I’m particularly interested in the biographical format due to my interest in contexts of artistic production. Often as researchers, we are encouraged to distance ourselves personally from our object of research. However, I feel that is is sometimes necessary and even preferable to position ourselves within the research, and, as is certainly in the case with ‘Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography’, it makes for a more enjoyable and engaging experience.

My ongoing interest in Aby Warburg and his application of art history as social history has led me to read this intellectual biography of his life and work written by E H Gombrich.

Fragments of a theory of expression on anthropological foundations
At the beginning of the book, Gombrich outlined the methods he applied when writing about Warburg, including the difficulties of separating Warburgs life from his work: “One thing was clear; the criticism of those who had felt that Warburg’s ideas could not be presented in a void and divorced from his personality and his life were justified.” (Gombrich, 1986, p. 4) Although this is described as a criticism, particularly in relation to Warburg’s problems with his mental health, Gombrich uses this to his advantage to present a more holistic view of Warburg’s work and of research practice in general.

He takes a similar viewpoint in his approach to translating Warburg’s many indecipherable notes, diaries, and letters: “Ultimately this need to render Warburg’s sentences in a different medium proved to not be entirely a liability. Nothing makes one concentrate on an author’s exact meaning than an attempt at reformulation, and even the frequent discovery that a translation is impossible usually helps to focus attention on the implications of this difficulty.” (Gombrich, 1986, p. 15)

Warburg’s influences
The biographical and chronological layout of ‘Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography’ also allows the reader to understand how Warburg came to formulate his research processes and to learn more about the people who influenced his work. One particular influence on the ideas that Warburg had concerning the way that the psychology of a civilisation could be understood was the German art historian Karl Lamprecht whose lectures Warburg attended in the summer of 1887. (Gombrich, 1986, p. 30)

Lamprecht believed that historical time periods could be so defined by a kind of collective psychology which could be seen in the material culture and processes of the era. These manifestations could include systems of economic production, legal contracts, political institutions, or philosophic reasoning. (Gombrich,  1986, p. 33) He also believed that the effects of these mentalities were visible within works of art produced during these periods. As Gombrich explains: “In the visual arts man’s attitude towards the outer world crystallized in simple images which could be placed side by side and compared with ease… Art, then, is the supreme indicator of the psychological make-up of a given period and an understanding of its underlying principles must lead us straight to the centre and core of its epoch.” (Gombrich, 1986, p. 33)

Transitions between time periods and cultures
Lamprecht’s ideas were not only of use regarding a reworking of traditional approaches to art and history, but also in understanding how and why civilisations developed from one period to the next: “Social change, he argues – whether engendered by economic or by political developments – results in a inrush of new stimuli which can no longer be absorbed by the old and customary groups of associated ideas… [in addition, the] division of history into integrated periods also raised the question of continuity, of the meaning of tradition, and the importance of cross-cultural influences.” (Gombrich, 1986, p. 34)

These methods were reflected in the work of Aby Warburg who developed the Mnemosyne Atlas through juxtaposing images of artworks from across spatial and temporal dimensions to determine the ways in which myths re-emerge across different eras and geographical boundaries. His method of pinning these images to screens and recombining them into different formulations allowed him to explore new themes between the works. (Gombrich, 1986, p. 284)

The science of culture
Warburg’s understanding of art as a method for determining the psychology of a culture is reflected in his writings on the artist as “a mediator between rationality and primitive unreflectiveness.” (Gombrich, 1986, p. 290) Gombrich includes a translated version of Warburg’s writing to illustrate this point: “What we call the artistic act is really the exploration by the groping hand of the object, succeeded by plastic or pictorial fixation equidistant from imaginary grabbing  and conceptual contemplation. These are the two aspects of the image, one devoted to the fight against chaos – because the work of art selects and clarifies the contours of the individual object – the other requiring the beholder to submit to the worship of the created idol that he sees…” (Gombrich, quoting Warburg, 1986, p. 290)

In this way, Warburg’s study of civilisations is not only directed at the study of material culture but also at the study of the artists producing these objects and images.


My previous interest in the methods of Aby Warburg has led me to consider the ‘Atlas’ as a strategy for mapping cultural practice as well as an artistic method in itself.

