Life in pursuit of a paradox

The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity

September 1, 2000

Samuel Edgerton recalls the work of a prophetic connoisseur

Londoners readily recognise the Regency-style building housing the Warburg Institute on Woburn Square, but how many are aware of the origins of this institution and its unique library, one of the most remarkable in this nation if not the world? For those who would like to know more, the book under review will disclose much, but not all, about the life, times, thought and motivation of the founder, Aby Moritz Warburg (1866-1929), the scion of a wealthy Jewish banking family formerly resident in Hamburg, Germany.

As a young man, Warburg abjured from serving the family business and chose instead to pursue a career of private scholarship, devoting his own considerable fortune to the purchase of books on the visual arts and cultural heritage of western civilisation from classical antiquity through the Italian Renaissance. Fortunately, Warburg lived and died before Hitler's rise to power. Five years after Warburg's death, however, his heirs and colleagues, foreseeing that the magnificent library would soon be confiscated by the Nazis, succeeded in moving thousands of his books to London in 1933, and there re-established the institute that we know today.

Warburg never wrote a book himself, but rather expressed his influential ideas in dozens of articles, lectures and unpublished drafts and notes. In 1932, his faithful secretary, Gertrud Bing, gathered most of what had been previously printed (often in obscure journals) and republished them together in a two-volume, German-language edition generally referred to as Warburg's Gesammelte Schriften . Nearly 70 years passed before this seminal anthology was rendered into the language of the country that gave the author's legacy its ultimate home. At last these "collected writings", entitled The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity , are available in English, in a thick tome of nearly 900 pages containing both original volumes, subvented and published by the American Getty Foundation with a curious California-style cover that may lead some browsers to mistake it for an auto-parts catalogue. Nonetheless, in spite of the faddish format, David Britt, the chief translator, has done a splendid job in enlivening the text, transmuting Warburg's sometimes convoluted German into very readable English.

But why should modern English-speaking readers find these 37 essays, mostly written before 1920, still relevant enough to merit such a book (with an equally hefty purchase price), especially when all of Warburg's archival and image discoveries have long since been assumed and superseded by the likes of Ernst Cassirer, Edgar Wind, Erwin Panofsky and Sir Ernst Gombrich (to name but a few of his distinguished successors)? Moreover, Warburg was never regarded as a populariser, but rather a "scholar's scholar". As Kurt Forster observes with an apt oxymoron in his lengthy introduction to the present volume, Warburg remained "obscurely famous" for decades after his death, admired by only a small coterie of international art historians who could all read his erudite publications in German without need of expensive translations. The compelling reason for this present effort, however, is that popular interest in Warburg's posterity has suddenly and dramatically risen, particularly in Britain and America. One need only call up "Aby Warburg" on the internet to discover that some 1,300 websites have something timely to say about him. This renascent fascination, however, has not so much to do with his library legacy or even his published scholarship as such, but rather with his Nietzschean insights on the eve of Hitler and the Holocaust, disclosing how western civilisation, in spite of its apparent scientific and rational progress, never completely shed its irrational "primitive pagan" past.

Warburg's early education in late 19th-century Germany was pure "Apollonian" enlightenment, as Nietzsche would complain. Notwithstanding, Warburg rejected the current academic emphasis on aesthetics and connoisseurship in the study of art history, preferring instead to investigate pictorial images as revealing the life and times of their patrons and creators, the branch of art history later known as "iconology". Moreover, Warburg succumbed to the siren call of "dionysian" Italy, travelling to Florence to prepare for his dissertation, and there, like Gustav von Aschenbach, the tragic hero of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice , fell fatally in love - not with an elusive, teasing Eros, but with an equally elusive and inscrutable masterpiece of Renaissance art, Sandro Botticelli's Birth of Venus . In this spellbinding painting, as well as the artist's companion work called Spring , Warburg observed a primal antithesis between the objectively rational forms of "modern" Renaissance illusionism and the artist's desire to include irrational, vestigial forms of ancient pagan rituals. Coming to terms with such a paradox, both in art and his own Judaeo-Christian cultural ambience was to become his lifelong obsession - exacerbating mysterious fits of depression that forced him eventually to seek treatment in a psychiatric hospital. The incongruous antithesis Warburg perceived in Botticelli's art was the subject of his dissertation (1893), and is the initial essay in the present book, setting the general theme of the essays that follow. These are grouped under six general headings: "Antiquity and Florentine bourgeois culture"; "Exchanges between Florentine and Flemish culture"; "Antiquity and modern life in Renaissance pageantry"; "Italian antiquity in Germany"; "The Olympian gods as astral daemons"; and "Occasional writings on public cultural issues".

