Category: Objects

Articles published in this section introduce objects that members of the group are working on in the context of their ongoing research.

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

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.)

Die Welt spiegeln. Rudolf Bernoulli, Fritz Saxl und eine Sammlung kosmologischer Bilder

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.

Hero Recast as Human: Transformation of Rustam in the Shāhnāmā

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.

Bewegtes Beiwerk, Nachleben, and shi 勢 (energy)

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.

Allan Ramsay at the National Galleries of Scotland

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.

Baby Pictor?

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.

“Modern Art Sometimes Gives Rise To…”

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

Like a leaf in the wind…

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”).

On the connectivity of fabrics: ‘Gaia mother tree’ by Ernesto Neto

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.

Locke to Courten: a letter about “Draughts”

“[…] I the last weeke put into the hands of Mr Smith a book seller liveing at the Princes Armes in Pauls Churchyard 26 Draughts of the inhabitants of severall remote parts of the world espetially the East Indies […] For the excellency of the drawing I will not answer they being don by my boy who hath faithfully enough represented the originals they were copyed from.” So wrote the famed philosopher John Locke to his friend William Courten, aka William Charleton, from Amsterdam in August 1687. If these passing remarks concerning the copying work of Locke’s servant, Sylvester Brounower, might at first appear to be of little interest, they take on much more significance when matched with the drawings that they describe. Thanks to the fact that Courten kept a prominent cabinet of curiosities in London that would later be acquired by Hans Sloane, whose collection in turn helped form the basis of the British Museum, we can do just that.

The Grieving Figure in Scenes of Loss and Mourning in Mughal Manuscript Painting

Images depicting sorrow were rare, though not an uncommon genre, contained in illustrated manuscripts produced during the Mughal reign in India (1526 – 1857). The tradition of image-making during Mughal rule can be traced to earlier Timurid (15th century) and Ilkhanid periods (14th century), whose subject mainly consisted of histories of dynasties, Persian poetic and literary works and biographies of Turko-Mongol rulers. Images displaying tragedy and loss were limited to death scenes of legendary and historic rulers, heroes and anti-heroes, and saints and protagonists from literary works. The main corpus of images, however, contained themes that exalted the ruler, depicted his might and strength and displayed his connoisseurship of literature, art and culture. Therefore, despite their limited role, the tragic end of heroes, rulers and saints were as much part of the literary and visual cultural history, as were narratives and legends glorifying their lives.

Modi and Metamorphoses (I)

An aged man, wearing a hat and sporting an impressive moustache looks, somehow sceptical and at the same time absorbed, towards the beholder. The dark dominating tone of the painting is supported by the background and is challenged through the white-yellowish and in some cases green-redish flesh as well as the white thick brushstrokes in the area of the neck. These broad, parallel lines suggest the texture of a fabric and create a dazzling counterpoint to the dark coat.

Consider the Pigeon

It is now both a convention and also a joke to make the title of pieces about animals “Consider the __” where the blank is the name of the animal. This is because of a now famous essay that David Foster Wallace wrote called “Consider the Lobster”. So now: Consider the Pigeon. I would like to say that, in my exploration of English baroque in comparative context, that this was a deeply thought decision, to consider pigeons. I would like to say that I have brooded over Haraway and theories of the city in the Anthropocene and the now admittedly trendy idea of “animal studies”. This would be both a truth and a lie. A truth because I have been thinking about these things, but also haven’t had the ability to read them, not in any format other than in purloined pdf files. As we will tell our students someday, we’re all Auerbaching it now in academia; that is, if there is a someday and if I am in it, and if someday there are still students.

1 August 1914 – The First Page of Aby Warburg’s ‘Kriegs-Zibaldone’, his war journal

“On 1 August 1914, after all, the mobilisation was announced. Our Kaiser has proven himself so worthy that he could even lose the war without disgrace; what God may prevent.” Aby Warburg began his war journal of the years 1914–1918 with these words. He positions himself in line with the patriotism of the majority of his milieu of the bourgeoisie, supporting “our Kaiser”. In all the praise of the Kaiser, though, he underlines the uncertain outcome of the war, even the possibility of losing it— a notion present already in the very first sentence of this diary.

From the Archive II: Reading the Yates Family Archive

In the first half of this two-part blog about the Yates Family Archive I have introduced the parents of Frances Yates (b. 1899), her three siblings Hannah (b. 1885), Ruby (b. 1887) and James (b. 1889) as well as the house in Claygate from where after the scholar’s death in 1981 the Family Archive, an adjunct to Yates’ working papers, had been transferred to the Warburg Institute. I shall now turn to the collection itself.