The use of atlases as a method of artistic enquiry could be said to have developed from early collections such as Cabinets of Curiosities which were intended to be encyclopaedic. As sociologist Kevin Hetherington explains, such collections “sought to bring together in one space all of the artefacts of the world and to order them so that the total order of the world might be revealed (see Hooper-Greenhill, 1992; Yates, 1992). In doing so, it began by still relying on the principles of similitude from the Renaissance, notably through constructing the cabinet of curiosities as a memory temple in line with contemporary thinking about the art of memory.” (Hetherington, “From Blindness to blindness: museums, heterogeneity and the subject”, in Actor Network Theory and After, 1999, p. 63)

These collections and their meanings were further disseminated through the use of reproduction and printing such as in the work of David Teniers, whose patron was the Hapsburg Archduke Leopold Wilhelm. Between 1651 and 1660, Teniers was to document the Archduke’s collection in a series of paintings, before continuing to reproduce the works as etchings to produce an illustrated catalogue.

Aby Warburg
Warburg’s work in this field is described in Ernst Gombrich’s ‘intellectual biography’, where Gombrich details how “Warburg had announced in December 1927 that he proposed to compose such a work in the form of a ‘picture atlas’, the title of which would be Mnemosyne… In practice that meant that he pinned the relevant photographs on [several] screens and frequently arranged their composition, as one or the other of the themes gained dominance in his mind.” (Gombrich, 1986, p. 283)

In this manner, he was able to form complex and mutable narrative networks, and it was from this that he developed the technique of showing two images side by side in his lectures in order to determine similarities and differences between object. He would term this dialectical method, the ‘Iconology of the Interval’. Warburg’s ideas of art history as cultural history were specifically derived from an interest in astrology as medieval similitude and the work of the ethnologist Adolf Bastian. (Gombrich, 1986, pp. 284-285)

Atlas exhibitions
In recent years curators have returned to Warburg’s scholarship in order to explore artistic applications of his methods. In 2011 Georges Didi-Huberman produced the exhibition ‘Atlas: How to Carry the World on One’s Back’ (Atlas ¿Cómo llevar el mundo a cuestas?), at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid. As Didi-Huberman explains in the exhibition press release: “To make an atlas is to reconfigure space, to redistribute it, in short, to redirect it: to dismantle it where we thought it was continuous; to reunite it where we thought there were boundaries.”

Pedro de Llano’s article in Afterall explains how “the exhibition allows for a performative display of Warburg’s notion of a discontinuous and non-linear time [which] rejects history’s narrative as an ordered sequence of successive events [and] gives rise to a sophisticated reflection about the present status of the image.”

The exhibition began with reproductions of panels from the Mnemosyne Atlas, a sculpture of the Ancient Greek figure of Atlas, and documents from Warburg’s working process. These works were accompanied by a variety of interpretations of the Atlas format by artists including Paul Klee, ‘Pflanzen auf schwarz grundiertem Papier’ (Plants on Black-Primed Paper), On Kawara’s ongoing postcard atlas entitled ‘I GOT UP’, Marcel Broodthaers’ ‘La Conquête de l’espace’ (The Conquest of Space), John Baldessari’s video ‘Teaching a Plant the Alphabet’, Matt Mullican ‘Bulletin Board’, Walid Raad (The Atlas Group), ‘Missing Lebanese Wars, Notebook Volume 72 (1996–2002)’, and the 16mm film ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’ by John Latham.

The artists shown in the exhibition aimed to challenge and investigate the need to collect and to archive, as well as to show potential ways for creating new narratives from the collected material. Other artists exploring the networked and fragmentary nature of the image archive included Annie MacDonell, Dina Kelberman, and most notably, Gerhard Richter.

Gerhard Richter’s ‘Atlas Micromega’
Since 1964 Gerhard Richter has been collecting images and arranging them onto panels. The images consist of found photographs and ones taken by the artist, sketches, illustrations and plans for public commissions. When they were exhibited in 1995 at the Dia Art Foundation, New York in 1995, the collection comprised of five thousand images amassed over six hundred panels.

