Aby Warburg's Lost Atlas of Memory

Let me tell you a story: In 1910 there was a historian named Aby Warburg. He described himself as a “Hamburger at heart, Jew by blood, Florentine in spirit”; He collected an art legacy, assembling thousands of years of human history in photographs, and on postcards produced from throughout Europe. He combined these images on panel boards, looking to devise a way to see how images bleed past eras, and into each other as works of creation.

He worked to shape a system to observe the themes in art, and how they function psychologically. In essence, an object lives on in culture, it seems to have an afterlife. It continues to speak well after it has disappeared from immediate view.

The other day, I was standing in front of the old downtown public library building. There was a station wagon with wood panels stopped at the traffic light bathed in warmly diffused August light.

The vintage car brought forward an old memory from my youth – holding my mom’s hand a few blocks away. I saw that car and a sudden rush of memory came back to me. A group of associations linked the make and model of the car to a place in time.

I felt stages of my life mixing together via the icon of the automobile. This particular vehicle was a vehicle for memory, so to speak.

Different words exist for theories of how the mind carries information that is stored forward in time. “Engram” has been used in one context. It is the term that Warburg used. I correlate it to the term “Cetanā“, from another tradition. This is a digression, I don’t have enough space in this review to elaborate, but I find the subject fascinating. Especially how, I have noticed, history tends to repeat itself, out of habit, it seems. But far be it that I try and reinvent the wheel. I challenge you, dear reader, to follow my hyperlinks, if only out of curiosity. In Aby Warburg’s “Bilderatlas Mnemosye”, memory becomes evident in objects. The world fills with works of art that are, in turn, symbolic of emotional realities.

The photographic critic Max Kosloff gives the dictionary description of memory and its implications while writing about John Guttman’s depression era photographs of the 1930’s:

“Memory, according to my dictionary, is “The mental capacity or faculty of retaining and reviving impressions, or recalling or recognizing previous experiences”. To aid memory an aggregate of photographs can hold up to view images not only of separate people, now gone, but of whole cultural periods. Receding into history, a culture — the sum of the arrangements by which a society manifests itself — leaves behind artifacts such as words, objects, and images that survive in a progressively alienated and disorderly state. What lives on in the human memory of culture is a composite of ideas that such remnants have generated.”

from “The Restless Decade: John Guttman’s Photographs of the Thirties.

This is a better description of the net effect of the “Bilderatlas” than I can write. “Bild” is one of those words that make a part of many compound words in German. “Bildgebendes Verfahren” or “imaging procedure”, for instance. Warburg studied the interplay of images. He designed the Atlas as a pictorial representation of that interplay. During the process of its creation, the Atlas developed into an instrument of cognition, like a scientific instrument (not dissimilar to a camera).

“Bilderatlas Mnemosyne” is a tremendous photographic archive. Warburg brings us to Panel 79, viewing “Church and State: Spiritual Power without the Wielding of Earthly Power”. It displays photographs of the great convene in 1929 at St. Peter’s Basilica, only a few years before masses darkly gathered in Berlin for their Fuhrer. Panel 54: “The Olympianization Together with the Horoscope Practice of Heaven by God the Father”. Time and history appear to be a process out of our control, our powers for 20/20 hindsight notwithstanding.

It is a strange comfort to know that other people have felt helpless at points in history. Panel 50-51 “Subdivision and Making Handleable. Muses, Virtues and Vices, Harmonic System. Ascent. Female Funerary Dancers,” reproduces Andrea Mantegna’s painting. “The Triumph of Virtue or Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue”. To me, Mantegna’s painting is an image of hope in dark times. Just as others have despaired, others have envisioned new realities, where thoughtfulness prevails against chaos.

The book reproduces all the panels of Warburg’s unfinished masterpiece for the first time since his death. This book is in fact a catalogue of an exhibit at the same institute. The wars, the intervening years, and an immense scholarly effort went into remaking this exhibition, and the resulting catalogue. In so doing, a repatriation of cultural legacy was the result. Warburg died long before seeing his project completed.

The “Mnemosyne Atlas” is also of importance to photography. Not only as a testament to the document and the power of photography to represent culture, but also as a reprographic tour-de-force. I am always surprised how elementary people think copy work is when it is some of the most demanding work in the field: Conscientious care for another subject by sacrificing the drive to fulfil your ego by making something original is not easy.

Looking through this book I feel the pathos of our lost understanding of culture. I will remember going through this book for the rest of my life. For the artist photographer seeking to develop an array of concepts and themes, and make your work salient to a culturally curious audience, you can use the Warburg Atlas as a lens to see through. It offers a view of the forest, not only the trees.

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Aby Warburg: Bilderatlas Mnemosyne

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