Aby Warburg's Mnemosyne Atlas
In 1879 the 13-year-old Aby Warburg, the eldest son of a wealthy Hamburg banking family, is said to have traded his birthright for a more lasting inheritance. Already convinced (despite parental objections) of his future as an art historian, he struck a deal with his younger brother Max, who would inherit the family business on condition that he agreed to supply the elder Warburg with as many books as he required. (Max later wrote: ‘I gave him what I must now admit was a very large blank cheque.’) When Warburg died in 1929, his library contained 60,000 volumes and had been transformed by his colleague Fritz Saxl from a private collection into a research institution. Four years later it was transplanted to London and became the Warburg Institute, now part of London University.
If his library was already the most eccentric of collections - organized not alphabetically or according to subject but by ‘elective affinities’, the secret intimacies that Warburg himself intuited between its volumes - its oddest offshoot is surely the massive and fragmentary constellation of images that Warburg, in the last five years of his life, obsessively tended and reorganized: the Mnemosyne Atlas. It is the strangest of art-historical artefacts: the kaleidoscopic image of the scholar’s enigmatic reordering of a lifetime’s meditation on the image. The Atlas, wrote Warburg, was ‘a ghost story for adults’: it invents a kind of phantomic science of the image, a ghost dance in which the most resonant gestures and expressions its creator had discovered in the course of his career return with a spooky insistence, suddenly cast into wholly new relationships.
In a sense, the Mnemosyne Atlas has never really existed, at least not in the form Warburg envisaged. At the time of his death it comprised 79 wooden panels, covered with black fabric, on which were pinned some 2,000 photographs from Warburg’s collection. The project was never completed, and only ever constituted a provisional version of its eventual incarnation in book form. 1 The panels themselves were lost when Warburg’s colleagues, fleeing Nazi Germany, relocated to London, and the images are now dispersed in the archives of the institute. Warburg’s final arrangement of the Atlas survives, however, as a series of 79 photographs. In reproductions these are often cropped to show only the black background and the luminous images, but the original photographs include the edges of the panels, beyond which can be glimpsed the shelves of Warburg’s library, so that you cannot fail to imagine the scholar himself at the centre of his grand photographic planetarium, setting the whole thing in fantastic motion as he searches for the proper arrangement of his fragmentary universe.
Warburg conceived of the art historian as a ‘necromancer’ who conjures up the art of the past to give it an enigmatic new life, a ‘strange figural floating’. 2 He was intrigued by the representation of movement, by the way in which the gestures of Classical bodies in motion survive into the art of the Renaissance and beyond, each image possessed by a particular ‘pathos formula’ which gives it a specific allure and is resurrected centuries later in similar attitudes and expressions. Obscurely linked by the ‘conductive medium’ of the black ground, human bodies flex and falter in an array of gestures that stretches from Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (c. 1485) to the contemporary physique of a woman golfer, from medieval zodiacal figures to a 1920s advertisement for 4711 cologne. Zeppelins float in the darkness beneath ancient cosmological maps; the entire anachronistic discordia concors is dedicated to finding the most startling relationships between images that are worlds apart. The Atlas proposes an art of the in-between, what Warburg called the ‘iconology of the interval’. God, he famously declared, resides in the details; the inhuman presence that hovers in the darkness between these images is, says the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, ‘the dark demon of an unnamed science whose contours we are only today beginning to glimpse’. 3
It is perhaps fitting that the sturdy panels of Warburg’s unfinished project have vanished somewhere between Hamburg and London, evanesced into the dark drawers of the institute’s present archive. The notion of its essential immateriality, its existence as a pure phantasmagoria in the imagination of its author, is given a faint outline on the pages of the large hardback notebooks in which Warburg ceaselessly planned and revised its shape. The pencilled ghosts of absent images haunt these volumes’ notional arrangements of the actual material. With their blank squares and scrawled captions, they are the perverse mirror images of the textless patterns on the photographic plates, hastily sketched storyboards for a movie that only ever played in the mind of the scholar/director. Warburg, who was obsessed by the figure of Laocoön, the dying Trojan prince, seems to have conceived of art history according to an image from G. E. Lessing’s Laocoön (1766), in which the German writer describes the poetic and painterly depiction of mist: ‘it is used to render both the visible invisible and the invisible visible’. Gaze long enough at the dark screen of Mnemosyne and it is like looking at a ‘black’ cinema screen; as your eyes grow used to the dark, something comes to light: the screen itself, the empty but meaningful interval between images.
If there is a ghostly quality to the Mnemosyne Atlas, perhaps it resides in the odd amalgam of science and superstition that it shares with other works on the image and memory. It looks back to the taxonomic efforts of Charles Darwin to photograph the essences of human emotions, and forward to the memorial extravagance of Gerhard Richter’s Atlas (1962-ongoing). But it also brushes up against Walter Benjamin’s ‘aura’ and Siegfried Kracauer’s ‘monogram’: the memory-image that adheres to the last photograph of a loved one. Despite Warburg’s intense effort to bring the past into focus in the present, it appears to suggest that an anatomy of the image is only ever a science of spectres: an impression heightened by its sudden demise in 1929, as if Warburg had succeeded in freeze-framing European culture in a paradoxical pose of frenzied immobility, just before the continent was plunged into the terrible mass-mobilization that sent his colleagues into exile in 1933. Warburg turned the scholarly archive into a mobile (and moving) artwork, transforming, as Karl Kraus wrote of the true artist, a solution into an enigma.
1. Eventually published as Der Bilderatlas Mnemosyne, ed. Martin Warnke and Claudia Brink, Akademie Verlag, Berlin, 2000.
2. Philippe-Alain Michaud, Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion, trans. Sophie Hawkes, Zone Books, New York, 2004, p. 261.
3. Giorgio Agamben, ‘Aby Warburg and the Nameless Science’, in Potentialities, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1999, p. 90.
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