Lynne Cooke, writing in the introduction to the New York exhibition describes how, after developing the work through public presentations in Krefeld (1976), Munich (1989) and Cologne (1990), the Atlas developed “a certain internal logic and dynamic peculiar to itself. [However, although the] album… metamorphosed into a potentially encyclopedic project… Atlas is not an archive: there is neither a coherent and systematic compilation of an identifiable body of material nor an archaeological exhaustion of a specific subject… Atlas hovers, therefore, between the promise of taxonomic order as divulged in the archive and the total devastation of that promise, which is implicit, for example, in the amorcellated, anti-relational potential of photomontage… In their sheer ordinariness, conventionality, and ubiquity, many of these photographs seem almost interchangeable or generic, and hence serve to underplay those staples of photographic discourse: the photo as icon and the photo as index.”

Further Info:
Gerhard Richter’s “Atlas”: The Anomic Archive Author(s): Benjamin H. D. Buchloh
Source: October, Vol. 88 (Spring, 1999), pp. 117-145 Published by: The MIT Press. Accessed: 18/02/2015 10:15


Historical inquiry relies on the archive for its material in order to build narratives and explore connections between events. “The origin of the word ‘archive’… stems from the Greek and Latin words for ‘town hall, ruling office’, which, in turn, are derived from ‘beginning, origin, rule’. Order, efficiency, completeness, and objectivity are the principles of archival work.” (Marx et al., 2007, pp. 1-2). This definition is taken from the introduction to the book ‘Walter Benjamin’s Archive’ edited by Ursula Marx et al., and describes how Benjamin’s methods were akin to that of a collector, rather than an archivist, based on his on-going documentation of his own thoughts and observations. (Marx et al., 2007, p2).

Benjamin’s archives consist of photographs, picture postcards, objects, texts, and signs. His card indexes, diagrams and sketches suggest a particularly networked approach to writing, alongside a diligence to documentation. In their contents, they detail personality types, building structures, fashions, and commodities from his investigations of the Parisian arcades in the 19th century, among other interests. (Marx et al., 2007, p2)

Archival processes
Benjamin’s archival processes are laid bare in his written inventories which detail the contents of his collections and the ways in which they are collated and categorised. “Each of the archival containers… is precisely described by an indication of the brand… colour, size, provenance… as well as any material peculiarities… or breakages. These containers are aids in systematizing the material.” (Marx et al., 2007, p9) The contents of these containers are separated into thirty groups, and classified by types; including correspondence, manuscripts, and business documents, as well as written-formats defined as “printed”, “only in handwriting”, “type-written”. (Marx et al., 2007, p8)

The reason that Benjamin is described as a collector rather than a conventional archivist is due in part to his idiosyncratic classifications, which include “Letters from deceased people except for Fritz Heinle and Rika Seligson” and “Letters from all living male correspondents except for relatives and Gerhardi, Blumenthal, Sachs, Wolf Heinle…” (Marx et al., 2007, p8). According to his own writings (SW 2:2. p. 487), Benjamin’s approach to collecting was based on a personal relationship to information, rather than its functional value. (Marx et al., 2007, p5)

Writing processes
Benjamin’s writing was developed from techniques of archiving, collecting, and constructing. His projects utilised aspects of collage and montage as ways of organising knowledge. (Marx et al., 2007, p4) His texts were often constructed from ‘building blocks’ of quotes, observations, and annotations, which had been cut into sections from sheets of paper. These were then collated, arranged and colour-coded, in order to create a narrative that could be reconfigured in different ways, before typing up as a draft manuscript. (Marx et al., 2007, p199)

In conjunction with this ‘collaging’ of text’, Benjamin also structured his material through the use of graphic forms and diagrams described as ‘constellations’, “in which concepts or figures of thought exist in charged relationships with each other.” (Marx et al., 2007, p3) “Topographical relationships, spatial organization, optical alignments and divisions are not only apparent on the drafts and pages that include calligraphic elements. Countless scraps and sheets in the bequest are evidence of a sensibility attuned to graphic elements, spatial dimensions, and design.” (Marx et al., 2007, p231) These diagrams enabled the texts to remain fluid, and therefore open to further revision after publishing. Benjamin constructed mind-maps to layout his drafts, utilising keywords, descriptions and bibliographic references to draw out themes within the information.  (Marx et al., 2007, pp. 197-198)

Benjamin’s interest in the effects of photography was established in his seminal work ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. As polychrome picture postcards had become available to the masses from three years after Benjamin’s birth, it is no surprise that these were to have a profound effect on his way of thinking and collecting. (Marx et al., 2007, p171) However, these democratised postcard images were to once again become ‘auratic’ objects, as they morphed back into collectable items. Benjamin often searched for particular postcards to add to his collection, which he described as “a form of practical memory” (AP, p.205) and a “primal phenomenon of study” (AP, p.210). (Marx et al., 2007, p171).

