Boas, Saxl and Wind on Race, Gesture and Art

In 1935, the anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942) wrote to the Warburg Institute from Columbia University with an inquiry on the theme of gesture, sparking a series of letters currently held at the Warburg Institute Archive. In this blog post, Anna Speyart discusses the epistolary series, tracing the ideas and books that were exchanged across the Atlantic and across academic disciplines.

Scattered across the anthropological classmarks (DL), users of the Warburg Library will find works by Franz Boas, some of them part of Aby Warburg’s own collection. (Fig. 1) Born to an assimilated German-Jewish family, the ‘father’ of American anthropology studied in Heidelberg, Bonn and Kiel before emigrating to the United States in 1886. He was professor of anthropology at Columbia University from 1899 until his death in 1942, during which time he revolutionised his field by publishing prolifically and by mentoring a generation of future innovators in anthropology. At a time when anthropometric approaches dominated scientific discourses on race, Boas argued for a relativistic understanding of human group difference that emphasised the influence of culture and environment over hereditary (and therefore immutable) physical traits.

Eight years Boas’s junior, Aby Warburg (1866-1929) had a keen interest in anthropology as a key component in the study of expression in culture as it developed over time. He followed the work of German ethnologists like Adolf Bastian, whose contributions to the field of cultural psychology informed Warburg’s research. He met Franz Boas (who had worked with Bastian in Berlin before emigrating) and the anthropologists of the Smithsonian Institution during his journey to the United States in 1895-96. Boas and Warburg continued to correspond occasionally in subsequent decades.

Fig 1: The fly leaf and title page of Aby Warburg’s copy of The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Ind

While Warburg’s enthusiastic forays into anthropological subjects were of limited interest to Franz Boas, the two scholars shared a strong commitment to their socio-political responsibility as intellectuals. As Jews, they both expressed a grave concern with scientific racism and anti-Semitism. They believed that a continued commitment to the study of culture – whether through cultural anthropology or Kulturwissenschaft – was the antidote to the obscurantism that they perceived as the source of racist ideologies.

In a letter dated 13 December 1924, Warburg asked Boas for help in acquiring the latest ethnological literature from the United States, but also denounced racist ideologies in contemporary politics and urged Boas to continue supporting intellectuals in Germany (das geistige Deutschland). Boas, in his response of 14 January 1925, assured him that he would not ‘lose faith in the future of German intellectual work, despite the aberrations of our time’. Speaking from his own experience in the United States, however, he remarked that ‘racial prejudices seem at the present time to be epidemic all over the world, and we are not by any means free of them here.’

Fast forward a decade, and the ‘aberrations’ of their time proved consequential indeed. Warburg died in 1929 and did not live to witness the beginning of Hitler’s dictatorship in 1933, which compelled his library to relocate to London in the same year. It was under these drastically changed circumstances that now Boas reached out to the Warburg Institute. In a short letter of 2 July 1935, Boas explained that, together with his student David Efron and the artist Stuyvesant Van Veen, he was investigating ‘Gestures as used by immigrants and their gradual disappearance in the second generation.’ In particular, they were analysing ‘Jewish and Italian gestures’ and their ‘blending in a mixed society’. In addition, Boas’s team was trying to prove the ‘gradual repression of gestures’ in pre-Victorian England.

After introducing the topic, Boas explained that his purpose was ‘mainly to show that the activities of man are culturally determined, not by racial descent.’ This brief summary of his agenda is unsurprising, given his life-long fight against racist theory in science and society, which became an even greater priority in his work from the 1930s.[1] Proving that expressive behaviour, such as gesture, could change from one generation to the next was crucial in defying racial determinism, which identified genetic and unchangeable characteristics as the source of human behaviour. Efron’s research on the assimilation of gestures in New York City’s melting pot would provide further evidence for Boas’s beliefs.

Dealing with gesture, Boas must have remembered the expertise of Warburg’s circle and thus asked Fritz Saxl (1890-1948) if he had ‘any material or notes that might be suggestive’. Saxl had succeeded Warburg as director of the Library, which Boas had visited in Hamburg in 1930. Warburg had long been interested in emotional expression and gesture as represented in artefacts, which he considered manifestations of historical psychology. Saxl had elaborated Warburg’s unfinished work on expressive gesture after the latter’s death (see Further Reading). Replying to Boas on 19 July 1935 from London, Saxl thus agreed that the Institute was ‘very much interested’ in gesture and that ‘of course similar problems arise here as in the field you are interested in.’