Warburg was not merely concerned with great masterpieces of art, but sought the same evidence in coins, popular prints, even theatrical costumes, and, of course, verbal documents and contemporaneous literature. In one of his most interesting essays, Warburg revealed how Martin Luther, after vehemently condemning astrology as pagan apostasy, still tolerated his friends' frantic efforts to refigure his birthday in order to cast a more propitious horoscope.

What really impressed Warburg about the survival of the antique during the Renaissance was that the poets and painters evoking these images seemed to see them not as "plaster cast" replicas, but as animated beings, with wind-blown hair and fluttering draperies as if still alive and wafting through the mundane mortal world.

But another journey in 1895 to the "Wild West" of America, just after publishing his thesis, apparently confirmed this insight more securely in Warburg's mind. He travelled there in order to witness a still active "primitive pagan" society, the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico and Arizona oddly coexisting with the advanced technological culture of the eastern United States. Warburg never published a paper on this subject, and thus no essay was included in the original collected writings, nor in the new translation.

Nevertheless, he did make copious notes, even took dozens of priceless photos, and belatedly gave an illustrated lecture on his experience to friends and fellow patients at the Kreuzlingen Psychiatric Sanatorium in 1923. Not until 1938 did the Warburg Institute commission an English version of the Pueblo lecture, and it has recently been retranslated again with many of the original photographs plus an excellent commentary by Michael P. Steinberg (1995). While Warburg's American journey is discussed by Forster in his ample introduction, it is unfortunate, although understandable, that the lecture was not included in the present book. One must read it in full to understand why the Pueblo experience was so crucial.

While in the Hopi Indian village of Oraibi, Arizona, Warburg learned about the "snake dance" in which the Indians invoke the supernatural forces to bring them rain. To the Hopi, serpents and lightning are spirit alternates. By mimicking the writhing movement of serpents, the masked dancers provoke lightning which in turn cracks open the sky. What struck Warburg immediately was not only that "primitive pagans" in distant America still performed the same sort of serpent veneration once common among the pagan cults of Mediterranean antiquity, but that the real power of pagan symbols was in their animation. Here indeed was the psychological crux revealing why antique archetypes remained so imbedded in the western Renaissance imagination, not just because they were ideally proportioned forms, but also because they were still vestigially imbued with supernatural energy.

There has been much argument over whether Warburg regarded the Renaissance as the critical moment when humanity began to free itself from the shackles of such pagan superstition, and whether these vestiges retained enough of their ancient potency to undermine the progress of modern secular humanitarianism (as almost happened during the Nazi period).The essays in the present translation seem to support both of these interpretations. On the other hand, Warburg seems also to have nurtured a nostalgic affection for "primitive pagan" values, worrying that their irreverent replacement by modern technology was often culturally destructive. The concluding words of his Kreuzlingen lecture, in which he made a wry comparison between the Hopi snake dance and global electrification, reveal a precocious warning:

"Telegraph and telephone destroy the cosmos. Mythical and symbolic thinking strive to form spiritual bonds between humanity and the surrounding world, shaping distance into the space required for devotion and reflection: the distance undone by the instantaneous electric connection."

Samuel Y. Edgerton is professor of art history, Williams College, Massachusetts, United States.

The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity: Contributions to the Cultural History of the European Renaissance (Texts and Documents)

Author - Aby Warburg
ISBN - 0 89236 537 4
Publisher - Getty Trust Publications
Price - £57.50
Pages - 868
Translator - David Britt

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