This Atlas of Art and Memory Is a Wonder of the Modern World

For most of us, it’s pure to have a look at many photos at the identical time. We do it daily through web searches and digital pinup boards — even fridge doorways have turn into advert hoc picture albums.

But viewing high-quality artwork photos on this nonlinear method, with no accompanying textual content and outdoors of a museum, was radical 100 years in the past. This is partly what makes Aby Warburg’s “Bilderatlas Mnemosyne” (“Mnemosyne Atlas,” in English), an encyclopedic assortment of nearly 1,000 pictures, so vital.

Warburg, a German artwork historian and cultural theorist, labored on the atlas from 1925 till his demise in 1929. To make it, he took reproductions of artworks and pictures of cash, celestial maps, calendars and genealogical tables, in addition to commercials posters and postage stamps, and pinned them to picket boards coated with black fabric. He rearranged the panels in his library in Hamburg and used them in lectures, and wished to publish the atlas as a e book.

The work’s title comes from the Greek goddess of reminiscence and mom of the Nine Muses (Zeus was the child daddy). Warburg was satisfied that antiquity was a place to begin for the examine of artists of the Renaissance, but in addition that its themes had emotional which means that resonated for contemporary instances — significantly in a interval of instability and change.

Modern art was burgeoning at the time, but he continued to focus on art from the Italian Renaissance. He set up a library in 1909, and a research institute in 1926 with the help of the Viennese art historian Fritz Saxl, who created “exhibitions” with photographic reproductions of art during World War I. The institute moved to London in 1933 to flee the Nazis, and the library there still reflects Warburg’s far-ranging and sometimes esoteric interests: sections are devoted to amulets, magic mirrors, medieval astrology and the Evil Eye. (Subjects not uncommon for European intellectuals questioning “modern” society in a state of upheaval.)

Because of mental health issues, from 1918 he spent more than half a decade in institutions. The last part of his life was devoted to the “Mnemosyne Atlas,” creating what he called a “comparative view” of objects and visual perspectives to highlight the “afterlife of antiquity,” or how ancient ideas — like astrology — persisted into the Renaissance and even the present. In other words, how the idea of memory and trauma functioned in civilization.

Warburg’s beloved Botticelli is the star of Panel 39, with black-and-white reproductions of “Venus” and “Primavera” joined by “Pallas and the Centaur” from the 1480s. Other panels explore human and animal bodies, from Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” to isolated organs. Panel 1 has reproductions of bronze Etruscan casts of sheep livers, since the liver was considered in some ancient cultures to be the center of emotion and intelligence.

Panel 77 includes images of paintings by Eugène Delacroix, but also a photograph of Erika Sellschopp, the 1929 German golf champion, and an advertisement for a fish cookbook, which makes it comparable to the Dada collages and photomontages of Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Höch or John Heartfield, or Pop Art’s obsession with mass-media images.

The atlas was what we would now call transdisciplinary: putting art history in dialogue with the fields of archaeology, anthropology, psychology and literary criticism. Warburg, however, was also forwarding an argument about the Renaissance as a time of transition and uncertainty. He felt that images were viral: They couldn’t be held within their discrete, historical containers. He showed, for instance, how a famous fresco cycle in Ferrara, Italy, was inspired by a ninth-century Arab treatise on astronomy by Abu Ma’shar.

Warburg was concerned about technology — the Wright Brothers were modern-day “Icaruses” and telegram and telephone technology were threatening myth and nature — as well as anti-Semitism. In a 1924 letter to the German anthropologist Franz Boas, Warburg wrote, “We have been thrown into this frightening World War not least by the superstition that has deluded us into the foolish certainty — from which we must indeed awaken — that racial traits are somatic manifestations of something spiritual.”

Boas replied: “Racial prejudices seem at the present time to be epidemic all over the world, and we are not by any means free of it here.”

Now, we are in the midst of a pandemic that reveals the limits of modern science — but also our interconnectedness with “nature” and, if you will, the cosmos. Warburg was interested in creating a visual system that would help us understand how we came to be where we are, and how we are profoundly tied to the past and to the natural world.

At this moment, when museums, galleries and art schools are shuttered and we sit looking at a multitude of virtual images, Warburg’s project — what he called “the foundation for a new theory on the function of human visual memory” — resonates. Perhaps the “Mnemosyne Atlas” might inspire novel ways to create connections through what Warburg envisioned as a collective psychology and historical trauma embedded in images. How do we confront the past and shape the present and future? Those of us who’ve devoted our lives to art, like Warburg, often start with pictures.

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