– Aby Warburg created marvellous theoretical fictions

Leading Aby Warburg scholar Philippe-Alain Michaud’s talk at Stenersenmuseet sets Warburg’s thoughts into motion in the midst of Guttorm Guttormsgaard’s exhibition.

With the picture atlas Mnemosyne created an «iconology of intervals» where meaning arose in-between the images.
With the picture atlas Mnemosyne, Warburg created an «iconology of intervals» where meaning arose in-between the images.

In Guttorm Guttormsgaard’s current exhibition at Stenersenmuseet in Oslo, one can find the most implausible objects placed side by side. One could perhaps say that Guttormsgaard, with his multifarious archive of cultural history, is a Norwegian representative of the increasing interest in a non-linear and associative history that has been prevalent in contemporary art and art history in the past twenty years. Parallel to this interest in collections and archives, the work of German art historian Aby Warburg (1866–1929) has been the object of much attention. At the end of his life Warburg created a picture atlas called the Mnemosyne Atlas, consisting of 79 panels covered in black fabric on which Warburg placed art reproductions, advertisements, maps, personal snapshots and newspaper clippings – a history of art without text tracing the connections between images from the most diverse sites and ages. A similar associative logic pervades Guttormsgaard’s exhibition, which is on view until June 21.

Warburg was born into a wealthy Hamburg family of bankers and is said to have ceded his birthright as the eldest son to a younger brother for an unlimited supply of books. His library counted 60,000 titles at the time of his death and was eventually turned into a research institute. It moved to London in the early 1930s. The library was continuously rearranged in accordance with the development of his research, and the placement of each book was of the utmost importance. Warburg continued his interest in the juxtaposition of objects with the development of the Mnemosyne Atlas. The atlas was an instrument designed to follow the migration of figures in the history of representations.

The Mnemosyne is the subject when leading Warburg scholar Philippe-Alain Michaud, who is also curator of the film department at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, gives a talk in Guttormsgaard’s exhibition at Stenersenmuseet on Saturday May 30. Michaud made an important contribution to Warburg studies with his book Aby Warburg and the image in motion (Zone Books, 2006, first published in French in 1998). Here, Michaud traces Warburg’s research from his earliest studies on how artists of the Renaissance looked to Antiquity in their attempts to represent movement, to his final work on the picture atlas. The originality of Michaud’s book lies in his juxtaposition of Warburg’s research with the parallel development of early cinema. Where cinema creates movement through linear and sequenced montages, the Mnemosyne Atlas functions as a network of intervals where the montages of images are produced simultaneously.

Photograph of Warburg in Arizona with a mask from the Hopi indians' ritual Kachina dance.
Photograph of Warburg in Arizona with a mask from the Hopi indians’ ritual Kachina dance.

How did your interest in Warburg come about?

Some of the texts written by Warburg on the Florentine Renaissance were translated into French very early. I discovered these texts in the mid-1990s, and as a film specialist I was struck by how Warburg paid attention to the question of the figure in motion. His first text, published in 1893, is dedicated to the movement of the hair and of the clothes of the nymphs in paintings of the Quattrocento. When I got access to unpublished texts in the Warburg archive in London, I discovered how Warburg, after having studied how the artists from the Renaissance had represented movement, experimented with ways to make images dynamic and put them into movement. This was achieved mainly through the method of montage, and the method found its culmination in Warburg’s last project – a history of art without text, the atlas of images which he called the Mnemosyne Atlas.

In the introduction to your book on Warburg, Georges Didi-Huberman writes that the reception of and interest in the work of Warburg has mainly come from outside of the discipline of art history. Why do you think this is the case?

Warburg paid attention to the question of movement and developed a method of montage precisely at the time the cinema was producing the technical means to put images into motion. It explains why his work has been, and still is, so influential in the field of media studies. But there is another point which is crucial in Warburg’s development: the journey he made in 1895–96 to the Hopi in Arizona. It was an experience which deeply informed his thinking. He was thus installing anthropology at the core of his practice – a gesture which has been since the object of real repression among his followers. But this double displacement also explains how Warburg’s studies have provoked a real turn in the history of art.

Where is the legacy of Warburg most apparent today?

Today the influence of Warburg is perceptible as much in the art world as in the universities. In the last decade exhibitions dedicated to or inspired by Warburg have proliferated everywhere from Europe to South America – even China.

I’m curious about a sentence in your book: “Mnemosyne, the atlas of images Warburg was working on before his untimely death in 1929, remains one of the most fascinating and enigmatic objects in the history of contemporary art.” Do you suggest that the atlas should – retroactively – be considered a work of art? That idea would seem to evoke some of the anachronisms that pervade Warburg’s work.

With the picture atlas Mnemosyne created an «iconology of intervals» where meaning arose in-between the images.
Warburg’s picture atlas Mnemosyne.

Maybe the translation is slightly inaccurate: I mean to say “in the contemporary history of art” and not “in the history of contemporary art.” Mnemosyne is not a work of art, even if Warburg contributed to redefining the methods of art history, blurring the limits between interpretation and poetic invention. But the question of anachronism is obviously central in Warburg’s thought: in Mnemosyne, he develops a non-linear vision of history, juxtaposing an image of a zeppelin from a newspaper clipping with a medieval map of the sky, or associating the figure of a golf player with the image of Judith beheading Holofernes.

In your book you emphasise the attention Warburg pays to movements that are activated by the juxtaposition of still images – the “iconology of intervals”, as Warburg calls it. What is the relation of the Atlas to cinema?

Ten years before Panofsky invents modern iconology, which deals with the internal meaning of images, Warburg raised the question of the iconology of the interval, the space that separates the images. For Warburg, the image has no intrinsic meaning – it’s the encounter with the images spread out on the plates that produces sense. What is remarkable is that Warburg forges his iconology of the interval at exactly the same moment that the Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov, one of the inventors of cinematic montage, is speaking of a “montage of the intervals.” With Mnemosyne, without any technical means, Warburg constructed a cinematic structure.

Warburg’s insights on the relationships between images were made possible by photographic reproductions. Recently, optical character recognition software has made it possible to analyse masses of historical texts, and literary historians like Franco Moretti have developed what has been called “computational criticism”. Do you think image recognition technology will make something similar possible for the history of images?

There is a positivist ideology in the idea of computational criticism, which is far from warburgian. Warburg invented stories, marvellous theoretical fictions: he begins in the rational world of Renaissance studies, and suddenly he goes through the looking glass.