At first, the library of the Warburg Institute, in London, seems and smells like any other university library: four floors of fluorescent lights and steel shelves, with the damp, weedy aroma of aging books everywhere, and sudden apparitions of graduate students wearing that look, at once brightly keen and infinitely discouraged, eternally shared by graduate students, whether the old kind, with suède elbow patches, or the new kind, with many piercings.
Only as the visitor begins to study the collections does the oddity of the place appear. In the range-finder plates mounted on the shelves, where in a normal library one would expect to see “Spanish Literature, Sixteenth Century” or “Biography, American: E663-664,” there are, instead, signs pointing toward “Magic Mirrors” and “Amulets” and “The Evil Eye.” Long shelves of original medieval astrology hug texts on modern astronomy. The section on “Modern Philosophy” includes volume after volume of Nietzsche and half a shelf of Hume. The open stacks—exceptional in any gathering of irreplaceable books—are, in the European scheme of things, almost unknown. In the Bibliothèque Nationale, in Paris, the aim seems to be to keep as many books as possible safely out of the hands of people who might want to read them. In the Warburg Library, the books are available to be thumbed through at will.
History is here, ancient and local. An old edition of Epictetus, opened, turns out to bear the bookplate, complete with glaring owl, of E. H. Gombrich, perhaps the most important of modern art historians, who directed the Warburg Institute in its high period, in the nineteen-sixties. Beside each elevator bank, a chart displaying, in capital letters, the library’s curious organization helps guide the bewildered student: “FIRST FLOOR: IMAGE,” “SECOND FLOOR: WORD,” up to “FOURTH FLOOR: ACTION-ORIENTATION,” with “ACTION” comprising “Cultural and Political History,” and “ORIENTATION” “Magic and Science.” Mounted in the stairwells are uncanny black-and-white photographic collages of a single female type—a woman dancing in flowing drapery—that is seen in many forms, from classical friezes to Renaissance painting.
It is a library like no other in Europe—in its cross-disciplinary reference, its peculiarities, its originality, its strange depths and unexpected shallows. Magic and science, evil eyes and saints’ lives: these things repose side by side in a labyrinth of imagery and icons and memory. Dan Brown’s hero Robert Langdon supposedly teaches “symbology” at Harvard. There is no such field, but if there were, and if Professor Langdon wanted to study it before making love to mysterious Frenchwomen and nimbly avoiding Opus Dei hit men, this is where he would come to study.
Begun at the start of the last century, in Hamburg, by Aby Warburg, a wealthy banker’s son, the Warburg Library has been often expanded, but the original vision has never really been altered. It is a vast and expensive institution, devoted to a system of ideas that, however fascinating, are also in some dated ways faddish, and in some small ways foolish. Warburg, who died in 1929, spent part of his adult life in and out of mental hospitals—at one point, he lived in fear that he was being daily served human flesh. Yet he was the spirit behind the “iconographic studies” that dominated art history for most of the second half of the twentieth century—the man who reoriented the scholarly study of art from a discipline devoted essentially to saying who had painted what pictures when to one asking what all the little weird bits and pieces within the pictures might have meant in their time.
In the past several years, the Warburg’s future has been fiercely contested. It is in some senses a small and parochial struggle, right out of Trollope’s Barchester novels, and in others about something very big—about the future of private visions within public institutions, about what memory is and what we owe it, about how to tell when an original vision has become merely an eccentric one. It is the tale that has been told, in another key, about moving the Barnes Foundation from Merion to Philadelphia, and about expanding the Frick Collection, in New York. The question is what we owe the past’s past, what we owe the institutions that have shaped our view of how history happened, when contemporary history is happening to them.
The fight over the future of the Warburg Institute came to a climax in the past few months, but it started seven years ago, when the Warburg Institute and then the University of London began to seek legal counsel in order to clarify the terms of the trust deed that, in 1944, as the Second World War raged, had brought the institute into the university. Last year, the university initiated a lawsuit, thinking to “converge” the Warburg’s books into its larger library system, and to continue charging the Warburg a very large fee for the use of its building. Warburg-shaped scholars sought to rally the academic community in the pages of journals and on humanities Listservs. “If the university’s plans succeed,” the Princeton historian Anthony Grafton and the Harvard art historian Jeffrey Hamburger wrote, in The New York Review of Books, “the institute will have to abandon Warburg’s fundamental principles, lose control of its own books and periodicals (many of them acquired by gift or by the expenditure of the institute’s endowments), and shed, over time, the distinguished staff of scholars and scholar-librarians who train its students and continue to shape its holdings. . . . A center of European culture and a repository of the Western tradition that escaped Hitler and survived the Blitz may finally be destroyed by British bean counters.”
