A Thousand Warburgs
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A Thousand Warburgs
ABSTRACT:

A review essay of recent literature in the field of Warburg studies.

KEY WORDS:

Aby Warburg, Erwin Panofsky, Ernst Cassirer, modern German intellectual history, art history, art theory, ornament, metaphor

Ninfe
by Giorgio Agamben
Bollati Boringhieri, 2007, 57p., €8.
Nymph: Motif, Phantom, Affect. A Contribution to the Study of Aby Warburg
by Barbara Baert
Peeters, 2014, 134p., ill., €34.
Warburg, Cassirer, und Einstein im Gespräch: Kepler als Schlüssel der Moderne
by Horst Bredekamp and Claudia Wedepohl
Wagenbach, 2015, 112p., ill., €22.90.
Ninfa moderna: Essai sur le drapé tombé
by Georges Didi-Huberman
Gallimard, 2002, 192p., ill., €24.40.
Memory, Metaphor, and Aby Warburg’s Atlas of Images
by Christopher Johnson
Cornell University Press, 2012, 288p., ill., €35.
Dreamland of Humanists: Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky, and the Hamburg School
by Emily Levine
University of Chicago Press, 2013, 464p., ill., €48.
Die Gestaltungsprincipien Michelangelos, besonders in ihrem Verhältnis zu denen Raffaels
by Erwin Panofsky
De Gruyter, 2014, 283p., ill., €109.95.
On the Animation of the Inorganic: Art, Architecture, and the Extension of Life
by Spyros Papapetros
University of Chicago Press, 2012, 398p., ill., €58.
Warburgs Denkraum: Formen, Motive, Materialien
edited by Martin Treml, Sabine Flach, and Pablo Schneider
BollatiBoringhieri, 2007, 57p., ill., €8.

If we find that our accounts of an honored, pensioned-off, and then rediscovered intellectual figure are not tending toward consensus, should we consider this a problem? Certainly, some will look for signs of agreement, some intersubjectively emergent bedrock beyond “the vagaries of me and you.” What alternatives are there for those who see coincidence of opinion as only one of several legitimate goals for inquiry? Are there alternatives to the dread option where all we can say is that readers find the text they need? Perhaps one might simply say that “an origin” is a philologically specifiable constellation that brings into focus not one but many potential trajectories. The origin, then, is not some absolute terminus ab quo, before which nothing. Its function as an origin is not to put in motion one determinate and traceable process. The origin, we might alternatively propose, is defined not by its past but by its futures. It is defined by the multiplicity of its various future histories. The true origin is the point to which people keep returning in order to find new variations. Underdetermined, disheveled, recombinable—the origin is a constellation of potentials. Aby Warburg is an origin of this kind. And here is the core claim of this review essay: the more Warburgs we have, the stronger we are.

To an unusual degree, Aby Warburg (1866–1929) remains intellectually alive today. In addition to being deemed theoretically fertile, he has remained an institutional force—in two senses, one disciplinary and one interdisciplinary. Historians of art continue to think of Warburg as one of the founders of the modern field. Taking art historical inquiry beyond connoisseurship, he emphasized the cultural contexts around art objects and articulated commitments that made an anthropology of art appear possible. The eldest son of a Hamburg banking family who decided that his [End Page 646] interests were more essentially scholarly, Warburg also established the famous Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg. That library was moved from Hamburg to London in 1933 and became what is now the Warburg Institute, which remains one of the premier centers in the world for Renaissance Studies. More than that, however, the Warburg is also something like a model (or, perhaps, “icon”) for an interdisciplinary entrepo^t combining extreme philological scruple and occasionally quite daring theoretical presuppositions.

The last decade or so has seen a flourishing of Warburg-related or -inspired work, and this review essay grapples with some of the most interesting initiatives. Those initiatives are, in turn, built upon an earlier scholarly literature that began in earnest with the publication of Ernst Gombrich’s intellectual biography in 1970. That work was controversial. Gombrich was himself a significant figure in the field, and he had his own sense of what art history was and how it should be done. His use of unpublished material incensed some, but he displayed enough of the archival record both to impress many readers and simultaneously...


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