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 . 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.)
Ascending the semi-circular staircase of the Courtauld Gallery, with its freshly coated electric blue bannisters, the visitor undertakes a physically demanding and intellectually exhilarating climb through centuries of artistic production that are carefully arranged across three floors. The Gallery has recently reopened its doors with much pomp after a two-year hiatus for building renovations, welcoming seasoned and new crowds to its sleek, clean-cut spaces.
Am 11. Januar 1929 schreibt Fritz Saxl an den Schweizer Kunsthistoriker Rudolf Bernoulli, Konservator der graphischen Sammlung der ETH in Zürich: Es „ist doch wirklich sehr schade, dass der Weltspiegel nicht mehr die Welt weiter zu spiegeln beabsichtigt.” Kurz zuvor hatte Bernoulli ihm die Einstellung einer Serie von Vignetten historischer Kosmosbilder angekündigt, die er ab 1921 wöchentlich im Weltspiegel publiziert hatte. Er bot auch an, der K.B.W. etwaige Nummern, die noch fehlten, nachzusenden. So finden sich in der Bibliothek des Warburg Institute heute sämtliche Exemplare des Weltspiegels von 1921 bis 1929 als gebundene Sammlung.
Through the centuries, Persian classical tales have regaled audiences with stories narrating the lives and emotions of diverse human actors, including heroes and anti-heroes, transmitted orally as well as copied into manuscripts containing illustrations. One of the most-loved heroes of Persian classical literature is the legendary Rustam, the fiery and brave military commander and king-maker from Sistan.
The revival of certain elements such as bewegtes Beiwerk was certainly due to the “period of discovery” that Botticelli witnessed in the early Renaissance. In this period, the circulation and migration of human beings, artworks, and knowledge started to become a part of daily life. Something similar, one might add, occurred in the sixteenth century; at this time, the Portuguese merchants and, shortly after, the Jesuits arrived in China. In the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, new painting techniques, innovative compositions, new types of subject matter and renewed philosophical and scientific interests and thoughts emerged.
For the scholar, it is unsurprising to learn of two 18th century portraits, originally conceived as a pair, which nevertheless became separated, ending up over the generations in different collections. Such is the fate of many paintings, especially those on canvas, which is a two-dimensional pictorial support whose very persistence through the centuries is tied to its mobility. Combined with the durability of oil paint itself, the portability of canvas is part of what makes oil paintings desirable, valuable, even, one might speculate, so entrenched in Western culture.
We have all experienced this situation with our smartphone: While opening the photo gallery or the camera, a photograph pops up that is not familiar to us. It may be blurred, or showing a strange detail from a peculiar angle: a pavement, a staircase – if the respective image is recognizable at all. But it can also be totally black, more like an Ad Reinhardt. The more frequently we are confronted with such images (even every day, depending on the time we spend on those devices), it becomes clear that the photographer could be the apparatus itself.
An article which appeared on Saturday 13 January 1962 in the Lebanese cultural newspaper L’Orient Littéraire , co-authored by the Syrians Chérif Khaznadar (1940 –), a poet and art critic, and the painter Louay Kayyali (1934 – 1978), presents us with a visual and logical conundrum. In the lead to the article, Khaznadar and Kayyali reported a thrilling artistic discovery they had made in Damascus: in the dark and cluttered shop of a merchant in the Bab al-Jabiyyah souq the two found a painting, “a marvellous specimen of ancient Damascene art”, which they were eager to study
‘The biggest little place in America,’ was, for the novelist Henry James, Concord, Massachusetts. Sounding like a slogan for the town’s tourism board today, not to mention like a quaint expression of American pastoral kitsch, James’s phrase is meant to reference the difference between Concord’s modest size and its prominent place in history. In contrast to a current population of about 17,000, Concord was the physical site of one of first skirmishes of the American Revolutionary War in 1775 as well as the metaphorical cradle of American Transcendentalism some 60 years later.
While the iconography of leaflets has been researched again and again – especially since Warburg – less so the political agency of their dissemination and their reception. And yet these prints with text and image, already circulating in the late Middle Ages, quite rightly deserve their poetic name: “leaflet” or “flyer”, in German “Flugblatt” (lit.: flying leaf), in French occasionally even “papillon” (“butterfly”).
In 2018, the Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto created, through a collective process, a monumental textile installation in the main station of Zurich called Gaia mother tree that was organised by the Fondation Beyeler. The textile object looks like a twenty-meter high plant, that reaches up to the ceiling of the station building and fills the entrance hall with bright and warm colours. Its translucent structure is made of mainly yellow, orange, red and light green hand-knotted cotton strips. On closer inspection, the meticulous knotting of the fabric becomes visible.
A posthumous publication: Frank Martin’s “Camillo Rusconi: ein Bildhauer des Spätbarock in Rom” (2019)
When recently I took Frank Martin’s posthumously published book off the shelf at the Warburg Institute I was pursuing issues relating to eighteenth-century Italian sculpture, in particular the making and use of models. But the book attracted me also on a personal level. Frank Martin died unexpectedly at the age of 53 in 2014. I knew him well from periods when we had worked at the same institutions, in 1993 at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence, where he was a postdoctoral fellow, and again in 1996 at the Warburg Institute, where he held a three-month Frances Yates Fellowship.
Fällt ein Baum im Wald… Das bekannte Gleichnis fragt nach der Beziehung von Ereignis und Wahrnehmung respektive nach der Bedeutung von Zeugenschaft und berührt somit letztlich ein geschichtstheoretisches Problem. In den Wäldern Frankreichs fallen derzeit Bäume zu tausenden. Darüber, ob ihr Sturz ein Geräusch verursacht, braucht nicht spekuliert werden: Zeugen sind genügend vorhanden. Die Bäume, allesamt Eichen, werden gefällt für die Instandsetzung von Notre Dame, den hölzernen Dachstuhl um genau zu sein.
Last month, a workshop that I organized on the American art historian and New York intellectual Meyer Schapiro (1904-1996) finally came to fruition. Hosted by the Centre for American Art at the Courtauld Institute here in London, the workshop was conceived as an afternoon of engagement with texts by Schapiro and was punctuated by three presentations: the first by myself, the second by Jérémie Koering of the University of Fribourg, and the third by Hagi Kenaan of University of Tel Aviv. Other scholars, including members of the Bilderfahrzeuge Project, joined as discussants and in the intervening days I’ve continued to think about the workshop and the ideas that it helped generate. In what follows I offer up some further reflections.
In the preface to the 50th anniversary edition of his Pulitzer prize winning study, ‘The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution’, the Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn reflects back on his book’s original argument of 1967, one based on an unprecedented attention to the language and rhetoric of the manifold political pamphlets that circulated in the American colonies between 1760 and 1776. Towards the end of his retrospection, Bailyn underlines the importance of the reception of ancient Roman republicanism among the American revolutionaries and cites one of the most well-known expressions of whiggish sentiment of the time—Trenchard and Gordon’s essays from the 1720s known as ‘Cato’s Letters’. Quoting the letters’ assertion that “words are too weak” to express the magnitude of the impact of the history of ancient Rome on the 18th century republican mind, Bailyn wonders if pictures might come closer to the mark.