Eager to explore the enriching potential of an interdisciplinary approach to the study of gesture, Saxl introduced the example of artists moving to Italy from abroad, where they ‘naturally adopt the language of gesture’ common to Italian art. He did, however, warn that proving and explaining changes in the depiction of gesture ‘appears more complicated than in real life’. Having identified this important caveat, he promised to look out for examples that could suit Boas’s requirements and offered to lend him a relevant volume by Andrea de Jorio ‘from our Library’.

At this point, a second voice from Warburg’s circle joined the epistolary conversation: Edgar Wind wrote to Boas to say that he had ‘just started looking through some material which may be of interest in relation to your problem’ (2 April 1935). Following up on this initial message on 19 November 1935, he sent Boas a second letter and a piece of his own writing, both addressing the use of gestural language (Gebärdensprache) in English portraiture and theatre in the eighteenth century. According to Wind, two styles of gesture – one ‘heroic-dramatic’, and the other ‘reserved’ – existed alongside each other in this period.

In his response of 16 December 1935, Boas asked Wind to what extent he thought ‘that the gestures and postures given by Hogarth are characteristic of their time and of the social groups he is describing’, seemingly echoing Saxl’s initial concern. Wind replied that he happened to be working on a series of lectures ‘on the very subject’ that Boas introduced, but that he was not yet ready to send a printed manuscript. His letter of 3 February 1936, then, provides a summary of his research on Hogarth and apologises for his ‘abstract’ and ‘very incomplete answer’.

Fig. 2: The Warburg Library’s copy of Kwakiutl Culture as Reflected in Mythology (1935) by Franz Boas. Photo: Mark Amies

Unfortunately, the transatlantic correspondence on gesture appears to have fizzled out with this last letter. There is, however, a tail to the exchange: a few weeks after Wind’s letter, on 13 March 1936, Gertrud Bing wrote to Boas to ask if he would be willing to provide the Warburg Library with a copy of his Kwakiutl Culture as Reflected in Mythology (New York, 1935), a recent book the Library was ‘very anxious to have’. In return, Bing offered to send any of the Warburg Institute’s own publications to Boas and enclosed a list for him to choose from. ‘Please excuse this request,’ she explained. ‘You know, of course, that our position is such that we are obliged to obtain some of the important books for our Library by this means.’

Indeed, Boas arranged for a copy to be sent to the Institute. (Fig. 2) The volume in question stands next to Boas’s other books on Kwakiutl culture in the Warburg Library, where users of the Library can consult it today. The story behind this acquisition is an interwar attempt at scholarly collaboration, in which researchers sought to support each other’s work by sharing their expertise and exchanging bibliographical materials. In doing so, the scholars stretched across the boundaries of their academic disciplines to defy racist ideologies with a deeper understanding of cultural difference and its development. They experienced the effects of such ideologies directly, and their concerns continue to be relevant to us today.

Anna Speyart


Anna Speyart received her MA in Cultural, Intellectual and Visual History from the Warburg Institute in 2019.

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[1] Recently, critics have argued that Boas and his students were equally responsible for perpetuating white supremacy, but, to cite Kwame Appiah’s conclusion, ‘Boas fought harder, and failed less, than most.’ Kwame A. Appiah, ‘The Defender of Differences’, New York Review of Books, 28 May 2020.

Further Reading:

David Efron ended up publishing his research as Gesture and Environment (1941), which contains extensive illustrations and the sketches of gestural language by Stuyvesant Van Veen.

Warburg’s thoughts on gesture are most comprehensively discussed by Fritz Saxl in ‘Die Ausdrucksgebärden der bildenden Kunst’ (1932), reprinted in Fritz Saxl, Gebärde, Form, Ausdruck: zwei Untersuchungen (2012).

The bibliographical reference given by Fritz Saxl is Andrea de Jorio, La mimica degli antichi investigata nel gestire napoletano (1832). Saxl also mentions Albert Oberheide, Der Einfluss Marcantonio Raimondis auf die nordische Kunst des 16. Jahrhunderts : unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Graphik (1933).

Although Edgar Wind’s letter does not name the piece of his own writing that he sent to Boas, it was most probably his lecture ‘Humanitätsidee und heroisiertes Porträt in der Englischen Kultur des 18. Jahrhunderts’, Vorträge der Bibliothek Warburg (1930-31).

The letters between Boas and Warburg from 1924-25 are translated and contextualised in Benedetta Cestelli Guidi, ‘Aby Warburg and Franz Boas: Two Letters from the Warburg Archive: The Correspondence between Franz Boas and Aby Warburg (1924-1925)’, Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 52 (2007), pp. 221-230.

Boas’s letters to the Warburg Institute from 1935-36 are held in the Warburg Institute Archive’s General Correspondence, together with copies of the letters by Saxl, Wind and Bing.