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Marina Ogden (Visiting Fellow): 'Between Logos and Mythos: Aby Warburg and Wassily Kandinsky on symbols'

An intrepid explorer of the interface between art and anthropology, Aby Warburg (1866–1929) had a lifelong interest in tracking symbols across time and space. Warburg’s inquiry into the symbolic meaning of signs established him as an exponent of the modern study of symbolism. Studying the art of the Renaissance period, Warburg uncovered the crisis of the ancient symbol and the tradition that carried with it the forms and symbols of the past. His knowledge of religious symbolism, and the culture of the Pueblo Indians especially, provided a vital impetus for basing his research on a comparative cultural and cultural psychology approach. Human expression, as an anthropological category, became the central focus of Warburg’s studies and the major subject of his library. 

A founding member of the Der Blaue Reiter artists’ association, Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) regarded the execution of a painting as a cosmic event. Kandinsky believed that image could have extraordinary power and that the artist could hold the key to communication with supernatural powers. To connect with the Spiritual, Kandinsky advanced his vision into a new dimension of non-objective forms and colours. In his paintings, Kandinsky gradually ceased using recognizable forms from the visible world, when he began to invent schematic hieroglyphs. As in Warburg’s case, Kandinsky’s ethnographic experience was fundamental to his life’s work. However, for Warburg, as well as for Kandinsky, the ‘awareness of the past’ extended beyond the traditional categories in which art history had operated. 

In the paper, I explore Warburg’s and Kandinsky’s writings and visual imagery whereby Warburg’s studies of the history of the symbol and Kandinsky’s artistic vision – revealed in his palette of ‘living symbols’ – cooperate with one another. I propose that the dynamic relations between symbol and image on the one hand, and artistic imagination and cultural emancipation on the other, could be the unifying characteristics that draw these two twentieth-century proponents of European visual culture together.


Wenjie Su (Samuel H. Kress Predoctoral Fellow, Courtauld): 'From Leibniz to Qianlong: Asynchronicity in the Connected Early Modern World'

Revolving around clockwork dialogues between Europe and China from seventeenth to eighteenth century, this research aims to historicize the manifolds of synchronicity. Unlike the globally coordinated precise timekeeping unified by the Greenwich Prime Meridian in the modern age, early modern actors remained deeply concerned with the origins and directions of time in their disparately perceived temporal trials. Introducing clockwork objects in conjunction with Christian theology, Jesuit missionaries in Ming-Qing China were ambitious to synchronize the mundane flow as well as the deep teleology of time in the wake of two unprecedented conundrums—not only did the well-recorded history of Chinese antiquity immensely exceed the timespan of Biblical chronology, but Chinese philosophical and religious traditions also never conceived the origin of time and space through creational deeds initiated by an anthropomorphic divine agent.

More specifically, this paper will be anchored by the resonance between two pairs of synchronized timepieces. Whereas Leibniz used the analogy of two absolutely agreeing pendulum clocks to argue for the pre-established harmony between substances in a universe designed and created by God, the Qianlong Emperor curated a perfectly symmetrical display featuring a mechanical clock and a Chinese clepsydra (water clock), which embedded the newly mechanized temporal passage within an architectural matrix signaling self-renewing polar energies with no beginning or end. Mapping out the intellectual backdrops of and cross-cultural connections between Leibniz’s and Qianlong’s double-clock rhetoric, this paper demonstrates how the shapes of time were negotiated between conflicting chronologies, between contrast yet colliding heavens, and between culturally varied simulations of natural time in the early modern world.

The Work in Progress seminar explores the variety of subjects studied and researched at the Warburg Institute. Papers are given by invited international scholars, research fellows studying at the Institute, and third-year PhD students.

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