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Memory, Metaphor, and Aby Warburg's Atlas of Images

Memory, Metaphor, and Aby Warburg's Atlas of Images

Christopher D. Johnson
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Memory, Metaphor, and Aby Warburg's Atlas of Images
    Book Description:

    The work of German cultural theorist and art historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929) has had a lasting effect on how we think about images. This book is the first in English to focus on his last project, the encyclopedic Atlas of Images: Mnemosyne. Begun in earnest in 1927, and left unfinished at the time of Warburg's death in 1929, the Mnemosyne-Atlas consisted of sixty-three large wooden panels covered with black cloth. On these panels Warburg carefully, intuitively arranged some thousand black-and-white photographs of classical and Renaissance art objects, as well as of astrological and astronomical images ranging from ancient Babylon to Weimar Germany. Here and there, he also included maps, manuscript pages, and contemporary images taken from newspapers. Trying through these constellations of images to make visible the many polarities that fueled antiquity's afterlife, Warburg envisioned the Mnemosyne-Atlas as a vital form of metaphoric thought.

    While the nondiscursive, frequently digressive character of the Mnemosyne-Atlas complicates any linear narrative of its themes and contents, Christopher D. Johnson traces several thematic sequences in the panels. By drawing on Warburg's published and unpublished writings and by attending to Warburg's cardinal idea that "pathos formulas" structure the West's cultural memory, Johnson maps numerous tensions between word and image in the Mnemosyne-Atlas. In addition to examining the work itself, he considers the literary, philosophical, and intellectual-historical implications of the Mnemosyne-Atlas. As Johnson demonstrates, the Mnemosyne-Atlas is not simply the culmination of Warburg's lifelong study of Renaissance culture but the ultimate expression of his now literal, now metaphoric search for syncretic solutions to the urgent problems posed by the history of art and culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6406-5
    Subjects: Art & Art History, Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. 1 Atlas Gazed: Mnemosyne—Its Origins, Motives, and Scope
    (pp. 1-42)

    Memory Mnemosyne mater musarum. Mnemosyne, mother of the Muses. Mnemosyne, who personifies memory, whose pool in Hades complements Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. Mnemosyne, who, as Friedrich Hölderlin writes in the first strophe of his gnomic hymn “Mnemosyne” (ca. 1803), allows “the true” to occur despite, or perhaps because of, “time”:

    Ein Zeichen sind wir, deutungslos

    Schmerzlos sind wir und haben fast

    Die Sprache in der Fremde verloren.

    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

    . . ....

  6. 2 Ad oculos: Ways of Seeing, Reading, and Collecting
    (pp. 43-69)

    The eclecticism encountered in the previous chapter—the history of cosmology, Hopi ritual, Ovidian metamorphosis, and so on—would seem to discourage any attempt to tie Warburg to a single period or method. Nevertheless, there are good reasons for doing so. Warburg roots his Kulturwissenschaft in the Renaissance. And it is in the Renaissance, but especially late quattrocento Florence, that he discerns most clearly the ability to create metaphoric distance, an ability he would exercise in every intellectual arena he enters.

    In this respect, Warburg has numerous allies, as metaphor was central to humanist hermeneutics. Contemplating De laboribus Herculis (On...

  7. 3 Metaphor Lost and Found in Mnemosyne
    (pp. 70-109)

    Warburg gave a lecture titled “Die römische Antike in der Werkstatt Ghirlandaios” at the Biblioteca Hertziana in Rome on January 19, 1929. A barely disguised exposition of the ideas and methods informing Mnemosyne, the lecture was supported by a sequence of nine panels, containing some 230 photographs, which were sequentially placed along three walls of a large lecture hall.¹ Unfortunately, only an imperfect draft of the lecture remains. Yet this, together with accounts of the event, confirms that it was a truly capacious talk. In presenting Ghirlandaio as an exemplary figure‚ it also interpreted Botticelli’s illustrations of Dante’s Commedia, touched...

  8. 4 Translating the Symbol: Warburg and Cassirer
    (pp. 110-140)

    It bears repeating: Mnemosyne is largely divorced from iconology as practiced by Warburg’s chief successors, who turn rather to his earlier work for their methodological inspiration.¹ Briefly put, iconology aims to explicate the significance of an individual artwork through the interpretation of the symbolic values attached to compositional or iconographic features. To decipher these contingent features, imbricated as they are in a medieval or humanist culture long since past, great erudition is usually demanded. Yet to grasp next the meaning of the work’s symbolic values, interpretation becomes mostly an intuitive act. This is because iconology tends to regard the individual...

  9. 5 Metaphorologies: Nietzsche‚ Blumenberg, and Hegel
    (pp. 141-169)

    As he tried to widen the scope and refine the method of his Kulturwissenschaft, Warburg wrestled with giants whose historiographies had shaped the fields he hoped to map. To begin with, there was J.J. Winckelmann (1717–56), whose neo-Stoic, decidedly aesthetic interpretations of Greek culture and its imitators found “edle Einfalt und stille Größe” not only in the Laocoön statue and Plato’s philosophy, but also in Raphael’s painting.¹ Partly to shake free of Winckelmann’s constricting influence on German art history, Warburg turned to Jacob Burckhardt, whose enormously influential account of Italian Renaissance culture had been increasingly eclipsed increasingly eclipsed in...

  10. 6 Exemplary Figures and Diagrammatic Thought
    (pp. 170-193)

    To illustrate better the motives, methods, and rhythms of Mnemosyne, but especially to chart more exactly its metaphoric logic, I want to turn again to the period after Warburg emerged from the sanatorium. Besides reimmersing himself in the cosmographical material that yielded, just before his breakdown, the magisterial essay on sixteenth-century German astrological imagery, Warburg began work in 1924 on a new topic, which eventually became the lecture Italienische Antike im Zeitalter Rembrandts, given at the K.B.W. in May 1926.¹ While only a partial text of the lecture survives, it deserves attention, firstly, because it directly informs panels 70, 71,...

  11. 7 Synderesis: The “Bruno-Reise”
    (pp. 194-230)

    Warburg and Bing sojourned in Italy from late September 1928 until June 1929. Their main goal was originally to collect material to supplement the ever-mutating Bilderatlas, which, when they left Hamburg, consisted of eighty panels and some 1,300 images.¹ Another motive for the journey was Warburg’s desire to introduce “the pictorial realm” to Bing.² Prompted, however, by an article by Leonardo Olschki, he resolves soon after they arrive: “We must read Giordano Bruno better.”³ By November 22, they begin to read Bruno in earnest (though in German); four days later there is an epiphany: “Nachmittags um circa 6 angefangen Giordano...

  12. Illustrations
    (pp. 231-260)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 261-272)
  14. Index
    (pp. 273-286)