Matthew Vollgraff


Matthew Vollgraff
Research Associate
The Warburg Institute
Woburn Square
London WC1H 0AB
Tel: +44 (0) 207 862 87 55

Research Project

Memory Images: Art, Mind and the Lure of Deep Time

Richard Thurnwald, Forschungen auf den Salomo-Inseln und dem Bismarck-Archipel, vol. 1: Lieder und Sagen aus Buin (Berlin 1912), Plate 3.

In the post-Enlightenment German tradition of cultural anthropology, to study culture meant to study the mind of a people. In the place of humanistic philological methods, anthropologists around 1900 relied on nonverbal sources – material culture, photography, and physical measurements of living or dead bodies – in order to understand the mentalities of unfamiliar peoples. My research project examines the reception and interpretation of non-Western art and artifacts as psychological documents in the late Wilhelmine Empire. Circulated and translated across media , images transmitted knowledge between anthropology, psychology and aesthetics that unsettled and even challenged the motivations of metropolitan science. The project foregrounds the social and political stakes of that interdisciplinary research, which had the effect of displacing not only colonized peoples into the deep past, but occasionally also the German national self. 

Each part of the project takes off from a specific event: a conference, an exhibition, and an expedition. Part One interrogates how comparisons across prehistoric European images, children’s drawings and contemporary non-European art shaped debates over the “origin of art” in the early twentieth century – debates that came to a head at the 1913 Congress for Aesthetics and the General Science of Art. Part Two then reconstructs how these comparisons informed the first exhibition of global art history in Germany, organized by the historian Karl Lamprecht in Leipzig in 1914, and situates that exhibition within its wider context of historical scholarship, scientific racism and cultural imperialism. Part Three, finally, investigates how anthropologists in Germany’s Melanesian colonies used indigenous image-making to answer pressing problems of colonial administration and ‘native policy’. 

It is well-known that European artists and art historians exploited the visual archives of anthropology to challenge Western aesthetic norms. This project instead treats images themselves as active and often disruptive partners in the production and dissemination of social knowledge. By mapping out how aesthetics, anthropology and psychology were mutually imbricated in colonial politics, the project unearths troubling legacies with which any genuinely global art history today will have to reckon.


Matthew Vollgraff is a historian of art and science in modern Germany working at the intersection of aesthetics, anthropology and the life sciences. He received his PhD from Princeton University in 2019. Before joining the Bilderfahrzeuge group with his current project, he was a research fellow in the research group “Naturbilder” at the University of Hamburg and a guest doctoral researcher at the Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung (ZfL) in Berlin. His publications have appeared in the journals Grey RoomOctoberOxford Art Journal and the History of Anthropology Review. He is currently completing his first book, entitled The Science of Expression: Nature, Culture and Gesture in Modern Germany, which tells the story of how gesture became the object of scientific knowledge in early twentieth-century Germany. More information can be found on his website.

Relevant Publications

Ökologien des Ausdrucks (Ecologies of Expression), co-edited with Frank Fehrenbach (Berlin: De Gruyter: 2022), in press.

“The Origins of Art around 1900. Gesture, Drawing, and the Ethnographic Imagination.” Res: Anthropology and aesthetics, in press.

“‘With the Eyes of an Anthropologist.’ Aby Warburg and the Bureau of American Ethnology,” in Lightning Symbol and Snake Dance. Aby Warburg and Pueblo Art, ed. Christine Chavez and Uwe Fleckner (Hamburg: MARKK, 2022), in press.

“L’arc de l’histoire. De l’anthropologie diffusionniste à la morphologie des cultures.” La Part de l’Œil, Issue 35–36: ‘André Leroi-Gourhan et l’esthétique / Art et anthropologie’ (2021), 378–399.

“The Archaeology of Expression: Aby Warburg’s Ausdruckskunde.” Aby Warburg und die Natur, ed. Frank Fehrenbach and Cornelia Zumbusch (Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 2019), 121–148.

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