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)
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.