Aby Warburg‘s Mnemosyne Atlas
Thinking with pictures

Exhibition view ZKM | Zentrum für Kunst und Medien
Exhibition view ZKM | Zentrum für Kunst und Medien | Photo ©: ONUK

In 1924 Aby Warburg began his picture atlas „Mnemosyne“ – he, his method and its use in visual studies stood fairly alone. Working with photographs was by no means a matter.

Warburg stapled some 1,000 prints onto panels lined with black cloth. The last version of the Mnemosyne atlas contained sixty-three panels of 170 by 140 cm. These were to be published in such a way that all the details of the illustrations remained visible.

  • Aby Warburg, Panel 37 of Mnemosyne Atlas, historical picture of the original © Warburg Institute, London
    Aby Warburg, Panel 37 of Mnemosyne Atlas, historical picture of the original
  • Faun, fighting a snake, School Andrea Mantegna, about 1490–1550 © Warburg Institute, London
    Faun, fighting a snake, School Andrea Mantegna, about 1490–1550
  • Panel Linda Fregni-Nagler Photo: 8. Salon
    Panel Linda Fregni-Nagler
  • Painel Andy Hope 1930 Foto: 8° Salão
    Painel Andy Hope 1930
  • Panel Olaf Metzel Photo: 8. Salon
    Panel Olaf Metzel
  • Exhibition view ZKM | Zentrum für Kunst und Medien Foto ©: ONUK
    Exhibition view ZKM | Zentrum für Kunst und Medien
Today, such arrangements of pictures are commonplace. These panels are called “mood boards” and find use as real illustrated books or as virtual collections on the Net in all possible areas of professional and private life. They help in gathering ideas and illustrating presentations while always remaining flexible.

On the occasion of the 150th birthday of Aby Warburg, the ZKM in Karlsruhe showed a complete reconstruction of his Mnemosyne picture atlas, annotated, updated and supplemented by thirteen positions by contemporary artists.

Ghost stories for adults

“The travel maid in the flyer is a bedraggled nymph, as the sailor is a Nike”, Warburg noted in diary in 1929 about the survival of gestures and motifs from antiquity whose use continued in the commercial art of the 1920s. He wanted to show how the motifs of antiquity, via the detour of the orient, survived into the Renaissance and beyond. To this end, he used reproductions of painting, graphics and sculpture and evidence from the applied arts such as carpets, genealogical tables, photographs and advertisements. He called his atlas of pictures “ghost stories for adults”.

Several proposals for possible subtitles of the sprawling work are found in Warburg’s notes, each more complicated than the other. This illustrates as much the complexity of the material as the difficulty of capturing it in words. The compilation of pictures on the individual panels, on the other hand, can bridge centuries, if not millennia, cogently and without words. As Warburg’s notes show, with the exception of an introductory text and a few explanations, the planned publication was also to lose few words on its subject.

The “Mnemosyne” myth

In spite of the efforts of a close circle of scholars working with Warburg, the atlas was never completed and not published after his death. The present exhibition presents its last version in reconstructed form. In addition, the provenance of almost all the individual photographs is identified.

The Mnemosyne Research Group, consisting mainly of artists, has been working with Warburg’s atlas for four years. They meet regularly at the 8. Salon in Hamburg to “combine art and theory, production and research, in practical experiments”. For the exhibition at the ZKM, all sixty-three of the panels were reconstructed in their original dimensions, two with the original pictorial material. This the first time that the research group has presented its work with and on the atlas for discussion in a broader context. In the exhibition, Warburg’s version remains intact; comments, explanations and recommendations for interpreting the panels are contained in a series of booklets entitled Baustelle (Construction Site). Supplementary to this, thirteen artists, including Olaf Metzel, Paul McCarthy and Peter Weibel, were invited to create their own panels in the original format. They show how artistic work can function exactly like the visualisation of scholarly research.

After 100 years, Warburg’s work remains unfinished, open for anyone who would like to think it further. This makes it interesting not only for art history and visual studies, but also for artists. Today it is less a matter of deciphering Warburg’s Mnemosyne atlas by giving directions for how to see the individual panels than seeing them as an invitation to visualise complex reflections about images.

Perhaps it was because of the “reverent reserve” of the circle around him, as H. Gombrich observed in his biography of Warburg, that the Mnemosyne project could be brought to an end. Warburg’s approach to this vast subject and the method he employed to study it seem very individual, almost private. And perhaps it is just the thought of this scholar, openly and insightfully presented here, that still fascinates and inspires today.

Abraham Moritz “Aby“ Warburg (1866–1929) was the son of a family of Hamburg bankers. He relinquished his right as first-born to take over the bank to his younger brother, on the condition that the family would buy him every book he needed for the rest of his life. The condition was accepted. Warburg studied art history at the Universities of Bonn, Munich, Strasbourg and Florence, and took his doctorate with a dissertation on the painting of the Italian Renaissance and the artist Sandro Botticelli. After travels in the United States and a long stay in Florence, he began the systematic development of the Warburg Library of Cultural Sciences (Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg / K.B.W.) in Hamburg in 1902. Due to a mental illness, he spent several years in a Swiss clinic. He then began his last project, the Mnemosyne atlas, which because of his sudden death remained unfinished. Aby Warburg is regarded as the father of modern visual studies. His library, which at the time of his death comprised some 60,000 volumes, was relocated to London in 1933 and is today part of the University of London.