Aby Warburg Bilderatlas Mnemosyne: Interview with Exhibition Assistant Lorenza Gay

This autumn Warburg’s original working materials for his legendary Bilderatlas Mnemosyne have returned to Germany in two very special exhibitions.

For the first time since 1929, all 63 panels of the Bilderatlas have been reconstructed using Warburg’s original materials for display at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, whilst at the Gemäldegalerie you can see some 50 original artworks in the collections of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin chosen by Warburg for inclusion in his encyclopedic atlas of images.

Aby Warburg: Bilderatlas Mnemosyne‘ at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt restores the last documented version of the 1929 atlas with the original illustrations: it is as close to the original as we will ever get to see in our lifetimes. In collaboration with the Warburg Institute in London, the curators Roberto Ohrt and Axel Heil located most of the 971 illustrations from the 400,000 objects in the Institute’s Photographic Collection and Library to display Warburg’s unfinished magnum opus in its entirety for the first time since his death.

In this blog post, we chatted with Lorenza Gay, an exhibition assistant for the Aby Warburg: Bilderatlas Mnemosyne exhibition at Haus der Kulturen der Welt to find out more about the process involved in the reconstruction of the panels.

Could you tell us a little bit about your role in helping to put together this exhibition? 

I helped the curators find the original Atlas photographs in the Photographic Collection. I also kept track of where the photos came from within the Collection so that I could then replace them with facsimiles. I measured all the photos, made note of which ones needed a mount or not, kept track of their conservation status and made sure they were all safely stored in an organised manner. I also helped during the photoshoot of the accompanying folio book and in researching the photographs for the captions of the folio book and exhibition booklet.

What aspect of your role as Exhibition Assistant did you enjoy the most and why?

I enjoyed the ‘treasure hunt’ in the Photographic Collection, it was always thrilling to find another photograph! Even though at times – especially towards the end, once we had found the majority of the photographs – it could take a few hours to just to find one! 

I also really liked working alongside the others that took part in the organisation of the exhibition. Since it was a big project there were a lot of people involved and you could really feel the team spirit as we were all working towards the same goal.

“Aby Warburg: Bilderatlas Mnemosyne – The Original.” at Haus der Kulturen der Welt | Photo: Silke Briel/HKW
Why is this exhibition important? 

This exhibition is important because it is the first time that the Atlas has been reconstructed with the original materials since 1929 – and I am sure this will shed more light on Warburg’s work. I also think it is significant as it is the result of a collaboration between European institutions.

Was there anything particularly fascinating you came across? 

I have always been a big fan of the Photographic Collection, it is a great tool for art historians and thanks to this project I could delve even more into the Collection.

Were there any challenging moments? 

Well, the photoshoot for the folio book was certainly a challenging four days. We had A LOT of work to do in very little time. It was also the first time we put all the photos together on each panel. Since I was the one who had been looking after the photographs and keeping track of what we had (or didn’t have) I especially felt a lot of pressure and responsibility as I wanted everything to run smoothly and efficiently. Until one actually handles all the photographs that make up the Bilderatlas it is hard to truly understand how many photos there are. The amount of material was a lot to keep track of. Thankfully, I have a good memory and I always wrote everything down. In the end, it all went well, and in hindsight, it was a lot of fun too.

Close-up of a panel “Aby Warburg: Bilderatlas Mnemosyne – The Original.” at Haus der Kulturen der Welt | Photo: Silke Briel/HKW
How does it feel to finally see the exhibition come to fruition?

I feel so happy and so proud of all the work we did. I also feel honoured to have been included in this project. 

What’s your favourite part of the exhibition?

The opening! Seeing all the panels together with all the beautiful photographs in the stunning set up they did at Haus der Kulturen der Welt was just amazing – especially after it had been postponed due to the pandemic. 

I also really enjoyed visiting the Gemäldegalerie exhibition on the Atlas, ‘Between Cosmos and Pathos Berlin Works from Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas’, which brought together some of the original artworks featured in the Atlas. I thought it complemented really well the exhibition at Haus der Kulturen der Welt.

Panel 33 of Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas © The Warburg Institute
What is your favourite panel from the Bilderatlas? 

My favourite panel is number 33 as it is the one that is more closely tied to my research interests. The panel focuses on mythography in the Late Middle Ages, with photographs of illuminations and illustrations from manuscripts and early printed books. There are pictures from the Ovide moralisé, the Epistre Othéa by Christine de Pisanthe French translation of Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus and the Historia Destructionis Troiae by Guido delle Colonne…. In particular it emphasises the use of contemporary costumes and settings for the Greco-Roman gods and mythological figures in the medieval period.

> Explore the exhibitions in our Virtual Tour

> Discover more about the exhibitions

> Find out more about the Warburg Institute’s Photographic Collection

Virtual tours

For those unable to travel to Berlin during this time, we will be launching two virtual tours in October of the two major exhibitions devoted to Aby Warburg’s Bilderatlas MnemosyneAby Warburg: Bilderatlas Mnemosyne — The Original (4 September – 30 November 2020) at Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) and Between Cosmos and Pathos: Berlin Works from Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas (6 August – 1 November 2020) at Kulturforum, Gemäldegalerie.

The virtual tours have been created with financial support from the Warburg Charitable Trust and technical direction from Marco Vedana at documentart.de. They will allow visitors to explore the content of both exhibitions online and will also enable them to move freely between the panels of images at HKW and the original artworks in the Gemäldegalerie.