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  • Translatio and Remediation:Aby Warburg, Image Migration and Photographic Reproduction
  • Philippe Despoix (bio)

Aby Warburg’s research on the heritage of Antiquity can be seen as an investigation into the hybrid forms through which it has been transmitted to us. This inquiry into Western cultural memory is constructed by a unique oeuvre, at the heart of which is the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg, the physical library Warburg created in Hamburg, which he saw as a medium for new modes of research. The organization of the library aimed to orient scholars to the modalities of the “afterlife” of the representations and gestures associated with pathos that derive from ancient paganism. We also know that Warburg sought to situate his work in the context of a Kulturwissenschaft—a science of culture seen as a “third” position, above the schism between the natural sciences and the humanities—a position whose horizon intersects Ernst Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms, Max Weber’s comparative sociology of religion, and the perspectives opened by American anthropology as practiced by Franz Boas.

In what follows, my hypothesis is that in Warburg’s work, the concept of Nachleben—the afterlife of ancient modes of representation—arises from a translatio in multiple registers: simultaneously migrations in space, transpositions in media and technique, and textual and figurative translation from one culture to another. The mapping of these transfers presupposes a mechanism of remediation able to make visible the stability and variations of that which, like the “pathos formulae” (Pathosformeln), have been “translated” and thus transmitted. In order to understand the specific role that photographic reproduction plays in this complex, I propose here a case study of the iconography of Saturn as developed by Warburg in a 1913 slide-lecture on the migration of planetary images, and later, in 1926, after the opening of his new library, in his first exhibition of orientalized illustrations from astrology.

1. From Image to Image: transpositio

We cannot fully grasp Warburg’s concept of a “posthumous life” of antique representations until we become familiar with the unique organization of his library, and the media mechanisms established therein. [End Page 129] Beginning in the 1920s, the library’s activities included experimental ways of classifying unpublished images, new kinds of slide-lectures, exhibitions commented upon orally by their organizer, as well as a policy of publication.

In the library, the place accorded to visual documents was paramount. By the time of Warburg’s death in 1929, the Photosammlung, the section of the library devoted to photographs, included 25,000 examples. Remarkably, from its very beginning, this photo library was not organized thematically, but primarily classified in “the Italian mode,” by topography and by medium, as in “Florentine Sculpture,” “Mantuan Engravings” or “Flemish Tapestries.” In other words, the guiding principles of archiving in Warburg’s library attached images first to their place of origin and their medium. This was a way of saying that reproductions must be anchored in a physical space. This system was then refined according to the function of the image, whether autonomous, illustrative, religious, scientific or festive (according to the categories Bild, Wort und Bild, Orientierung und Bild, and Handlung und Bild). The library was reclassified again in 1933 when it was dismantled and moved from Hamburg to London (Mazzucco 868).

The attention given to the images’ place of origin demonstrates the importance of the concept of Wanderstrasse or the “migratory paths” of images. (Warburg also used the term Bilderwanderung—“migration of images,” as one speaks of Völkerwanderung, the migration of peoples.) Thus we can understand that Warburg’s construction of Wanderkarten (maps of the transfers of images through space and time) was the foundation of his project of reconstructing the forms of the “afterlife” of pagan antiquity. Likewise, this is why the techniques of reproduction were at the heart of his enterprise of following this transmission over the centuries. Whether it was a wax imprint, a coin, a xylography, an engraving, a printed stamp or a photographic print (in other words, all “imprinted” objects), for Warburg, “reproduction” seems to have been the very condition for the “production” of the new, unique, work of art. Photography, which at the time was profoundly changing the...


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pp. 129-150
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