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Memory, Metaphor, and Aby Warburg's Atlas of Images

by Christopher D. Johnson

Publication Year: 2012

The work of German cultural theorist and art historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929) has had a lasting effect on how we think about images. This book is the first in English to focus on his last project, the encyclopedic Atlas of Images: Mnemosyne. Begun in earnest in 1927, and left unfinished at the time of Warburg's death in 1929, the Atlas consisted of sixty-three large wooden panels covered with black cloth. On these panels Warburg carefully, intuitively arranged some thousand black-and-white photographs of classical and Renaissance art objects, as well as of astrological and astronomical images ranging from ancient Babylon to Weimar Germany. Here and there, he also included maps, manuscript pages, and contemporary images taken from newspapers. Trying through these constellations of images to make visible the many polarities that fueled antiquity's afterlife, Warburg envisioned the Atlas as a vital form of metaphoric thought.

While the nondiscursive, frequently digressive character of the Atlas complicates any linear narrative of its themes and contents, Christopher D. Johnson traces several thematic sequences in the panels. By drawing on Warburg's published and unpublished writings and by attending to Warburg's cardinal idea that "pathos formulas" structure the West's cultural memory, Johnson maps numerous tensions between word and image in the Atlas. In addition to examining the work itself, he considers the literary, philosophical, and intellectual-historical implications of the Atlas. As Johnson demonstrates, the Atlas is not simply the culmination of Warburg's lifelong study of Renaissance culture but the ultimate expression of his now literal, now metaphoric search for syncretic solutions to the urgent problems posed by the history of art and culture.

Published by: Cornell University Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-9

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pp. ix-xiii

Before us lies a black and white photograph of twenty-four photographic reproductions (see fig. 5). Varying in size, the images are arranged in five uneven rows, provisionally mounted on mats, and fastened more provisionally still to a black background. Although they lack captions, and their styles vary considerably, the...

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pp. xv-19

I would like to thank Daniel Albright, Christopher Braider, Thomas Connolly, John Hamilton, Judith Ryan, Peter Sachs, Daniel Selcer, Henri Zerner, and the two anonymous readers for Cornell University Press for their insights on how I might make this a better book. Björn Kühnicke, Eckart Marchand, and Brady Bowman...

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1. Atlas Gazed: Mnemosyne—Its Origins, Motives, and Scope

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pp. 1-42

Mnemosyne mater musarum. Mnemosyne, mother of the Muses. Mnemosyne, who personifies memory, whose pool in Hades complements Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. Mnemosyne, who, as Friedrich Hölderlin writes in the first strophe of his gnomic hymn “Mnemosyne” (ca. 1803), allows “the true” to occur despite, or perhaps...

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2. Ad oculos: Ways of Seeing, Reading, and Collecting

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pp. 43-69

The eclecticism encountered in the previous chapter—the history of cosmology, Hopi ritual, Ovidian metamorphosis, and so on—would seem to discourage any attempt to tie Warburg to a single period or method. Nevertheless, there are good reasons for doing so. Warburg roots his Kulturwissenschaft in the Renaissance. And...

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3. Metaphor Lost and Found in Mnemosyne

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pp. 70-109

Warburg gave a lecture titled “Die römische Antike in der Werkstatt Ghirlandaios” at the Biblioteca Hertziana in Rome on January 19, 1929. A barely disguised exposition of the ideas and methods informing Mnemosyne, the lecture was supported by a sequence of nine panels, containing some 230 photographs, which...

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4. Translating the Symbol: Warburg and Cassirer

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pp. 110-140

It bears repeating: Mnemosyne is largely divorced from iconology as practiced by Warburg’s chief successors, who turn rather to his earlier work for their methodological inspiration.1 Briefly put, iconology aims to explicate the significance of an individual artwork through the interpretation of the symbolic values attached to...

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5. Metaphorologies: Nietzsche, Blumenberg, and Hegel

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pp. 141-169

As he tried to widen the scope and refine the method of his Kulturwissenschaft, Warburg wrestled with giants whose historiographies had shaped the fields he hoped to map. To begin with, there was J. J. Winckelmann (1717–56), whose neo-Stoic, decidedly aesthetic interpretations of Greek culture and its imitators found...

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6. Exemplary Figures and Diagrammatic Thought

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pp. 170-193

To illustrate better the motives, methods, and rhythms of Mnemosyne, but especially to chart more exactly its metaphoric logic, I want to turn again to the period after Warburg emerged from the sanatorium. Besides reimmersing himself in the cosmographical material that yielded, just before his breakdown, the magisterial...

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7. Synderesis: The “Bruno-Reise”

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pp. 194-229

Warburg and Bing sojourned in Italy from late September 1928 until June 1929. Their main goal was originally to collect material to supplement the ever-mutating Bilderatlas, which, when they left Hamburg, consisted of eighty panels and some 1,300 images.1 Another motive for the journey was Warburg’s desire to introduce...


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pp. 231-259


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pp. 261-272


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pp. 273-286

E-ISBN-13: 9780801464065
E-ISBN-10: 0801464064
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801477423
Print-ISBN-10: 0801477425

Page Count: 286
Publication Year: 2012

Edition: 1