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 Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure (The Courtauld Gallery)

Research Rhythms contributor Niccola Shearman giving her free lecture at a late opening

Research Rhythms contributor Niccola Shearman giving a free lecture at a Dürer late

The Courtauld’s latest exhibition offers a glimpse into the formative years of an irrefutable giant of the German Renaissance. Centring on Dürer’s so-called Wanderjahre, something akin to an extended gap year, it tracks Dürer’s four-yearlong travels in the Upper Rhineland and possibly also to Italy. But this isn’t a one-man show. Instead, through a collection of rarely-exhibited works on paper, the focus is on Dürer as a product of the artistic influences he encountered as a young man.

Martin Schongauer, A Foolish Virgin, 1478 © Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

Martin Schongauer, A Foolish Virgin, 1478
© Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

Throughout, works by the young artist hang alongside a range of works by elder masters who Dürer came across on his travels, either in person or through their work. Particular (and well-merited) prominence is given to Martin Schongauer, who Dürer never met but greatly admired. His ten engravings showing Five Wise and Five Foolish Virgins are enchanting.

At the crux of the exhibition is the Courtauld’s double-sided drawing A Wise Virgin and Dürer’s left leg from two angles. This work – one side beautifully finished, the other hastily sketched – is presented as a symbol of the two strands of the young Dürer’s artistic practice: a new emotional intensity in figure drawing and the sustained scrutiny of his own body. This lively union of experimentation and expressiveness also appears in a sketch of the Virgin and Child, where the artist’s own hands hover above the figures’ heads. In a self-portrait, Dürer seems to probe the limits of his ability with a daring frontal angle and his cheek resting in his palm, while a swiftly executed image of his young wife inscribed with the words “Mein Agnes” offers a rare and intimate snapshot into his domestic life.

Albrecht Dürer Self-portrait (verso) c. 1491-92 © Graphische Sammlung der Universität, Erlangen

Albrecht Dürer
Self-portrait (verso) c. 1491-92
© Graphische Sammlung der Universität, Erlangen

Other drawings, like the Three studies of Dürer’s left hand, are highly finished and elegantly arranged. Such works seem anticipate an audience. This awareness of his viewer, as well as his excellent draughtsmanship, would help Dürer to become the master printmaker for which he achieved lasting fame. The important relationship between drawing and engraving is neatly illustrated by the Prodigal Son print hanging alongside its rare preparatory sketch.

The display in the second room suggests the curators’ conviction that Dürer did cross the Alps into Italy, a matter of on-going debate. Evidence of Dürer using Italian sources appears in an engraving of Philosophy displayed alongside Dürer’s drawn copy. The remarkable Men’s Bath is an example of Dürer’s stunning technical ability in woodcut even at this young age. In comparison, the woodcut from his master’s workshop hanging nearby seems almost course and stiff.

Albrecht Dürer Three studies of the artist’s left hand (recto), c. 1493-94 © Albertina, Vienna

Albrecht Dürer
Three studies of the artist’s left hand (recto), c. 1493-94
© Albertina, Vienna

Though not officially part of the exhibition, a small accompanying display warrants mention. This room recreates a famous lecture delivered by the influential cultural theorist, Aby Warburg, entitled “Dürer and Italian Antiquity” (1905). Tackling the challenge of staging the lecture in exhibition format is commendable, though it has only partial success. Without prior knowledge of the lecture, the cohesion of this room remains somewhat obscure. On display, however, are some of the finest engravings by Italian masters of the early Renaissances alongside some of Dürer’s most exquisite drawings and prints including the Death of Orpheus, Melancholia I and Nemesis. So all scholarly history aside, visually speaking this room is a joy and must not be missed.

The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure is at the Courtauld Gallery until 12th January 2014

Laura Llewellyn is a PhD student at the Courtauld