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Issue 211

Artist Carmen Winant on Aby Warburg’s Hold on the Imagination

Is this art? Science? Who cares?

BY Carmen Winant in Features , Roundtables | 19 JUN 20

Panel 77 of Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, which I have just seen for the first time in colour, is sparse and a little lop-sided. As with all of Warburg’s panels, it positions collected material – photographic reproductions, newspaper clippings, postcards, advertisements, postage stamps, booklets, book pages and, in a few cases, sketches drawn by his wife, Mary – against a sea of taut, black burlap.

Is there a theme here? I think Warburg would have eschewed any theme as too linear a system of knowledge-making. Rather, what we have is something like a study in constriction and extension. An image of a female golfer, club raised, is pinned alongside a figure of the Roman goddess Victoria, arms outstretched, from an early-20th-century German advertisement for toilet paper. A pointing charioteer – on a reproduction of a Syracusan decadrachm coin – is placed next to a French tax stamp with a similar chariot motif. They gesture towards the reproductions of Eugène Delacroix’s paintings. In the top left, Medea in a Fury (1838, also known as Medea About to Kill Her Children) rests above another painting by Delacroix, The Massacre at Chios (1824), in one corner of which the artist depicted a small child attempting to nurse from the body of his dead mother. And on it goes, this array of aesthetic affinities and innate contradictions.

Is this art? Visual studies? Anthropological methodology? Does it even matter? Warburg’s logic didn’t ascribe to alphabetical or chronological means and – though unchanged since his death in 1929 – appears to be in a state of endless resequencing. It prompts me to reflect: can a project be most efficacious when incomplete? Can scholarship, as a concept, be so wild, so interdisciplinary? What new friction – between lifeless bodies and nationalist histories – is produced by compounded images? Across 971 items, each panel an archipelago swimming in the vast darkness that frames it, Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas asks far more questions than it answers.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 211 as part of the roundtable ‘Speak, Memory’.

‘Aby Warburg: Bilderatlas Mnemosyne’, curated by Roberto Ohrt and Axel Heil, is a collaborative project between Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany, and the Warburg Institute, London, UK. The accomanying folio volume ‘Aby Warburg: Bilderatlas MNEMOSYNE – The Originial’ is published at Hatje Cantz in April 2020. In autumn 2020 a commentary volume with detailed comments by the curators will also be published. The exhibition at Haus der Kulturen der Welt will also follow at the same time.

Main Image: Aby Warburg, Mnemosyne Atlas, 1924–29, panel 77. All panels have been reconstructed from the Warburg Institute Archive. Courtesy: The Warburg Institute, London; photograph: Wootton/Fluid

Carmen Winant is an artist, writer, Roy Lichtenstein Endowed Chair of Studio Art at Ohio State University, USA, and a 2019 Guggenheim Fellow in photography.