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

Warburg Institute, Lecture room

Mon 26 - Tue 27 Feb 2018

Warburg on Luther and Dürer: Media Wars and the Freedom to Think – the lecture by Jane O. Newman will be held in February 2019. The exact date will be confirmed soon.

Warburg and Luther - Word | Image in Times of Crisis - 1517, 1917, 2017Warburg and Luther - Word and Image in Times of Crisis - 1517, 1917, 2017 – the roundtable discussion will probably be postponed until the summer term 2018.

Warburg and Luther display and presentation – this will be postponed until the summer term and will take place on the same day as the above roundtable event.



The events include:

A keynote lecture entitled ‘Warburg on Luther and Durer: Media Wars and the Freedom to Think' by Jane O. Newman (California at Irvine).

Today’s mad landscape of fake news is not unique; a “sensationalizing press” (Sensationspresse) has sought to stir up public opinion, and even to provoke social and political upheaval, countless times in the past. In my lecture, I turn to Aby Waburg’s 1920 essay on the ‘media wars’ of the sixteenth century, in which he claims to see a battle being waged against this trend by Martin Luther and Albrecht Dürer, whose “sense for the truth” made them into early modern heroes of reason for him, as they fought on behalf of the “freedom to think” carefully and critically in the face of irrationalisms of all kinds. Warburg’s essay is based on several talks he gave on the subject during the Luther jubilee year of 1917; in it, he celebrates the models he saw in Luther’s and Dürer’s work for ‘truth-seeking’ ways of combating the destabilizing “fictions” that filled the press not just during the Reformation era, but also during his own fraught and war-torn times; the ‘masses’ were and are allegedly particularly prone to believe such fictions, fictions that intellectual leaders like Luther and Dürer – and Warburg – could dispel. While such boosterism is not uncommon in jubilee years, and finds parallels in claims made about Luther in the more recent celebrations of 2017, in Warburg’s case, the argument relies on several traditions of partisan scholarship as well as on some strategic media manipulation of its own, as I show. Is Warburg’s way of resisting ‘fake news’ a model for us? A close reading of his examples asks us to consider who is to lead whom toward greater ‘truths’, if and when partisanship becomes the norm across the ranks?

A display and presentation of material on the them of 'Warburg and Luther - Word and Image in Times of Crisis - 1517, 1917, 2017' from the Warburg Library and Archive presented by Claudia Wedepohl and Steffen Haug (Warburg) from 15.30 - 17.00

A roundtable discussion on 'Warburg and Luther - Word and Image in Times of Crisis - 1517, 1917, 2017' with James Curran (Goldsmiths), Jo Fox (Durham), Jane O. Newman and Petra Roettig (Hamburger Kunsthalle).

Attendance is free of charge. The lecture and roundtable are followed by a reception.

 Please register in advance for the lecture and roundtable discussion by clicking here.

The events are supported by the 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.