Brian Dillon on the Disquieting Life and Times of Aby Warburg


‘There is pain and suffering in these pictures, but also pure possibility’

In the years immediately following World War I, with research in Italy and the US behind him, and now established as a professor in Hamburg, Aby Warburg suffered a mental breakdown. He fell into a profound depression and turned on his colleagues. (Even before that, in a 1912 essay on frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara, Warburg had accused fellow art historians of behaving with a ‘border-police bias’ towards his interdisciplinary approach.) At a private mental asylum in Kreuzlingen, he was treated by the noted psychiatrists Ludwig Binswanger and Emil Kraepelin, who diagnosed a manic-depressive illness. Among Warburg’s stranger symptoms was a habit he had developed, a kind of ‘cult’ according to observers, of talking to the insects that flew into his room at night. He would speak to them for hours, recounting to moths and butterflies – according to Binswanger’s clinical report, he called them his ‘soul animals’ – the onset of his agony, describing the shape of his suffering.

What an apt and moving image that is for the inner life of Warburg, who thought so intensely about the relationship between static, beautiful forms and the forces that set them in real or imaginary motion. His main interest, and whole modus as an art historian, was a kind of fluttering movement, a silent-screen flicker that gave back life to historical images. The Mnemosyne Atlas (1924–29), which Warburg began to elaborate a few years after his recovery from the breakdown, is his most achieved (if also definitively unfinished) expression of that agitated mode of thought. Originally conceived as an illustrated book – a bilderatlas (‘image atlas’) such as scientific publishers had perfected in the 19th century – it could only really exist as a mobile star chart of motifs and pictures, a depthless teeming sea of images, a centuries-long film unspooled onto walls and panels in the rooms where it lived at the Warburg Institute in Hamburg, before being dispersed into the archive of the Institute’s new home in London after 1933.

Aby Warburg, Mnemosyne Atlas, 1924–29, panel 32. All panels have been reconstructed from the Warburg Institute Archive. Courtesy: The Warburg Institute, London; photograph: Wootton/Fluid

There are many varieties of movement, stately or speeding, visible in the pictures that Warburg affixed to those panels. Here is Albrecht Dürer’s rendering, from around 1518, of the great triumphal carriage of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, pulled by six pairs of horses and attended by a winged Victory. Elsewhere, bodies ascend or fall: Peter Paul Rubens’s The Great Last Judgement (1614–17), Filippino Lippi’s Martyrdom of St. Philip (1502), the plummet of Phaeton – who tried in vain to drive the chariot of the sun – drawn three times by Michelangelo in 1533. And a series of diagrams of the solar system, focusing on Mars and its ‘children’, is juxtaposed with a sleek onrush of Zeppelin airships: all heavenly bodies in motion. But Warburg’s keener interest, before and during the period of his making the Mnemosyne Atlas, is in the way that seemingly immobile bodies and faces in fact express or (better) incarnate movement, spiritual as well as physical. Under his gaze, the history of art reveals itself to have been a sort of cinema all along.

The insight is already there in some notes Warburg made in 1890. About the faces in Renaissance art, he writes: ‘The question was no longer “What does this expression mean?” but “Where is it moving to?”’ Sandro Botticelli is a key artist in this regard: in his Primavera (Spring, c.1480), the figure of spring is flanked on the left by the Three Graces and, on the right, by the nymph Chloris, who is fleeing from, and turns her head back towards, Zephyrus: the West Wind. Extract the figure of Chloris, blow her up to see more closely her stricken face, as Warburg does in the Mnemosyne Atlas, and you have a figure only half human, whose movement may be bodily, or it may be emotional. Her ambiguity is all of the point: she’s at once fraught and frozen, an image that scintillates instead of merely signifying. And it’s in the picture of a frightened or suffering face and body that Warburg discerns, time and again, a movement that connects the innovations of the Renaissance with 19th-century photographic portraits and the melodramatic expressions of early silent-movie stars.

The panels Warburg devoted to the Roman sculpture Laocoön and His Sons (27 BCE–68 CE) are his most ambitious explorations of art and movement. The statuary group, excavated in 1506 on the Esquiline Hill and immediately exhibited in the Vatican, shows the Trojan priest and his children attacked by serpents that have been sent by the gods Athena and Poseidon. Warburg was not the first to see in the sculpture’s writhing stone an image that encapsulated solid stasis and wild movement. In his essay ‘On Laocoön’ (1798), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe compared the work to ‘a frozen lightning bolt’ or ‘a wave petrified at the very instant it is about to break upon the shore’. He had even imagined it as the occasion for a sort of proto-cinematic experiment with his own vision: ‘To seize well the attention of the Laocoön, let us place ourselves before the group with our eyes shut and at the necessary distance; let us open and shut them alternately and we shall see all the marble in motion.’

Goethe saw some shivering, terrible truth in the Laocoön that an earlier writer, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, had weirdly denied: in Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture (1755), the art historian wrote of the main figure’s suffering: ‘This pain, however, expresses itself with no sign of rage in his face or in his entire bearing.’ In the Mnemosyne Atlas, Laocoön is all pain, all of the time. Pathos is at the heart of Warburg’s vision of art as stasis and movement, and he surrounds images of the Laocoön group with related and alternative images of faces in agony and dolour. There is the head of a bearded man, attributed to Pisanello and dated to around 1435, long before the discovery of the Roman sculptures. With his mouth open and eyes thrown back, the figure rhymes with the head of Adam in a 15th-century fresco by Filippo Lippi. Together, such faces and bodies compose a mobile frieze of frozen expressions. 

Aby Warburg, Mnemosyne Atlas, 1924–29, panel 39. All panels have been reconstructed from the Warburg Institute Archive. Courtesy: The Warburg Institute, London; photograph: Wootton/Fluid

In that sense, the Mnemosyne Atlas is part of a long history of efforts to tabulate the varieties of human emotional expression. Charles Le Brun’s Conférence sur l’expression générale et particulière des passions (The Expression of the Passions), published eight years after the painter’s death in 1698, is an atlas or dictionary of facial affects: tranquillity, admiration, the violence of astonishment. In 1872, Charles Darwin published The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, which reproduced photographs of smiling and grimacing subjects taken by the French neurologist Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne de Boulogne. Warburg’s constellations of bodies and faces in motion have been compared to the photographic studies of so-called hysterics that Jean-Martin Charcot produced under Duchenne de Boulogne’s influence. But the truth is that the Mnemosyne Atlas diagnoses something far more fleeting and enigmatic. There is pain and suffering in these pictures, but also a sense of pure possibility, as though the space between images, or between panels, contained only wind, or the beating of wings.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 211 as part of the roundtable ‘Speak, Memory’.

‘Aby Warburg: Bilderatlas Mnemosyne’, curated by Roberto Ohrt and Axel Heil, is a collaborative project between Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany, and the Warburg Institute, London, UK. The accomanying folio volume ‘Aby Warburg: Bilderatlas MNEMOSYNE – The Originial’ is published at Hatje Cantz in April 2020. In autumn 2020 a commentary volume with detailed comments by the curators will also be published. The exhibition at Haus der Kulturen der Welt will also follow at the same time.

Main Image: Reading Room, Warburg Cultural Studies Library, Hamburg, 1926. Courtesy: The Warburg Institute, London

Brian Dillon is professor of creative writing at Queen Mary University of London, UK. Suppose a Sentence (Fitzcarraldo Editions/New York Review Books) will be published in September 2020. He lives in London.

Issue 211

First published in Issue 211

May-June 2020

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