A Vision for Europe

British Art and the Mediterranean

A collaboration between Central St Martins, Bilderfahrzeuge and the Warburg Institute
11 January 2017

Switch House, Tate Exchange Event

20 - 21 March 2017

Research Workshop, The Warburg Institute

22 March 2017 

Public Discussion, part of Annihilation, Lethaby Gallery, Central Saint Martins 
http://annihilationevent.com/ 
 

 

 

Organisers:

Mick Finch, Central St Martins

Johannes von Müller, Bilderfahrzeuge

Joanne Anderson, The Warburg Institute

 

A Vision for Europe

In December 1941, the exhibition "English Art and the Mediterranean" opened in the rooms of the Imperial Institute Buildings, then home to the Warburg Institute. The exhibition consisted entirely of photographic material, with the 500 exhibits assembled thematically on panels in order to present a common Mediterranean heritage. The exhibition was curated by Fritz Saxl, director of the Warburg Institute, and Rudolf Wittkower, the first head of the institute's photographic collection. Over the course of the first month alone 14,000 visitors came to see this peculiar assembly of black and white photographs that were simply glued on cardboard supports and pinned on to wooden panels.

It is a publication after my own heart & if the Warburg produced nothing less relevant to what I consider art history I should be an enthusiastic & not lukewarm admirer & supporter of the Institute.

Brenhard Berenson in a letter to Kenneth Clark, May 13, 1948 

Together with Gertrud Bing, his assistant director, Fritz Saxl had been responsible for moving the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg (KBW) from Hamburg to London in 1933. Saxl and Bing had both been assistants to Aby Warburg, the founder of the KBW who died in 1929. Like Warburg, most of the Institute staff were Jewish. When the Nazi party came to power in 1933, Saxl and Bing decided to leave Germany immediately. By transporting the library, the collections it contained and its furnishings to London they managed not only to save Warburg’s work but most importantly the people affiliated with the KBW’s research mission.

Since they were not British citizens, Saxl, Bing and their colleagues were classified as "alien scholars" by the government. This outsider status was reinforced in scholarly terms. There were fundamental differences between the methodological approaches of the "Warburgians" and their British colleagues. Despite this precarious situation, Saxl and Bing managed to establish the Warburg Institute as an office for helping other scholars to leave Germany and the German occupied territories; taking them on themselves or finding them new positions and homes elsewhere. Among these scholars were Ernst Gombrich, who became director of the Institute in 1959 (in its current home in Woburn Square) and Rudolf Wittkower, co-curator of “English Art and the Mediterranean”.

Wittkower assisted Saxl in a number of photographic exhibitions that took place between 1937 and 1942. Already in Hamburg, the KBW had made use of photographic exhibitions as an educational tool and now in London they served the Institute by gaining a necessary visibility to justify its presence to the British government. After the outbreak of war in 1939, the Warburg Institute could well make the claim that they were maintaining cultural life and with that making a distinctive contribution to the war effort. When "English Art and the Mediterranean" opened in December 1941 most of the London museums had been empty for almost two years since the major collections were stored outside of the city for their protection. This situation may partly explain the huge success of the exhibition. After closing in London, it went on tour until the end of the war, stopping in more than twenty cities around Britain.
The exhibition displayed more than five hundred photographs of artworks of various kinds, but mostly painting, sculpture and architecture. Assembled on eighty-five boards, they revealed connections that covered distances in space and time: works from, for example, Renaissance Italy or Muslim Spain appeared next to products that were labelled as distinctively English art, allowing viewers to identify their defining characteristics as elements emerging from a shared culture of continuous exchange. Saxl and Wittkower exhibited the strong interdependencies of an “English” and therefore nationally conceived art and a “Mediterranean” heritage. It was thus in a moment of armed conflict that Saxl and Wittkower, two immigrant academics, implicitly evoked cultural communalities within Europe. In this exhibition, it was the European continent that formed the interspace through which the very “pathways” of such communalities ran, gaining their presence in the way the photographs were assembled on the boards. 

The 1941 exhibition was accompanied by a floor guide explaining the pathways of transmission explored on each of the eight-five panels. Seven years later, the panel photographs were repurposed for a revised publication that would now be titled, “British Art and the Mediterranean” a distinctive shift in nationalistic tone for a different kind of audience. Saxl and Wittkower realized that political discourse and public sentiment had changed. The small number of copies quickly sold out and so the catalogue was republished in 1968 ensuring the long life of a remarkable war-time exhibition.

The materials for the exhibition and various publications are today held between the Photographic Collection, the Archive and the Library of the Warburg Institute. Click here for more information on the Warburg Institute’s history.

A Vision for Europe – Past, Present and Future

“English Art and the Mediterranean” was organised by alien scholars working for a refugee Institution. Its proposal of a shared cultural heritage as response to the fracturing state of Europe is as politically pertinent now as it was then. Studying this archive of material helps us to gain historical perspective on issues of migration, citizenship and nationhood, the very bargaining chips being played at today’s Brexit table.

The spring 2017 programme of events held at Tate Switch House, the Warburg Institute and the Lethaby Gallery (CSM) engaged with the current political situation in our research work and discussions. Our poster shows an allegory of Britannia saving refugees from the treacherous waters that separate the British Isles from its Continental neighbours. The first day of A Vision for Europe coincided with announcement of the triggering of Article 50 on 29 March. Such historical and political contingencies will continue to shape our investigations.

A Vision for Europe is an ongoing research collaboration between Central St Martins, the Warburg Institute and the Bilderfahrzeuge Project. Future work and research opportunities will be announced here. For more information please contact Mick Finch (Central St Martins), Johannes von Müller, (Bilderfahrzeuge Project) and Joanne Anderson (The Warburg Institute) 

 

 
 
Photos from the Research Workshop held at the Warburg Institute 20 - 21 March 2017

 

Photographs of the public discussion at the Lethaby Gallery, Central Saint Martins, on 22 March 2017