In 1899 the young Aby Warburg gave a series of lectures on Leonardo in his home town Hamburg. At this point, Warburg lived and researched in Florence, and the lecture series was designed to raise his profile as a private scholar back home, but also, as Warburg’s brother Max put it encouragingly, to give something back to the community. The lectures were designed as an overview of Leonardo’s work and life, and are thus unique in the oeuvre of this scholar who tended to engage with very specific research problems.
With an average attendance of more than 400, Warburg’s Leonardo lectures were a great success, and a fourth meeting, accompanied by original Leonardo drawings and photographic prints in the Hamburg Kunsthalle, had to be repeated. The display brings together correspondence, newspaper announcements, as well as Warburg’s scripts and photographic material, giving an insight into Aby Warburg’s working methods at this early point in his career.
In this blog post, we spoke to Eckart and the students who curated the display, to find out more about the exhibition.
Could you tell us a little bit about how has this exhibition come about?
Eckart: The first idea to present Aby Warburg’s 1899 lectures on Leonardo to an audience here in London came from the Warburg Institute’s Archivist Claudia Wedepohl. Warburg had given these lectures in his hometown in part because the public art gallery, Hamburg’s Kunsthalle, owns six drawings associated with Leonardo. Living in Florence as an independent art historian, Warburg wanted to mark his presence in Hamburg and was also contemplating to work for the Kunsthalle. The scripts of these lectures and some relating material survive, so far unpublished and untranslated in our archive. Claudia suggested that John Prag, Warburg’s grandson and look-alike might agree to present a purpose made translation. Joseph Spooner who has just completed the translation of Erwin Panofsky’s professorial dissertation on Michelangelo, skilfully translated at high speed all three lectures and John Prag will read from them on 16 December.
Bill Sherman, our Director, initially suggested to have a display from the archive at the back of the lecture theatre and from there these plans grew into the present project. Clementine, Hannah, Helena and Tereze, students from our two MA programmes, volunteered to stage the small exhibition, which is now going to be larger than initially envisaged and will be presented for several days in the Warburg Library Reading Room.
Could you tell us about some of the items within the exhibition?
Eckart: First of all, there are the lecture scripts, black booklets in Warburg’s handwriting and also that of his wife Mary who worked for him. The German handwriting is quite neat for Warburg’s standards but may come as a bit of a shock for modern readers. We will also exhibit a sheet from the transcripts that were made of these texts around 1930, when after Warburg’s death the German predecessor of the Institute had plans to publish his work. Gombrich used these transcripts extensively and marked them up with his red biro.
Another important part of the lectures were the illustrations. In 1899 they were expensive and difficult to obtain. Warburg ordered slides and got a large scale image made for an additional meeting where he displayed them together with the original drawings in the Kunsthalle. We will display some of these photographs which have been specially conserved for the event.
Is there anything particularly fascinating you have come across whilst curating the display?
Eckart: There is a lot I could say about the objects, but I shall leave that to my collaborators. For me, it was particularly fascinating to prepare the display with Tereze, Helena, Hannah and Clementine. Working with them was very inspiring, I was impressed by how professionally they thought through the display in practical, conceptual and visual terms.
The students’ responses
What have you enjoyed the most about putting together the exhibition?
Clementine: I’ve really enjoyed working with a wide range of materials and seeing how they relate to each other. It’s been great to see an exhibition grow from pairing various items together.
Tereze: I’ve loved the fact that we’ve had so much say and input into how everything is displayed. It has been incredible to see how many different things we can include in one exhibition.
Helena: For me, it has to be the fact that we’ve been able to handle real historical material! It has really helped me discover more about Warburg as a person and a scholar.
Hannah: I’ve really enjoyed being able to work with Warburg’s photographs, letters and notes and thinking about how we can display them most effectively for all of our audience to appreciate their significance.
“It has been incredible to see how many different things we can include in one exhibition.”
What is the most important thing you have learnt?
Clementine: Curating this exhibition has taught me to really think about what looks good together. Appearances matter. When curating, it isn’t always a case of displaying what is most interesting to you, but determining what will look best in a display case and how it will fit in overall with what you are trying to present.
Tereze: I’ve learned to think more about how an audience would look at something as opposed to just myself looking at it!
Helena: I’ve learned that some ideas you have don’t always necessarily translate on paper. If you’re working on a physical exhibition, the most useful way to plan it is to lay down your objects and move them around to see how best to display them.
Hannah: The importance of symmetry and variation in an exhibition. Originally, we were thinking of just displaying written material in one case, but we decided that photographs would be a great addition not only for aesthetic reasons, but also because they would help people picture Warburg as he wrote too!
“If you’re working on a physical exhibition, the most useful way to plan it is to lay down your objects and move them around to see how best to display them.”
Do you have a favourite item from the exhibition?
Clementine: The newspaper clipping because it showed how everyone reacted to Warburg’s lecture!
Tereze: Warburg’s reply to Von Melle’s letter. The contrast between the two is extraordinary!
Helena: Warburg’s schemata – it has given me some tips on how I might structure my future art historical research.
Hannah: Warburg’s letter to his father while he is on holiday. Not only is the letter heading beautiful, but it gives you a special insight into Warburg’s personal life that we don’t often get to see.
The Aby Warburg’s Lectures on Leonardo, 1899 exhibition is available to see in the Warburg Library Reading Room on Friday 13 December & Monday-Friday 16-20 December: 10.00am to 4.00pm. Admittance is free and non-Warburg users will be able to get a visitor pass at reception, there is no need to register in advance.
This exhibition is part of the series Leonardo 500, marking the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, organised and supported by the Italian Cultural Institute, the Warburg Institute, the University of Kent, and the Centre for the Study of Cultural Memory at the Institute of Modern Languages Research. The mounted photograph of a Leonardo drawing shown in this blog is part of a set of photographs displayed by Warburg at the event and specially conserved for the present project. This was made possible with the financial support of the Italian Cultural Institute London.