BY John-Paul Stonard in Features | 08 SEP 16
Featured in
Issue 5

Life in Motion

The great art historian Aby Warburg was born 150 years ago. John-Paul Stonard visits his famous library in Hamburg

BY John-Paul Stonard in Features | 08 SEP 16

In a quiet, wealthy suburb of Hamburg stands an imposing villa behind a green gate. I’m looking for a well-known historic building, relying on memory for the address, and think that this might be the place. After some time staring, the tell-tale letters suddenly appear in the villa’s elaborate brickwork facade: K-B-W.

From left to right: Heinrich Brockhaus, Aby Warburg, Mary Warburg and Elise Brockhaus in Warburg's flat in Florence, 1897. Photographer unknown. Courtesy: The Warburg Institute, London

Nobody answers the doorbell, so I give the front door a push. The interior is quiet and dark, a respite from the prickly summer heat. At the end of an entrance passage, wooden stairs lead to a double door with frosted glass panes, above which is carved: ‘MNEMOSYNH’ (memory). Inside (these doors are also open) is the famous elliptical reading room designed by Aby Warburg to be at the heart of his library, the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg. Walking around, it feels remarkably new, as if the last piece of walnut panelling had just been installed yesterday. Still, nobody appears. A window looks out onto a quiet garden leading down to a river where, beneath willow trees, some people are having lunch in the sunshine. Perhaps they are the library staff and researchers. I turn back and browse the shelves for a while, then take a seat on the raised gallery that runs around the back of the room to soak up the atmosphere and think.

Warburg was one of the most famous art historians of the 20th century, although he is more often cited than read. He was born in 1866 to a wealthy German-Jewish banking family of Italian origin. As the eldest son, he was due to take control of the family business, but famously passed his birthright to the next eldest brother, Max, in return for a simple promise: that Max would buy for him any book that he wanted. It was just as well that Max turned the family bank into an international success, since his brother was to amass one of the largest private art libraries in the world.

Yet, none of the books on the shelves surrounding me were bought by Warburg. He died in 1929, two days after the ‘Black Thursday’ of the Wall Street Crash that threatened to close M.M. Warburg & Co. The rise of Nazism in 1933 forced his library, with its Jewish name, to emigrate — books, photographs, shelves, ashtrays and all. It arrived in London thanks to his assistants, Gertrud Bing and Fritz Saxl, with the help of fellow art historian Edgar Wind, and was kept afloat for a while by collector and textile magnate Samuel Courtauld. (The Courtauld Institute, the first art history school in England, had opened the previous year with his financial support.) Later, the library became part of the University of London before moving into its purpose-built headquarters on Bloomsbury’s Woburn Square in 1958.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Birth of Saint John the Baptist (detail), 1485-90, fresco, Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Courtesy: Scala, Florence

Warburg’s spirit still lingers in the Hamburg reading room, even if his books are elsewhere. I think about the mystique of his persona, his skill as a mimic, his stamina in lecturing (never less than two hours) and the periods of mental illness that interrupted his work. The questions he asked took him deep into the wellsprings of Western civilization. How do images survive over time? How were the images and symbols of antiquity preserved and transformed in the Christian world? How were they rediscovered and appropriated by artists in 15th-century Florence? How does magic become religion and science, and how can civilization overcome barbarism?

Warburg’s first investigations into the legacy of pagan antiquity focused on the paintings of Sandro Botticelli. He related the figures in the The Birth of  Venus (1484‒86) and Spring (1477‒82) to texts from classical antiquity, known to Botticelli’s patrons, showing the literary background to the works. But more important was his growing fascination with bewegtes Leben, or ‘life in motion’, by which he meant the vivid windswept costumes of Botticelli’s figures and their agitated surroundings. He found the most vivid example of this ‘life in motion’ in the form of a young serving girl who appeared in a fresco by another Quattrocento painter, Domenico Ghirlandaio, in the Tornabuoni chapel of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. She enters the scene from the right, marked out by her animated fluttering garments and hearty stride. Warburg took her as a symbol of liberation and emancipation, but also of the tempestuous fortunes of the Tornabuoni family of bankers that had commissioned the fresco. His obsession with the motif of the Nympha (his own term) as a symbol of a struggle between pagan emotion and civilized restraint was Nabokovian in its persistence and complexity. She flies, windswept, through Warburg’s life and work, appearing for the last time on one of the panels of the Mnemosyne Atlas, his final project.

