A compulsion to connect characterises Aby Warburg’s life and work. The Bilderatlas (picture atlas) Mnemosyne, today his best-known project, was conceived to pull together the various threads of his earlier research. Large screens with assemblages of photographs, the tool he devised to draft the plates for the atlas (as it was coming into being), offered Warburg the opportunity to draw out a wide range of connections between the chosen images. Yet the Atlas was only the last of his several attempts to achieve a great synthesis of all his studies. Among these, only one, the monumental lecture series Introduction to the Culture of the Early Renaissance in Italy, held in Hamburg in 1909, was successfully brought to conclusion. 

The ephemeral and performative character of the public lecture enabled Warburg to render his ideas without having to fix them in a definitive, that is, publishable form. Subsequently, large parts of Warburg’s lecture scripts usually consist of lists of images accompanied by short notes that enabled him to extemporise. In the present exhibition Warburg’s struggle to arrive at a publishable, coherent text on a complex subject is also illustrated through the case of an abandoned article on Secular Art from Flanders in Medician Florence (1903-4).

From 1911 onwards Warburg had created so-called Bilderreihen, sequences of images which he mounted on canvas-covered wooden frames. As a tool to develop his ideas, these panels resemble the loosely sketched middle parts of his lectures in as much as the content remains adjustable. But while the lecture scripts still prescribed a linear progression, the Bilderreihen enabled Warburg to make a wider range of ad hoc cross-connections while standing in front of the frames, without having to commit to any of them in advance.

By the 1920s Warburg used such displays regularly a as means to present his visual material during lectures, sometimes in tandem with slide projections. In other instances such Bilderreihen functioned as exhibitions, usually displayed for several days during which Warburg’s exegesis took on the more flexible format of a guided tour. Never though was the viewer supposed to grasp the meaning of the display without Warburg’s explanation.

With the picture atlas Mnemosyne (1928/29) Warburg aimed to translate the ephemeral structure of his lectures with Bilderreihen into a lasting, monolithic publication. Considered close to publication when Warburg died on 26 October 1929, it exists in three consecutively developed versions, including the so-called ‘final’ sequence. Consisting of 63 panels, the ‘final’ version remains an incomplete ‘work in progress’ with some panels still missing and without a commentary. 

Coining a word that is as fitting as it is symptomatic of the urge it describes, Warburg spoke of his Verknüpfungszwang. This ‘compulsion to interconnect’ lies not only at the root of his research and working methods. It is also manifested in regular references within his work to events in his private life, his family and collaborators. His family, of course, enabled him to pursue his research as a private scholar and to build the unique problem-oriented library that was to become the Warburg Institute. 

Curated by Eckart Marchand, Andrew Hewish and Claudia Wedepohl  

This exhibition was originally shown at the Warburg Institute 3 June - 1 July 2016 


Aby Warburg: A Life in Photographs

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