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Issue 211

The Game-Changing Reconstruction of Aby Warburg’s ‘Image Atlas’

Warburg has been credited with both inventing and destroying art history

BY Bill Sherman in Features , Roundtables | 19 JUN 20

Warburg set out on an ambitious project: the mapping of cultural memory itself. From his legendary library in Hamburg, he assembled his most famous work, the Mnemosyne Atlas. Named after the Greek goddess of remembrance (and mother, with Zeus, of the nine muses), Warburg’s mysterious panels used nearly 1,000 images to track myths, motifs and memories across time and space.

In the century since it was created, the project has become part of our collective memory and, over the last few decades, Warburg’s unfinished magnum opus has haunted our cultural, curatorial and academic work at the Warburg Institute in London. Outside the Institute, interest in Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas has steadily grown and may well be greater now than it has ever been. The image atlas has been the subject of monographic studies and journal editions. It has inspired countless artistic projects and, in the last decade, a series of major exhibitions: after all, the project offers new forms of association and argument familiar to artists and curators alike, and it makes the connections between research and display visible and even vital.

Aby Warburg in Naples, Italy, 1929. Courtesy: Hatje Cantz and The Warburg Institute, London

Warburg’s work has been credited with both killing and inventing art history, and his peculiar methods described as both a sign of madness and a stroke of genius. But the Institute itself – where all of Warburg’s working materials are housed – has, for the most part, served as the keeper of memories rather than the active agent in these enterprises. This is now changing, thanks to the ‘Warburg Renaissance’ project that is opening the Institute to new people and partnerships, and thanks to our collaboration with Roberto Ohrt, Axel Heil and the Haus der Kulturen der Welt – who together have reconstructed the complete Mnemosyne Atlas, using the original materials, for the first time since 1929. These projects will give scholars, curators and artists a place at what Warburg called, in a 1918 lecture, ‘the workbench in the laboratory of the study of civilization’. They will create future memories of past culture, bringing us together under the sign of Mnemosyne.

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 47. All panels have been reconstructed from the Warburg Institute Archive. Courtesy: The Warburg Institute, London; photograph: Wootton/Fluid

Bill Sherman is director of the Warburg Institute in London, UK.