Warburg’s treatment of grand and often obscure historical themes peaked in his study of astrology and cosmological imagery. His lecture on the astrological symbolism of a mural cycle in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, for example, reveals how certain mysterious figures in the fresco were, in fact, derived from ‘decans’, as described by the Arabian writer Abū Ma’shar: astrological figures that could be traced back through Persian, Indian, Egyptian and Greek mythology. It is a fiendishly complicated lecture, but at its heart is a relatively simple idea: that of the transformation of primitive fear into rational science. Warburg gave his Schifanoia lecture at the annual congress of German art historians in Rome in 1912. In a postscript to his lecture, he warned his colleagues of the dangers of ‘border guards’, the artificial divisions between academic subjects, between art and religion, ancient and modern. Comparing images and ideas across vast swathes of space and time was one way of overcoming these divisions.

The rise of Nazism in 1933 forced Warburg's library, with its Jewish name, to emigrate – books, photographs, shelves, ashtrays and all.

This lecture was the high-point of Warburg’s public career. His library was transforming into something more than a scholar’s private collection and he had engaged the services of Saxl, a young scholar, as his assistant. Plans to transform the library into an institute, however, were shattered by the outbreak of World War I. It was a personal tragedy for Warburg and one that led to repeated breakdowns. He had, for some years, shown signs of depression and schizophrenia, and when he was committed to Ludwig Binswanger’s clinic at Kreuzlingen in 1921, he was so far gone in his suffering that it was thought he might never come out.

It might seem ironic now that one of  Warburg’s clearest and most compelling lectures, on the subject of the Serpent Ritual among Pueblo Indians in New Mexico, was given as a proof of his sanity to the doctors at Binswanger’s clinic. In the mid-1890s, he had travelled to America for the wedding of his brother Paul, and took the opportunity to travel out to New Mexico to study the Pueblo Indians. He saw them as an archetypal ‘primitive’ people, for whom symbols and magic were a natural way of communing with and controlling nature. Warburg was fascinated by the capacity of the Pueblo’s symbols and rituals to shed light on the fundamental religious ideas of human societies, particularly the paganism of antiquity. His essay is more a work of poetry, reminiscent of Rainer Maria Rilke or W.B. Yeats, than an art-historical paper. In highly charged language, he describes how the symbol of the snake can be traced through man’s emergence from the primitive-magic into the scientific state: in contemporary life, it is the lightning conductor not the snake that protects us from certain natural forces.

Warburg’s recovery was seen as miraculous (although some suggest that it was not at all complete) and, in his final years in Hamburg, he described himself as ‘Warburg Redux’. Plans for extending his library in a plot next to his house were hurried through and the new building (where I am sitting) opened in May 1926, complete with all modcons: telephone, photographic studio, conveyor belts for books and a pneumatic mail system. Here, Warburg began working feverishly on his Mnemosyne Atlas, a series of panels on which he would constantly rearrange photographic images, illustrating the voyage of images across time. It was never finished, but appeared in one version as the backdrop to a famous lecture given at the Bibliotheca Hertziana in Rome in 1929. The young art historian Kenneth Clark was fortunate enough to have attended and later wrote that it was a revolution in his understanding of art – even if he could not fully comprehend much of what was said. Warburg conveyed how images could really mean something in history: how the study of art was not just a matter of saying who painted what and when.

Aby Warburg, Mnemosyne Atlas, 1928-29, panel 47. Photographer unknown. Courtesy: The Warburg Institute, London

When Warburg died, the Mnemosyne Atlas was far from complete. His devoted assistants, Bing and Saxl, continued his work and preserved his spirit as the library moved to London. It became the training ground for a generation of art historians inspired by Warburg’s example through his library and concept of books and photographs as stores of cultural memory. It is a spirit that influenced books as diverse as Clark’s The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (1956) and Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy (1972), both of which consider art in a much wider context than traditional art history.

As I am thinking these thoughts, a young woman suddenly emerges from behind a curtain leading to the garden door. One of the scholars who is breathing life back into the building, she is here to look at the archives. She tells me that a recent restoration has returned the building to how it was when it first opened 90 years ago, which is why it appears brand new. It feels strange without Warburg’s own library, I suggest. The young woman points to some antiquarian volumes on a shelf nearby. They were donated by a well-known scholar, attached to the Warburg Institute, with the money he had won from an academic prize. In this setting, they take on a heightened significance, charged with Warburg’s view of books, as well as works of art, as batteries of cultural memory, stores of human value. His generous spirit and love of learning lives on.

John-Paul Stonard edited and cotributed to The Books that Shaped Art History (Thams & Hudson, 2013) and co-curated 'Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation' at Tate Britain, London, UK, in 2014. He is currently writing a book about the story of art for Bloomsbury UK.