From symbol to allegory: Aby Warburg's theory of art.

Author:Rampley, Matthew
 
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Recent years have seen a remarkable reawakening of critical interest among Anglophone art historians in the German roots of their discipline. In particular, Michael Podro's book The Critical Historians of Art has seemingly acted as a catalyst for renewed attention to a subject that has more usually been restricted in its appeal, for obvious reasons, to German scholars.(1) However, while Podro's book deals with a broad tradition extending from Kant to Panofsky, discussing the more famous figures in German art history as well as lesser-known writers such as Adolf Goller, Anton Springer, or Gottfried Semper, the main beneficiaries of this new critical interest have tended to be Erwin Panofsky and Alois Riegl. The reasons for the interest in Panofsky are fairly clear; having immigrated to the United States during the 1930s, Panofsky was already prominent in the field of Anglo-American scholarship through books such as Studies in Iconology or Early Netherlandish Painting.(2) Hence, the "return" to Panofsky consisted largely of an extension of interest in his work to encompass those writings produced before Panofsky's departure from Germany.(3) Riegl, on the other hand, has benefited from the recognition of surface similarities between his structural analysis of the grammar of form and the current "linguistic turn" in the social sciences. It is this topicality of Riegl, perhaps, that motivates Margaret Iversen's study of Riegl.(4) In addition, at the time of writing, not only has Riegl's Stilfragen been translated,(5) but also translations are currently under way of Das Hollandische Gruppenportrat and Spatromische Kunstindustrie, the latter having already been translated once (though poorly) little more than ten years ago.(6)

Within this context one person remains notable by his absence. I am referring to Aby Warburg, and it is all the more curious that he should have suffered relative neglect, given the continued existence of the institute bearing his name. It is important not to read such an observation as recommending that we merely resurrect his writings, as if the investigation into the origins of art history were merely an archaeological exercise. Indeed, if the return to the origins of art history has any meaning, it can only be because the thought of the discipline's German and Austrian "grandfathers" is still felt to be of relevance today.(7) Rather, I draw attention to the neglect of Warburg precisely because it is through an engagement with his thought, more than with that of Panofsky or Riegl, that the continued importance of the philosophical concerns of the art history of the beginning of this century becomes most evident. And yet, if the example of Warburg can serve above all as the locus of a meaningful dialogue with art history's past, it is also the case that he has frequently been seen as an antecedent, his work treated as a prelude rather than as meriting substantial attention in its own right. Consequently, since Sir Ernst Gombrich's worthy study of 1970,(8) very little has been written in English on Warburg,(9) an omission that stands in contrast with the situation in Germany.(10)

In this paper, therefore, I intend to indicate some of the philosophical, psychological, and art historiographical concerns of Warburg's work that suggest why it should remain an object of more than mere historical interest. Central to my argument is the contention that in many respects the character of Warburg's interest in the "Nachleben der Antike" has been misrecognized. In particular, I intend to demonstrate that Warburg's researches, symbolized perhaps in his dictum "Der liebe Gott steckt im Detail" (God is in the detail),(11) have often been interpreted, wrongly, as involving little more than the amassing of philological data. This view of Warburg thereby pays scant attention to the general cultural-theoretical perspective underpinning his work. Undoubtedly, Warburg's own immersion in often arcane and esoteric bodies of knowledge has contributed to the underplaying of the philosophical basis of his thought. In contrast, however, a careful study of Warburg's work throws up important parallels not only with Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Weber, and other contemporaries, but also with figures such as Walter Benjamin, Georg Lukacs, and Theodor Adorno, whose work still occupies a prominent position in the contemporary intellectual landscape. In the case of Benjamin, a clear line of influence can be seen; indeed, Benjamin's attempts to become associated with the Warburg circle are well documented. Beyond Benjamin, however, one can see common to Warburg and those others mentioned an interest in the archaeology of modernity in all its forms, and within that archaeological project, Warburg's achievement lies in his analysis of the visual documents that chart the emergence of a specifically modern cultural sensibility.

