Warburg and Luther - Word and Image in Times of Crisis - 1517, 1917, 2017

Warburg Institute, Lecture room

Wed 13 - Sat 16 Dec 2017

The Warburg Institute is holding a series of events on ‘Warburg and Luther - Word | Image in Times of Crisis - 1517, 1917, 2017’ to mark both the fifth hundred anniversary of the Reformation and the hundredth anniversary of Aby Warburg’s seminal lecture on Martin Luther and the role of propaganda in the process of public opinion-making. Warburg’s lecture, delivered in November 1917, and published in 1920 under the title ‘“Pagan-Antique Prophecy in Words and Images in the Age of Martin Luther’ is nowadays considered to be one of the founding documents of Bildwissenschaft (science of images) and of media studies.

The events include:

A keynote lecture entitled ‘Luther’s Words are Everywhere”: Protestantism and Politics, 1517-2017’ by Jane O. Newman (California at Irvine) on 13 December at 17.30

A roundtable discussion with James Curran (Goldsmiths), Jo Fox (Durham), Jost Philipp Klenner (Berlin), Jane O. Newman and Petra Roettig (Hamburger Kunsthalle) on 14 December at 18.15

An open day on 16 December from 14.00 to 16.00, when the Warburg Institute’s Library and Archive will display and offer introductions to materials that relate to Warburg’s Reformation study.

Attendance is free of charge. Please register in advance for the lecture and roundtable discussion by clicking on the links above.

The events are supported by the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, London, and the University of London Coffin Trust

Background information

Three years into World War One, on the occasion of the four hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, the renowned cultural historian and theorist Aby Warburg (1866-1929) lectured on Martin Luther and the role of propaganda in the process of public opinion-making. Warburg’s lecture was eventually published under the title “Pagan-Antique Prophecy in Words and Images in the Age of Martin Luther” (1920). Acknowledged by Warburg’s contemporaries as his most important contribution to scholarship, the text is nowadays considered one of the founding documents of Bildwissenschaft (science of images) and of media studies.

Warburg was disturbed by the collective loss of control in the real and ideological battles of WWI. As a historian of art and print he was especially alarmed by the use of images in reports that were biased and written for propagandistic purposes. The persuasive potential of the image seemed appropriated by a manipulating press that took advantage of mass reproduction to induce anxiety through innuendo and implication. Subsequently, phobias, fears and agitation rather than a reflected consideration of facts had, he believed, become the basis of opinion-making. Eager to maintain a critical distance from these practices and to comprehend their psychological underpinning he analysed similar processes at work in the confessional conflicts of the sixteenth century. In his Luther lecture he demonstrated how opposing parties initially drew on superstitious beliefs and vilified their respective opponents through images similarly designed to instigate fear, which were quickly distributed through the new technique of cheap printmaking. Broadsheets, ‘these agitative, omnious stormbirds’, he writes, ‘flew between North and South and each party tried to secure these “graphic slogans” of cosmological sensation for their own service.’

Warburg’s notions, provoked by what was then the largest conflict of modern times and pointedly formulated in 1917 through the analysis of the religious conflict triggered in 1517, seem more topical than ever today. Currently, we are deeply concerned with the role of images in digital communication, the continuously increasing speed with which information travels, and the interdependences of technological innovations and political culture. To maintain the capacity to act appropriately now, a time that many describe as a “post factual era”, the practice of observation, unmitigated analysis and critical inquiry are essential. The challenge is to provide the kind of critical distance that Warburg referred to as a “space of rationality” and a “space of reflection”, a Denkraum, which he argued was lost and then recovered in the immediate aftermath of Luther’s Reformation, and was yet again in danger during WWI.

As the Institute that bears Warburg’s name, we want to mark the fifth hundred anniversary of the Reformation with an event that not only honours both Luther and Warburg, but also reviews the theoretical notions Warburg formulated in the context of his work on Luther. We have invited a group of specialists to discuss the timeliness of Warburg’s concepts and concerns against the backdrop of similar issues that worry us today. On 13 December Jane O. Newman, Professor for Comparative Literature at the University of California at Irvine, who specialises in the pre- and early modern past and the modern and postmodern present, will give a keynote lecture. The series of events will close with an open day on 16 November, when the Warburg Institute’s Library and Archive will open their doors to display and offer introductions to materials that relate to Warburg’s Reformation study – a work important both for the history of the humanities and for an understanding of major political and social challenges current today.