The exhibition, organised by Uffizi Galleries in collaboration with the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max Planck Institut and the Warburg Institute, is now on display until December 10, 2023, at Florence's Uffizi Galleries. The show features 14 reconstructed panels of Aby Warburg’s last and perhaps most influential work, the unfinished Bilderatlas Mnemosyne.
To delve deeper into the exhibit and its significance, we chatted with Claudia Wedepohl, one of the curators and the Warburg's Archivist, who shares her insights and reasons on why this exhibition is a must-see.
Can you elaborate on your responsibilities as Archivist at the Warburg Institute?
As Archivist I’m responsible for managing one of the three departments of the Institute and promoting its collections. Almost all documents we hold relate to the Institute’s history. Our largest and most ‘popular’ individual collection are the papers of our founder, Aby Warburg. The Archivist makes these holdings available to researchers. This involves activities such as cataloguing, answering requests and giving access to the documents. Recently, however, I have been much more engaged in showcasing our collections through public exhibits. Although the Warburg is primarily a research institute rather than a museum, this endeavor has introduced both unique challenges and exhilarating new experiences due to the different procedures it entails.
What inspired the idea and conception exhibition?
Warburg lived and worked in Florence for a few years around 1900, and fifteenth-century Florentine art and culture dominated his scholarship for over 40 years. This focus is also the central theme of his now-legendary Bilderatlas, which revolutionised the study of images in the twentieth century.
The idea for the exhibition was to contextualise the 'Florentine' chapters of his Atlas within the city at the time of their intellectual origin. We had the incredible opportunity to bring together the historic photographs that Warburg pinned to his panels—highly important as a medium for the development of his method—with the objects he studied. These included not just objects from the Uffizi but also pieces from other Florentine collections. Yet the show goes one significant step further: we integrated contemporary artworks, for example drawings by William Kentridge. These pieces respond to both the works in the galleries and to Warburg's own, making the afterlife of Warburg’s insights into continuities in the expression of emotions palpable.
How did this collaborative effort between Uffizi Galleries, Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, and the Warburg Institute come into being?
When the 63 panels of Aby Warburg’s Bilderatlas were displayed in three major shows in Germany in 2020 and 2021, one of Warburg’s most enigmatic legacies came back to life and raised interest around the world. The reconstruction of the whole series invited other, more focussed exhibitions. So, our friends and colleagues in Florence brought the idea for this specific project to us and we were happy to collaborate. Eike Schmidt, the director of the Uffizi Galleries, provided the art pieces, exhibition spaces, and inter-museum collaborations essential for realising the project. Gerhard Wolf, who leads the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz (where Aby Warburg was a founding member), contributed the conceptual framework and manpower. Meanwhile, we supplied the objects that serve as the foundational elements for the show.
Could you describe your specific contributions and role as a member of the curatorial team for this exhibition?
For our ‘London’ part of the exhibition I coordinated all necessary preparations – my role was thus much more comprehensive than the strictly curatorial work, but together with Warburg Institute's Director, Bill Sherman, I was indeed a member of the curatorial team. Through frequent online meetings, we developed the exhibition's concept, which centres around three main themes: Warburg's Atlas and its photography, encounters with Florentine collections, and the opening up of the Atlas. During these discussions, we also pinpointed contributors for the comprehensive catalog that was produced in conjunction with the exhibition.
Why should one consider visiting this exhibition? What makes it unique?
The exhibition offers the unique opportunity to enter Warburg’s laboratory – although everything is behind glass. For the first time we can see Warburg’s notes containing sketches of motifs such as the figure of the Ninfa, together with his panels on which he tried constellations to visualise his lines of thought, and the objects that inspired them. Yet the experience goes beyond Warburg’s laboratory into the cityscape of Florence around 1900. It was the laboratory for a whole generation of historians, art and social historians and others.
In the course of developing the exhibition, did you stumble upon any fascinating or unexpected discoveries?
Yes, perhaps not unexpected but a kind of discovery. I wrote the catalogue entries for the selected Zettel, index cards, from Warburg’s renowned collection of 100 boxes. This served as his unique 'archive' of ideas, citations, secondary literature, objects, motifs, and so forth, which expanded continuously throughout his academic career. The catalogue entries are short, chiefly an identification of the object and transcription of the written parts on each Zettel. I found it fascinating to see how Warburg pursued his research questions and collected examples at a time when photography wasn't as ubiquitous as it is today. Almost all of the sketches are copies of outline drawings from a diverse array of nineteenth-century publications, ranging from popular to highly specialised.
What were some of the challenges you encountered while curating this exhibition?
There are always challenges and I can only speak for my part. As I have mentioned, the Warburg Institute doesn't possess the same resources as a museum, and among the three partners involved in this exhibition, we are the smallest. My challenges were all related to the practical side of the curatorial work such as photography, preparation of the loan items, transport.
Do you have any personal favorite artworks that are part of the exhibition?
Yes, the colourful fifteenth-century cassone, attributed to Giovanni di Francesco Toscani which is visible in the below image. The main scene is of a procession on the feast day for San Giovanni Battista, the protector of Florence. Warburg, was interested in pageants as an ephemeral form of art, as well as in the so-called applied arts. He was particularly attentive to details, such as a here it is the fringe event that is commonly seen at these popular festivals: a vendor selling theriac, a substance against snake and similar bites. It’s wonderful to be able to see and study this detail. In contrast, this detail is somewhat challenging to discern in the Alinari photograph that's pinned to the Bilderatlas panel focused on Florentine festivals.
What do you hope visitors will take away from experiencing this exhibition?
I hope that visitors will gain a deeper insight into Warburg's working practice, I want them to learn about the context of some of his subjects that circled around fifteenth-century objects. That they gain an understanding into why he was less interested in the notorious highlights, but more in inconspicuous pieces. It's also important for people to recognise the extent to which he pursued research questions across cultures, and to experience the continuity of his groundbreaking ideas.
Are there plans for the exhibition to travel to other locations or for future collaborations?
Currently no, but ideas for new and different shows are already in discussion.
What's next for you and for the Warburg Institute in terms of future exhibitions or projects?
The next exhibition on the horizon is “Warburg’s Models. Buildings as Bilderfahrzeuge” to open on 18 January 2024 at the Architectural Association, curated by Tim Anstey and Mari Lending and featuring models of buildings associated with Warburg and his circle. We’re much less involved in this show, yet there will be reproductions of many documents held in our Archive and perhaps some originals.