Aby Warburg’s original “Mnemosyne Atlas”, Panel 39 (left) and Panel 22 (right)

Aby Warburg (Memory of time and space)

Amongst the vast collection of theoretical writing and research by German art historian and cultural theorist Aby Warburg, his most influential work the “Mnemosyne Atlas”, still stands out today as one of the most critical confrontations with art history through the analysis of imagery.

He was the son of a wealthy banker family of Jewish heritage and as oldest of seven siblings destined to inherit the family’s business. Warburg, however, had been extremely passionate about literature from an early age and was not interested to follow in his father’s footsteps. Upon making an arrangement with his brother, Warburg decided to renounce his inheritance and relay it to his brother, under the condition that he would supply him with every book Warburg requested for his studies. This would be the beginning of his private library, now known as the “Warburg Institute” located in London, holding the collection of over 300.000 books. Originally located in Hamburg, the famous library was permanently moved in 1933 to London, due to the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany.

As a scholar, Warburg published various important academic papers such as the analysis of Sandro Botticelli’s “Primavera” (1477–1482) and “The Birth of Venus” (1485–1486). Central to this publication was the development of a at the time, radical cultural theory that eventually reshaped the scientific practices of cultural theorists and art historians for the decades to follow. Warburg identified that imagery of great symbolic and intellectual significance emerged in Western antiquity and reappeared in a reanimated form within the cosmology and art of the following times, such as the renaissance.

This theory was in many ways the catalyser for his five year-long project of the “Mnemosyne Atlas”, also referred to as “Bilderatlas Mnemosyne” which remained unfinished up until his death in 1929. The title derives from the name of the Greek goddess of memory and mother of the nine muses, Mnemosyne. Warburg perceived antiquity to be the birthplace of artistic inspiration for artists of the renaissance and thus his atlas, outlining this art-historical sequence would carry the symbolic legacy of her name.

Warburg selected, arranged and re-arranged printed imagery endlessly onto various black self-standing panels. The construction of the atlas was reduced in a powerful but radical manner to the presentation of these images, avoiding any interpretive text visually presented. However, much like the construction of an academic piece of literature, three introductory panels (A, B and C) would visually outline the structure of the atlas and act as a preliminary guide. The material presented ranged from reproductions of artworks to newspaper clippings, advertisement imagery, diagrams, maps etc. Distributed over 63 panels, the image material was strategically placed in juxtaposition with each other and over the course of five years constantly reevaluated and expanded.

Although never officially published by its author, the Atlas, frozen in its provisional state prompted a shift in the way of researching and thinking about art history, introducing a non-linear approach. Warburg’s studies essentially proclaimed that images do not only carry aesthetic value but are furthermore carriers of information and knowledge, able to trace history throughout time and space. His definitions of imagery as containers of memory and knowledge defined the landscape and cultural developments for generations to follow. Traces of the influence of the “Mnemosyne Atlas” can be found in contemporary art-historical writings such as “Ways of Seeing” by John Berger (1972) and in artworks such as “Atlas” (1962-2013) by Gerhard Richter.

Aby Warbug (centre) working on the “Mnemosyne Atlas”

A new exhibition titled “Aby Warburg: Bilderatlas Mnemosyne. The Original” will open at the “Haus der Kulturen” in Berlin in September 2020. The exhibition will present a reconstruction and contextualisation of the original version of the famous “Mnemosyne Atlas” of 1929 in collaboration with the Warburg Institute based London.

In the meantime, Cardi Gallery invites you to experience the impressive research material about Aby Warburg and the Warburg Library collection made available to access and explore online on the website of the Warburg Institute. (https://wdl.warburg.sas.ac.uk/)