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Common Knowledge 9.2 (2003) 273-285

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Artistic Survival
Panofsky vs. Warburg and the Exorcism of Impure Time

Georges Didi-Huberman
Translated by Vivian Rehberg and Boris Belay

"Survival" is the central concept, the Hauptproblem, of Aby Warburg and the Warburgian school of art history. In Warburg's work, the term Nachleben refers to the survival (the continuity or afterlife and metamorphosis) of images and motifs—as opposed to their renascence after extinction or, conversely, their replacement by innovations in image and motif. Almost every section of Warburg's Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek opens with a collection of documents related to artistic survivals, the concept was so fundamental to the structure of his thinking. Formed within the context of Renaissance studies—a field associated by definition with revival and innovation—Warburg's concept of survival assumed a temporal model for art history radically different from any employed at the time. He thereby introduced the problem of memory into the longue durée of the history of motifs and images: a problem that (as Warburg himself observed) transcends turning points in historiography and boundaries between cultures.

Warburg's idea of afterlife or survival differed widely even from that of Anton Springer. Warburg's model presupposed a way—a decidedly anthropological way—of envisaging the historicity of culture. At this level, Warburg was [End Page 273] extending Jacob Burckhardt's analyses and renewing the value of Burckhardtian dialectical notions like "history and type," "form and force," "latencies and crises." On the other hand, Warburg's model suggested a new way—a decidedly archaeological way—of representing the anthropological field of images. And at this level, Warburg was extending Edward B. Tylor's analyses, finding value in donors' testaments, genealogical trees, astrological themes, the borrowings of High Art from artisanal techniques—features of culture entirely neglected by any history of art founded on aesthetics. Warburg's revolution was aimed at art history of the kinds represented by Vasari and Wincklemann. Time conceived as a succession of direct relationships ("influences") or conceived in the positivist way as a succession of facts had no appeal for Warburg. Instead he pursued, as a counterpoint or counterrhythm to influence and fact and chronology, a ghostly and symptomatic time. Ghirlandaio's portraits belong, of course, to the chronological time of quattrocento art—they fall within the rubric of modern art in the Vasarian sense—but for Warburg, those paintings are incomprehensible until the anachronistic time of the survivals they embody or incorporate is elucidated. Warburg found Etruscan and even (via the votive effigies of the Santissima Annunziata) medieval survivals in the Sassetti Chapel frescoes: their "revivalist" contemporaneity—their participation in the Renaissance—was haunted and belied by these spectral memories. Such was, briefly summarized, the first lesson of Warburg's Nachleben.

Was the lesson understood? Conclusively understood, I would say, by some; but by the mainstream, definitively not. And in the most crucial instances, procedures more intricate, problematic, and covertly hostile than understanding or misunderstanding have pertained.

History of the Wax Portrait, published in 1911 by Julius von Schlosser, borrowed its vocabulary from Schlosser's friend Aby Warburg (though also directly from Edward Tylor) 1 and demonstrated that "afterlife" offered the only route to understanding the most peculiar aspect of wax sculpture: its long duration, its resistance to the history of styles, its capacity to survive without exhibiting significant evolution. 2 The history of images, in Schlosser's sense, is in no way a "natural history" but instead an elaboration and a methodological construction; that his history escapes the laws of conventional evolutionism tends to justify his trenchant critique, at the close of the book, of Vasarian teleological pretensions. 3 [End Page 274] Presumably Schlosser, through modesty rather than ignorance, left undeveloped a few theoretical problems inherent to survival as a model. 4 Nevertheless, an idea of considerable significance began to take shape in his book: Whereas art has a history, images have survivals—survivals that discredit them, banish them from the sphere of accredited high art. In return, the history of artistic...


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