I’ve been looking a lot at the Warburg Institute Library in relation to my project, and in particular at the Iconographic database. The Warburg Institute is part of the University of London, and “exists principally to further the study of the classical tradition, that is of those elements of European thought, literature, art and institutions which derive from the ancient world.”
The Warburg Institute
The Warburg Institute combines my interests in the histories of art and science and the cross-cultural interaction of ideas in myths and folklore. It defines this study as the classical tradition, which is the theme that “unifies the history of Western civilization. The bias is not towards ‘classical’ values in art and literature, [but] all the strands that link medieval and modern civilization with its origins in the ancient cultures of the Near East and the Mediterranean. It is this element of continuity that is stressed in the arrangement of the Library: the tenacity of symbols and images in European art and architecture, the persistence of motifs and forms in Western languages and literatures, the gradual transition, in Western thought, from magical beliefs to religion, science and philosophy, and the survival and transformation of ancient patterns in social customs and political institutions.”
In addition, the Warburg Institute has an extensive photographic collection, which they are in the process of digitising as part of their Iconographic database. “The photographic collection, organised by subject, documents the iconographical traditions of western art and facilitates research into these traditions as well as the identification of the subject of individual images.”
Fragments of Venus
It was this interest in the classical tradition that led me to consider the use of the Venus figure within art history. Botecelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ was also a keen favourite of Warburg, and he wrote about the painting as part of his interest in the Italian Renaissance.
I began by focusing on the sculpture of Venus by Antonio Canova which is housed in the sculpture galleries at Leeds Art Gallery. I decided to draw small sections of the sculpture to try to capture the essence of looking that the artist undertakes when drawing a subject. This allowed me to pay closer attention to the formal qualities of the sculpture, and to articulate the object in its original three dimensions, whilst rendering it in 2D. This process also brought to mind a phrase by Aby Warburg “Der liebe Gott steckt im Detail” (“God is in the Detail”), which he used to describe the way that he explored minute elements of art history to trace more universal patterns of thought.
After drawing sections of the sculpture, I decided to scan each one in order to reproduce them. This was intended to allow me the option to experiment with the form and production of the images, as well as giving me the ability to produce several versions of each. In the first instance, I created a 3D geometric shape with a different image from the sculpture printed on each of the faces. I had 12 drawings so I created a dodecahedron shape, where each image was digitally manipulated in the form of a pentagon. The sculptural element was intended to reference the exploration of geometry within art and natural forms, which has been a fascination of artists from Leonard da Vinci through to Helen Chadwick. It also had the effect of recreating the drawings in 3D, albeit in a fragmented form.
After producing these sculptural objects, I was interested to see how I could make other versions of the object so I produced the image series as an artist book. This time I used digital manipulation to make the images into a circular shape. This was intended to highlight the voyeurism of the viewer in looking at the different body parts of the sculpture. By separating the image into ‘pages’ I also wanted to highlight the time-based processes of both the viewing of a book and the viewing of a sculpture.
As a continuation of this project, I would be interested in studying the Venus figure in more detail to determine the elements that have been continued throughout art and history.