As well as his interest in photography in general, he also planned to write an essay on the “Aesthetics of the Picture Postcard” (compare GS VI, p. 694). However this never materialised. (Marx et al., 2007, p173). Despite this, his interest in postcards remained and his bequest includes eight postcard-sized art prints of Sibyls – mosaics from the cathedral at Siena, which he uses as a starting point for his ideas: “In the mythic image of the descendent with the Sibyl – the prophetess – Benjamin develops a formula which looks forwards and backwards, pointing back to the origin and forwards to new possibilities of understanding in the reformulation of the old.” The inclusion of these images in his collections reflects both his interests in the way that photography removes the ‘aura’ from artworks, as well as connections to his predecessor Aby Warburg in considering reworkings of Antiquity in the Renaissance. (Marx et al., 2007, pp. 303-304)

Card index
Links between the archive, the fragment and the postcard are reflected in one of Benjamin’s favourite ways of structuring knowledge; the card index. He writes: “The card index marks the conquest of three-dimensional writing, and so presents an astonishing counterpoint to the three-dimensionality of script in its original form as rune or knot notation. (And today the book is already, as the present mode of scholarly production demonstrates, an outdated mediation between two different filing systems).” (SW I, p. 456) (Marx et al., 2007, p29)

Card indexes were developed in the Renaissance as the Modern drive towards archiving rendered bound catalogues impractical. As such, institutions including “the court library at Vienna introduced a card index catalog around 1780 [and] parish registers [were] entered onto slips or even card, in order to be able to deploy the individual entries independently of the place of their transmission, and to be able to order them according to different criteria. Transfer to individual scraps or cards [also made] possible lexical projects such as the Goethe-Dictionary”. (WBA, p29) Benjamin’s use of cut and paste techniques, keywords and networked card structures also suggests a prescience in light of the emergence of the Internet, similarly discussed in Freud’s ‘Mystic Writing-Pad’.

Further info:


This week I decided to consolidate my my own experiences of working in archives and collections by reading more about other artists working in this way, and particularly how these methods have been critically and historically received. One source of information on artists and writers working in this field was the edited collection, ‘The Archive’.

The Archive
‘The Archive’ (2006), edited by Charles Merewether, is a collection of essays published as part of the Documents of Contemporary Art series by Whitechapel Gallery in collaboration with the MIT Press. The premise of the collection is as follows: “In the modern era, the archive—official or personal—has become the most significant means by which historical knowledge and memory are collected, stored, and recovered. The archive has thus emerged as a key site of inquiry in such fields as anthropology, critical theory, history, and, especially, recent art.”

‘The Archive’ presents a number of essays which include definitions, provocations and working models of archives in relation to modern and contemporary art practice. In the essay ‘The Historical a priori and the Archive’, Michel Foucault places the archive between the “language (langue) that defines the system of constructing possible sentences, and the corpus that passively collects the words that are spoken… it reveals the rules of a practice that enables statements both to survive and to undergo regular modification. It is the general system of the formation and transformation of statements… it emerges in fragments, regions and levels, more fully, no doubt, and with greater sharpness, the greater the time that separates us from it.”  (Foucault, 1969, p29) Through describing the archive as a system which determines that which is remembered and that which is forgotten, Foucault challenges the notion of the archive as a neutral space of authority.