After smoldering within academia, the affair was ignited in public by a petition launched by an American Ph.D. student at University College London named Brooke Palmieri, a Warburg visitor who had come to London first to work in the rare-book trade, then to write a thesis on the pre-Pennsylvania Quakers. “I started the petition on Change.org last July,” she said recently, in that special lilting drawl of East Coast Americans long resident in London. “And within a couple of months it was just shy of twenty-five thousand signatures. It was an astonishing number for a library. But the Warburg has an amazingly vibrant intellectual history. I think what’s probably most interesting to me is that it runs on what they call ‘the law of the good neighbor’—it’s not based on what librarians alphabetically catalogue. Instead, it’s catalogued according to themes. The methodology of serendipity is what it’s all about, and the methodology of serendipity is responsible for most great ideas.”
Visiting London last fall, I found that while many people were exercised about the future of the Warburg, and had much to say about the approaching judgment, what they offered was more complicated than a simple picture of philistine university administrators assaulting virtuous scholars. Some people had their mouths firmly shut: those within the institute by the pending decision; the historian Lisa Jardine, who is Palmieri’s thesis adviser, and who had at first been publicly passionate in protest, by the sudden possibility that she might, in an emergency, be called on to run the Warburg if it lost the case and had to rebuild.
Others could speak more freely. Over dinner with Charles Saumarez Smith, the chief executive of the Royal Academy of Arts, formerly the director of the National Gallery, and a Warburg Institute alumnus, certain things became clearer. The story of the library and its migration to London, at least, seemed simple enough: at the end of the nineteenth century, Aby Warburg, a scion of the Hamburg Jewish banking family, had fallen in love with Italy, and with the idea of the Florentine Renaissance as the great, gone, golden time. In formation he was more German than Jewish, having fled family Orthodoxy as a boy, and he had begun to construct a library devoted to the Italian Renaissance and then, more broadly, to the way that the classical past had migrated into Renaissance humanism and beyond, into European culture. (At the precocious age of thirteen, Aby made a deal with his brother Max: he would surrender his interest in the firm if Max would pay for all the books he wanted to buy.)
With the onset of Nazism, enemy to learning and to Jewish bankers both, the library, still staffed by Warburg’s disciples, looked elsewhere for a home. In 1933, it found one in London, where, after much last-minute maneuvering, the books, documents, furniture, and staff, including Fritz Saxl and Gertrud Bing, who had been Warburg’s most important collaborators, were all sent, finding space temporarily in Millbank and then, for twenty years, in South Kensington. Toward the end of the desperate war, the Warburg family, in a succinct document, deeded the collection permanently to the University of London, on condition that it be housed in a “suitable building in close proximity to the University” and kept intact.
Saumarez Smith tried to explain how the Warburg’s approach was different from the connoisseurship-based practice of conventional British art history. “It was the idea that art stood, and stands, for something more important and more fundamental than just the work of artists on their own,” he said. “This was the atmosphere of the Warburg Institute when it was in South Kensington. It was a cell of chain-smoking German scholars who stood entirely apart from the English academic establishment.”
Then, in 1958, Saumarez Smith noted, the Warburg was institutionalized in a grand building in Woburn Square. In some measure, it was victimized by its own influence. “When I was a postgraduate student, the Warburg still had, and it probably still has, considerable intellectual clout,” he observed, “but, as the rest of the scholarly world became more interdisciplinary and more Warburgian, the Warburg itself turned into a center for narrower Renaissance scholarship, believing in professional academic expertise and profoundly suspicious of newer scholarship.”
Even paranoids have enemies, as the saying goes, and even philistine university bureaucrats, it seems, do sometimes become reasonably exasperated by overprivileged and insulated academics. The word on the Barchester Street, so to speak, was that the reality of what was going on was more complicated than its representation in the popular press. The “convergence” policy that the university was said to be forcing on the Warburg had, at its heart, the unavoidable logic of modernization. (The university was, of course, also being squeezed by budget cuts from the British government.) “The Warburg now faces a crisis,” Saumarez Smith went on, “because it has assumed that it can carry on regardless, ignoring what has been happening over the past twenty years in university administration—the creation of the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, the systematization of library catalogues, which the Warburg has vigorously resisted, the need to engage in fund-raising, which the Warburg has not done, the need to engage with the outside world as a center of scholarship.”