Warburg's first published work is his dissertation of 1893 on Botticelli's Birth of Venus and Primavera, and while one has to exercise extreme caution when imputing any unity to Warburg's oeuvre, the dissertation introduces the one theme that could be said to recur throughout his published and unpublished writings, namely, the role of the mimetic in the history of representation.

In drawing attention to Warburg's "theory" of mimesis, I am quite consciously working against a widespread interpretation of Warburg. This interpretation holds that Warburg's thought marks the founding of the iconological "method," which calls for analysis of the meaning of works of art through attention to parallels between motifs in the works in question and other cultural phenomena of the time, including literary and theological documents. Hence, Warburg's iconological method is often taken as aiming merely toward the construction of an artistic and cultural milieu within which the work of art takes its place and gains meaning. Mark Roskill writes, for example, that "Aby Warburg, in reviving [iconology] explained it as the study and interpretation of historical processes through visual images . . . as embodied in the conventions and beliefs or assumptions of a society."(12) Similarly, Colin Eisler has argued that Warburg's "institute was devoted to the unravelling of the recherche, to the demystification of such varied monuments of visual authority as Botticelli's allegories or American Indian sand paintings, all to be seen through texts and understood by cultural context," while more recently, according to Jack Spector, "Warburg's method as presented by Gombrich involved his restoring images of the past to their original setting, their cultural milieu."(13)

This interpretation appears to be vindicated by an initial reading of the dissertation. In his study of Botticelli Warburg seems to be preoccupied with piecing together the web of symbolic representations of antiquity dominant in quattrocento Florence. Of particular importance in this context is the role of what Warburg terms the "bewegtes Beiwerk" (Warburg, 1992, 18) in the Florentine re-creation of antiquity. This is a difficult term to translate elegantly, but its sense may best be rendered as "animated incidental detail" or "animated accessory." Warburg uses this notion to refer to the emphasis, in Botticelli's Birth of Venus [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], on Venus's flowing, windswept locks or to the representation of the mantle held out to her as fluttering in the wind, a sense of animation repeated in Primavera [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED] in the dress of the nymph Flora on the far right or of the goddess of Spring scattering flowers in the foreground.

Warburg's study, by focusing on the presence of this element in Botticelli, suggests that the re-creation of antiquity in The Birth of Venus and Primavera differs substantially from what even in Warburg's own time was the dominant image of the ancient world, namely, Johann Winckelmann's idea of "still grandeur."(14) Further, the dissertation aims to place the "bewegtes Beiwerk" of Botticelli's paintings within the wider context of quattrocento Florentine culture by making reference to Botticelli's contemporaries Leon Battista Alberti and Angelo Poliziano. Warburg draws attention to the remarkable similarities between The Birth of Venus and Poliziano's poem Giostra, and between Primavera and Poliziano's Latin bucolic poem Rusticus. Warburg's interest does not lie exclusively in demonstrating the influence of Poliziano on Botticelli, though he also argues for this.(15) Instead, he is concerned to show that both Botticelli and Poliziano fit into a wider understanding of antiquity, one that finds parallels elsewhere, for example, in Alberti's comments in De Pictura on the importance of movement, or in the works of other Florentine poets, such as Zanobio Acciaiuoli, whose Horatian ode "Ve[ne]ris Descriptio" presents an image of Venus that highlights just those animated features Warburg detects in Botticelli (Warburg, 1992, 50).(16)

Warburg's dissertation aims to establish the character of a discourse of antiquity in quattrocento Florence, an aim that would seem to confirm the picture of Warburg discussed above, namely, as concerned to reconstruct a particular sociohistorical cultural milieu. This reconstruction of the cultural milieu of quattrocento Florence seems to be the central goal of the study of Botticelli, thereby reinforcing the popular view of Warburg I discussed above. It would be wrong, however, to focus exclusively on this aspect of his work. Specifically, such an approach would be singularly one-sided, neglecting the considerable philosophical and psychological themes governing the argument. An indication that the dissertation has a wider purpose than the mere amassing of philological and historical data can be seen in Warburg's comments in the preface, where he notes the role of empathy as a "force active in the generation of style" (Warburg, 1992, 13). Warburg's mention here of...

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