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Books: How Warburg helped to invent the exhibition—and the curator

The art historian’s collected writings include an illuminating essay drawn from his dazzling, lengthy lectures

Only in the past few years has the role of the exhibition curator come under scrutiny. Nevertheless, the curator is not an invention of our modern age. Aby Warburg (1866-1929) was one of the first to raise the medium of exhibitions to an art form. Warburg not only turned iconology into a science (which, with the passage of time, came to supersede accepted methods of visual analysis), he also made the investigation of images—whether or not they could be considered “art”—the focal point of his work. Moreover, he recognised the exhibition as an extraordinarily effective means of communication.

For several decades, Warburg’s writings have enjoyed growing popularity among art historians, so it is surprising that, until now, there has not been any comprehensive research into Warburg’s exhibition-design endeavours. Part two of the second volume of his collected writings includes “Picture Series and Exhibitions”, an essay covering similar ground to Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas. Due to Warburg's death in 1929 the Atlas remained unfinished. It was published 13 years ago and is now in its fourth reprint. Warburg focuses on picture panels, as he did in his unfinished magnum opus, which brought together images on a wide variety of supports, ranging from woodcuts to postage stamps, to illustrate the central theme of his life’s work, the “migration” of symbols.

Unlike the Mnemosyne Atlas, the exhibitions organised by Aby Warburg, mainly at his own Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg (Warburg Library for Cultural Studies) in Hamburg, remain no more than a collection of fragments without their creator there to explain. Furthermore, the core of the text is drawn from the lectures he delivered, speaking for hours on end with barely a pause for breath, while the illustrations assume the role of exhibits requiring interpretation.

Uwe Fleckner, who lectures in the history of art at the University of Hamburg, has been involved in a remarkable variety of projects. For a number of years, he and his colleague Isabella Woldt have been working on the reconstruction of “Picture Series and Exhibitions”. In 1987, Fleckner had a stroke of luck that would have delighted Warburg. He came across a catalogue, hidden away in a storeroom in the Hamburg Planetarium, for “A Collection of Pictures on the History of Astrology and Astronomy”, the permanent exhibition Warburg created for the newly opened planetarium. He finished his preparations for the exhibition shortly before his sudden death in 1929. Astonishingly, the catalogue remained untouched until 1941, two years into the Second World War. After the war, the exhibition was revived, but sorting through the picture panels shown in the catalogue could only be done gradually. Fortunately, however, not one had been destroyed.

The astronomy show was the only permanent exhibition Warburg ever mounted and was not designed to accompany a lecture. All other picture series must be seen in the context of Warburg’s commentaries, in which he displayed his rhetorical skill, his extraordinary ability to make connections and his ready wit. Everything was stored in his head; he used his lecture notes only as a cue, as a starting point from which to extemporise. Commenting on a surviving fragment of a lecture on “Roman antiquities in the studio of Domenico Ghirlandaio”, with which Warburg dazzled his audience in the Bibliotheca Hertziana in Rome, Fleckner writes that one must assume that the lecture in question was one of Warburg’s “largely improvised talks lasting for hours”.

It was in Rome in 1929—in the Palace Hotel, where he lived for several months—that Warburg put together his picture series “Manet and Italian Antiquity”, designed to underline the way in which the imagery of the Classical world survived into the modern age. Warburg’s intense interest in his own era during his later years can clearly be seen in the 1927 picture series examining the role of the imagery of postage stamps in the exchange of ideas. According to the editors of the present volume, Warburg “was all too aware of the problems of an imageless democracy” and went so far as to introduce his own design for a stamp. Typically, to convey the thinking behind his airmail stamp, he chose the “modern motif of the aircraft”. Most of the stamps mounted on the picture panels draw on the traditional iconography of power and grandeur, occasionally taking images from Antiquity as examples.

The publication of this volume of Warburg’s collected writings is a great step forward. His original picture panels have been reconstructed using photographs or his own sketches, which are preserved in the archive of the Warburg Institute in London. Panel by panel, reproduction by reproduction, the editors have identified all the visual material in the 13 picture series created between 1925 and 1929. Warburg’s thought processes, the combination of seemingly unconnected images and the wide range of supports are more easily understood thanks to the book’s lavish and well chosen illustrations.

Aby Warburg was a great interpreter. Writing about his library not long before his death, he stated that the intention of his programme of picture series and lectures was “to guide people from the mythical and ephemeral towards what can be scientifically measured, so enabling them better to understand themselves and the cosmos”. He saw his work as a contribution to “the self-education of humankind”.

Aby Warburg, Bilderreihen und Ausstellungen. Gesammelte Schriften-Studienausgabe. Vol. II: 2. Uwe Fleckner and Isabella Woldt, eds. Akademie Verlag, 471pp, £125, €248 (hb); in German only

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'How Warburg helped to invent the exhibition—and the curator'