Art and the archive
The role of collections and archives have become more significant to artists and art historians from the start of the 20th century, particularly in relation to photographic and technological developments. As the basis of historical record, archives determine which knowledge is available for future generations to understand their past. This has led to questions regarding not only what knowledge is contained within archives, but also what constitutes an archive and how these systems could be rendered differently. (Merewether, p10)

Systems of organisation became necessary due to the unlimited nature of knowledge and information stored within repositories, and due to the multiplicity of discourses and the fragmentary nature of the information collected. As Charles Merewether writes in his introduction to The Archive: “events and experiences always leave behind them by means of the index, or residual mark, of their occurrence… Manifesting itself in the form of traces, it contains the potential to fragment and destabilize either remembrance as recorded, or history as written.” (Merewether, p10)

Archive as exhibition: Susan Hiller’s ‘The Freud Museum’
One of the main concerns with creating narratives from collections is that of ‘fixing’ the interpretation of the documents. Many artists, therefore, attempt to investigate the systems that produce these meanings as intrinsic to the work. One such artist is Susan Hiller, whose 1994 essay, ‘Working Through Objects’, describes her experience of producing an installation in The Freud Museum, a space that she describes as an installation in its own right due to the curated nature of the artwork and furniture contained within it. (Hiller, 1994, p45)

Hiller describes how her use of the boxes and large vitrine in her installation reflected her previous training as an archaeologist. “When archaeologists do their fieldwork they carefully place all the interesting things found in a ‘neutral’ box. Then a series of hands-on acts transpires: sorting, cleaning, putting into plastic bags, reading, making notes and maps, even repairing… Out of them come typologies and chronologies.” (Hiller, 1994, p45)

She also felt that the condensed nature of the installation, confined as it was to the vitrine, encouraged a closer engagement with the audience, similar to the way in which an archivist or archaeologist might approach their work: “I have discovered that when things are condensed or constrained like this, people will involve themselves in a more careful, slow, and intimate way than they do when they come into a space to see an art installation which perhaps has spread itself out in a large room where it is perfectly possible to stand in the doorway and take a mental snapshot of the geography of the space…” (Hiller, 1994, p41)

The Mystic Writing-Pad
Freud’s own thoughts on the archive as a method of preserving and recording memories are also represented in the edited collection through his 1925 essay ‘A Note upon the Mystic Writing-Pad’. Here he details the discovery of a new piece of technology operating in the style of a palimpsest: “The Mystic Pad is a slab of dark brown resin or wax… over the slab is laid a thin transparent sheet [consisting] of two layers… The upper layer is a transparent piece of celluloid; the lower layer is made of thin translucent waxed paper… To make use of the Mystic Pad, one  writes upon the celluloid portion of the covering sheet which rests on the wax slab… At the points at which the stylus touches, it presses the lower surface of the waxed paper on to the wax slab, and the grooves are visible as dark writing upon the otherwise smooth whitish-grey surface of the celluloid. If one wishes to destroy what has been written, all that is necessary is to raise the double covering sheet from the wax slab by a light pull.” (Freud, 1925, pp. 21-22)

Freud likens this process and the resultant impressions left on the wax slab to the perceptual functions of the brain. As a solution to the issues of providing an indefinite surface with which to record a permanent trace, coupled with links to outsourcing memory, the essay begins to touch on ideas of modern computing and cloud storage decades before these technologies become a reality.

The Anomic Archive
Similarly, networked approaches to interpreting information became more prevalent in the 1920s as outlined in Benjamin H.D. Buchloh 1993 essay, ‘Gerhard Richter’s Atlas: The Anomic Archive’. Although his focus was on Richter’s ‘Atlas’ project, the lack of “precedents for artistic procedures that organize knowledge systematically within didactic models of display or as mnemonic devices” within Avant-garde art, led him to consider comparisons with art historical projects such as Aby Warburg’s ‘Mnemosyne Atlas’ (discussed in week 61), and Walter Benjamin’s ‘Passangenwerk’. Both Warburg’s and Benjamin’s montages were compared to the collage techniques of the Surrealists, and were also contemporaneous with the development of photography. (Buchloh, 1993, p89)

In both projects, along with new montage techniques in art, the arrangement of forms began to give way to the construction of meanings. This allowed for structural networks to be investigated by displacing “the telling of history as a sequence of events and accounts of its individual agents [for a] focus on the simultaneity of separate but contingent social frameworks and an infinity of participating agents.” (Buchloh, 1993, p90)

Further info:
Deep Storage: Collecting, Storing and Archiving in Art, ed. Ingrid Schaffner and Andreas Winzen 1998
Survival: Ruminations on Archival Lacunae by Renee Green, 2002 

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