So far I’ve been contextualising my interests in cultural traditions and the artwork that I’m producing in relation to the historical and contemporary art production. However, it is also necessary for me to understand how this relates to theories developed within art history proper. In particular, parallels can be drawn between these ideas and the work of Aby Warburg. His practice of collating and understanding a global iconology were also continued in part by his students, Erwin Panofsky and Ernst Gombrich.
Warburg’s study of cultural artefacts and traditions was intended to develop a theory of the psychological dimension of culture, whereby the human experience produced patterns of reasoning which would be evident within works of art. Similarities between these patterns could then be established both globally and temporally. (Woodfield, p2-3, 2001) This project, otherwise known as Kulturwissenschaft (or The Science of Culture) continued previous links developed between disciplines such as sociology, psychology, anthropology, ethnology and art history, in order to understand the mental life of a civilisation through its works of art and other material remains. (Woodfield, p66, 2001)
“Kulturwissenschaft, the science of culture, succinctly and clearly expresses the hopes and ambitions with which Warburg approached the task of analysing the psychological makeup of a civilisation or of a milieu through any of its manifestations or what he was to call Auffangspiegel, reflecting mirrors. For this function, the decoration of a marriage chest could be just as relevant as the fresco cycles of a palace, a temporary structure erected for a pageant as revealing as a cathedral, popular broadsheets, ballads, customs, rituals, amulets, games, anything and everything that formed part of the life of a community also deserved to be considered by Kulturwissenschaft as a cue to the mental life of a civilisation.” (Woodfield, p41, 2001)
As part of his Kulturwissenschaft project, Warburg amassed a library of around 60,000 volumes, which was later to become the Warburg Institute, a research institute affiliated with the University of London. Included within this collection was the Mnemosyne Atlas, a rich repository of around 1000 images, which were organised and pinned to 40 large panels and then photographed. It was from this that he constructed his ideas of the ‘Iconology of the Interval’, or the spaces and connections between the images that subsequently create meaning. Unfortunately, the original panels were lost fleeing Nazi Germany, but the ‘Atlas’ still exists in the form of 79 photographic plates in the archives of the Warburg Institute.
Mimesis and Allegory
This lifelong project was developed in response to the question “Was bedeutet das nachleben der Antike?”, roughly translated as “How are we to interpret the continued revivals of elements of ancient culture in Western civilisation?”. (Woodfield, p55, 2001) This question was underpinned by Warburg’s studies of mimesis and allegory; ideas which were realised in the form of his writings on astrological signs as reflecting both a primitive mimeticism and also a scientific objectivism.
On astrology, he states “nowhere does the problem of the cycle of concrete fantasy and mathematical abstraction reveal its fatal agility in moving from one pole to the other more convincingly than in the metaphor of the heavenly bodies. It effects both a quite unreflexive and self-negating subjective confusion with the monstrous apparatus of the astrological bodies, and also an assured subjective certitude which, oriented toward the future, calculates from a distance and with mathematical precision the rising and setting of the phenomena of the skies.”
Warburg’s studies not only foreground the potential for ideas of the development of a global history of art though the study of folklore and tradition, but also reflect affinities with the work of Walter Benjamin in his studies of mimesis and allegory, thereby connecting to my previous research (in week 36). His production of an archive of images which has in turn become a cultural artefact, also reflects allegorical sensibilities and the reproductive function of the archive.
Art History as Cultural History: Warburg’s Projects edited by Richard Woodfield, G+B Arts International, Amsterdam, 2001