Re-interpreting Aby Warburg: a 2013 conference in London on a 1905 lecture in Hamburg

Dürer and Warburg: Interpreting Antiquity took place on 22 and 23 November 2013 at the Courtauld and the Warburg Institutes

Christopher Wood and Peter Mack at the Warburg Institute

Christopher Wood and Peter Mack at the Warburg Institute

If Aby Warburg was obsessed with the unexpected eruption of ancient forms of extreme expression in Renaissance art and beyond, Christopher Wood is obsessed with the way in which such methodological innovations could prompt the recognition of the complex temporality of the work of art (see Anachronic Renaissance, 2010, co-authored with Alexander Nagel). In the keynote lecture delivered last Friday at the Warburg Institute, Wood paid his homage to Warburg in focusing on Dürer’s drawing The Death of Orpheus (1494).

Wood developed his argument around the concept of PATHOS and how in some cases, like sodomy,  “passions” can be crimes, or for renaissance humanists, educational practices. He proposed the term “wobble” to refer to the horizontal recombination, or to the continuous mythic substitutions happening within certain formulas, in order to overcome the polarities of artistic analysis – for instance, Apollonian and Dionysian. Instability in formulas of passions proves more productive than fixed meaning.

Albrecht Dürer, The Death of Orpheus, 1494

Albrecht Dürer, The Death of Orpheus, 1494

On Saturday, Marcus Hurttig reconstructed the history of that lecture and its parallel display, highlighting the difficult relationship between Warburg and Alfred Lichtwark, the first director of the Hamburger Kunsthalle. Most importantly, Hurttig’s paper compared the small display of originals organised for the conference to the bigger exhibition of about one hundred fac-similes plates that Warburg had assembled that same year at the Volksheim in Hamburg (this story was reconstructed in 2011 by Hurttig in an exhibition at the Hamburger Kunsthalle about Warburg’s previously unknown activity as a curator).

Thomas Schauerte’s close reading of two woodcuts from around 1494 (Ercules and The knight and the Lansquenet) was very traditional in its method, but it successfully posed the question of the use of contemporary sources in Dürer’s early years; Porras’ paper on The Death of Orpheus focused on the inscriptions and on technique, providing a reading of the social context of production of , and on the artist’s ambitions.

The biological and neurological foundations of Warburg’s pathosformel were the basis of David Freedberg’s lecture. Experiments on the mirror system, whose function in aiding perception is subject to speculation, shows for Freedberg the empirical and scientific basis of Warburg’s Pathosformel. When the viewer lays his eyes upon the depiction of an upraised arm, a bended knee or an open palm, his brain begins the process of enacting these gestures.  Once self-awareness intrudes and the viewer realizes that they do not need to make these gestures themselves, then we are opened up to the opportunity for self-reflection and aesthetic judgment.  By extension, Dr. Freeberg’s research helps us to appreciate the timeless and universal claims of Warburg’s analysis of the function of gestures for, by virtue of scientific evidence, such empathetical and neurological reactions to art are a part of our intrinsic, internal wiring.

Panel discussion at the Courtauld Institute

Panel discussion at the Courtauld Institute

Philipp Ekardt provided a survey of art historical reactions to the story of the discovery of the Laocoon statue in 1506, and then offered a succinct introduction to the methodological subtleties that distinguish Warburg’s analysis of this famous statuary masterpiece.  In particular, he highlighted pathosformel‘s methdological capacity to focus on individual passages within the work of art, free from the context of the work overall.

As the first scholar to catalogue Panofsky’s personal correspondence, Dieter Wuttke has had unique access to his thoughts and hopes; he provided an intimate and sentimental portrait of the relationship between Panofsky and Warburg.  It was thus a remarkable opportunity to hear his retelling of the collegiality, if not friendship, between Panofsky and Warburg.  As the speaker pointed out, this relationship may come to us as a surprise given the fundamental differences between the corresponding methodologies and bodies of work of these two giants.  Nevertheless, the first-hand accounts that Wuttke cited cannot deny the degree of interaction between them, ranging from their first visit in 1915 when Panofsky and a group of students went to on a field-trip to visit Warburg, to their life-long correspondence and many evenings spent in discussion, to Panofsky’s election as director of the Warburg Institute.

Conceived by Courtauld curator Stephanie Buck and Warburg’s archivist Claudia Wedepohl as a contemporary parallel to the lecture delivered by Aby Warburg in Hamburg on 5 October 1905 and titled ‘Dürer and Italian Antiquity’ (Dürer und die italienische Antike), this conference was also a complement to the Courtauld’s current exhibition The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure and especially to its smaller sister-display Antiquity Unleashed: Aby Warburg, Dürer and Mantegna. In the latter, visitors can see the same original works Aby Warburg had borrowed from the Hamburger Kunsthalle to illustrate the argument of his lecture more than one hundred years ago.

The Books that Shaped Art History (Book Launch, 31st October 2013)

Last night the Research Forum was celebrating  the release of Thames and Hudson’s The Books that Shaped Art History, a collection of sixteen essays by eminent art historians on seminal publications from within our still anxiously young discipline. Chaired by former director of the Courtauld, the infinitely amiable Eric Fernie, the session invited three of the authors to reflect on their pieces in a packed Kenneth Clark lecture theatre.

John-Paul StonhardJohn-Paul Stonhard both authored the essay on Clark’s The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art and was co-editor of the whole publication with Richard Shone. Shone had composed a list of seminal books in 2007, which subsequently disappeared. This “lost list”, generated much fascination in the audience but as much that was revealed was that it had one book in common with the final (Fry’s Cézanne), but mostly the authors were the same. A helpful paraphrase of Gombrich: “There is no art history, only art historians” recognised how much personality dominated this evening. Clark was embodied by his own concept of the Nude; “balanced and prosperous”, and there was little escaping the ghosts of these figures this All Hallows Eve.

Susie NashLooming over Susie Nash was the spirit of Erwin Panofsky, grasping his Early Netherlandish Painting.  His book is an enormous achievement, a synthesis of material and ideas into a seemingly  impregnable fortress of apparatus, and perhaps this almost Biblical authority it seemed to exude led to antagonism towards it when Susie herself was a student. Yet  it was also Panofsky’s relationship with the object that seems remarkable within current methods of art historical interrogation. For Panofsky, the back of a painting rarely meant evidence for its provenance and manufacture, because most often it was the matte reverse of a glossy photograph. His book was written almost entirely surrounded by reproductions, often black and white, and this is evident in his text where occasionally he clearly has no idea what colour a painting was.


Paul HillsPaul Hills had a much more portable tome to review, with no footnotes at all. Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in Pictorial Style is often seen as the Rough Guide to Social Art History, yet Paul did remind us of its oft-forgotten subtitle showing that the inherent Form of paintings was still central to the investigation. Paul was the closest of all to his author, which allowed for a personal insight into its original context. Baxandall perhaps meant it as a challenge to the Courtauld, but in fact it was its sister institution the Warburg which was greater perturbed by his concept of “Period Eye”, seeing it as a redressing of the hoary old zeitgeist.


Inevitably, the thoughts at the end of this evening was if the presenters would be reviewed in “More Books that Shaped Art History”, who in the audience who would be considered for “Even More Books that Shaped Art History”, and the undergraduates in the Halloween Party downstairs who might make it into “Oh no! Not more books that Shaped Art History”.