim: ” It was by seeing darkness as colour that Rembrandt created a new way of expressing colour through half tones: and these are the very halftones that photography devours and destroys. Similarly, his etchings are made to be held in the hand, when they use the expressive power of black and white to reconstitute an inner image that is perceived as much larger: a process that crude mechanical enlargement puts into reverse.” The details with repetitions on plate 72 – for example Rembrandt’s red chalk drawing, this time in black and white on the lower left – seem to be Warburg’s response to the criticism of scaling. The comparison with Leonardo’s Last Supper and the pronounced shadows of the fresco underline both the Leonardo-Rembrandt relationship and the historical reception of the former by the latter, as well as Warburg’s quotations on both artists and the corresponding reproductions in the atlas. From Leonardo to Rembrandt to the reproductions, the sfumato lives on.
The colour black is also a connecting element between the individual images in the atlas. It is a projection surface that allows the images to emerge from the darkness, similar to the printmaking process of mezzotint – presenting an analogy for dark as well as light ideas, or indeed thought itself. This gives the photographs their own autonomy and at the same time enables Warburg’s chains of associations.
If colour is the pathos formula, the black and white as well as the monochromatic (the red chalk) are its opposite, the ethos formula. This medial ethos formula is the ground from which the motivic pathos formulas can emerge. In this sense, Warburg is closer to his antipode Johann Joachim Winckelmann in regard to reproduction and media than he himself would probably admit. The pathos formula of representation was substituted by the ethos formula of medial reproduction. This creates a dialectic: the pathos of Rembrandt’s colour is overcome by the (photo)graphic ethos.
Fig1.: Mnemosyne Altas Nr. 72, Warburg Institute Archive, London (Photograph Yannis Hadjinicolaou)
Fig.2: Reverse of Mnemosyne Atlas Nr. 5, Warburg Institute Archive, London (Photograph Yannis Hadjinicolaou).
Fig.3: Mnemosyne Atlas Nr. 72, in: Martin Warnke (Ed.), Der Bilderatlas Mnemosyne, Berlin 2012, p. 119.
Fig.4: Rembrandt, The Last Supper after Leonardo, 1634-1635, red chalk, 36,2 x 47,5 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Commons).
Fig.5: Detail Rembrandt, The Blinding of Samson, 1636, oil on canvas, 206 x 276 cm, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main (Photograph Yannis Hadjinicolaou).
Fig.6: Karl Schuberth, Copy of The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis, 1926, oil on canvas, Warburg Institute, London (Photograph Yannis Hadjinicolaou).
Fig.7: Rembrandt, The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis, 1660-1661, Oil on Canvas, 253 x 365 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm (Commons).
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