The real fight, in other words, was over money. To create the School of Advanced Study, the University of London, in 1994, brought together ten research institutes, including the Warburg. It wanted the Warburg, like the other institutes, to raise its own money, while the Warburg thought that the university ought to support it indefinitely, because that was what the trust deed said it would do. It was, in a way, a mordant echo of the bigger controversies rocking Europe, not entirely unlike Germany’s efforts to force Greece to behave more “responsibly,” while Greece claimed that responsible behavior was not captured by a bottom line but lay in being responsible to its true constituency. Supporting humanistic ventures that could not be expected to support themselves was exactly the point of having churches and universities—or so the clergymen with their sinecures and the professors with their tenure like to insist. One irony among many, of course, was that Aby Warburg, the man who started it all, was able to do so only because his family had, for so many generations, thought that the only way Jews like them could flourish would be if they made lots of money, and could do what they wanted with it.
Few words are as overused in our time as “icon” and its variant “iconic.” Any celebrity whose face is still recognizable a decade after her death is, as Clive James once suggested, an icon. Soup cans and Coke bottles are icons, as are the faces of the men who made soup cans and Coke bottles into icons. Aby Warburg, as much as anyone, is responsible for that turn. Before him, “icon” was largely a religious term, for what Byzantines were always quarrelling about; Warburg, and the practice that he founded, took it over to mean the potent symbolic images of Western art.
Warburg first visited Italy in the late eighteen-eighties. It was a time when the history of Renaissance art revolved either around connoisseurship—the craft of saying who painted what when—or, in Germany, around a tradition in which the art of one epoch or another was shown to reflect the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. In the case of the Florentine Renaissance, that spirit was assumed to be one of humanist materialism trumping medieval symbolism. Botticelli’s naked Venus rose above the waves to indicate the reborn triumph of pagan flesh over prudish pedantry.
Warburg, immersed in the Florentine libraries and their documents, began to discover that much of the painting he loved was deeply rooted in more ancient practices, particularly in astrology and other kinds of semi-magical beliefs, and in religious doctrines, some of them very esoteric. A new idea of the Renaissance began to emerge in his mind: not a burst of materialism and humanism against cramped learning but an eruption of certain recurring ancient ideas and images—icons. In 1912, he dubbed this new “science” of art history “iconology.” Half anthropology, half aestheticism, it took the material of art to be a parade of symbolic images, proliferating, crossbreeding, evolving. Botticelli’s mythologies, including “The Birth of Venus,” weren’t a humanist rejection of the medieval for the affirmation of lived experience; they were dark philosophical codes, which needed to be broken in order to be enjoyed.
In 1895, Warburg, with an intrepid spirit for so fragile a being, travelled to the American Southwest, where he immersed himself in the culture of the Hopi Indians. Or thought he had: inevitably, his vision of the Hopi was colored by the expectations of a nineteenth-century German. (“If Nietzsche had only been familiar with the data of anthropology and folklore!” he wrote, typically and touchingly, some years after his Southwestern sojourn.) But his experience of the “indigenous” deepened and universalized his instincts about the role of images across cultures. The Hopi were really not that far from Renaissance Florentines. They, too, “stand on middle ground between magic and logos, and their instrument of orientation is the symbol,” he wrote. The symbol is the primitive enduring virus that temporarily makes art its home.
Warburg’s ideas are often not just bafflingly inbred but expressed in crunchy impenetrable German compounds. It is a brave man who would attempt to simplify them too sharply. Nonetheless, his theory of pictures might be summed up in three words: Poses have power. The repeated poses of art—young girls dancing, snakes entwining, the moment of the kill in the hunt, the confrontation of sea and single figure—are parts of an ongoing inheritance, a natural language of visual meaning that we all understand without having been consciously instructed in it. Warburg’s favorite illustration was what he called the “Nympha” figure: the young woman in flowing drapery who gives the illusion of rapid and graceful movement and can be found dancing through Western art for two thousand years, from Hellenistic sarcophagi to Botticelli’s “Primavera” and Isadora Duncan.
Like all powerful things, such poses are double-edged. There is a white image magic that feeds humanism and infuses art with healthy Dionysian passion, and there is a black image magic that causes us to surrender reason to ravishments of our own fixations. Although Warburg died before Nazism came to a head, he knew very well the appeal of “Dionysian” imagery to modern people desiccated by rationality. As the long “memory traces” of mankind—Warburg referred to these as “engrams”—reach us through recurring images, we can be overwhelmed by them or we can organize them. The constellations of astrology are a perfect illustration of his point. There are no rams and bears and heroes in the sky, controlling our behavior. The patterns aren’t real, but they trap us into imagining that they are. Yet the act of organization that the constellations represent proved to be essential to rational science, giving us mathematics through imagination.
Warburg’s ideas about images were so complex and self-cancelling that, as time went on, he felt they could be expressed only as images. He created large collages of maps, manuscript pages, and photographs taken from many sources, high and low alike, including his beloved Nympha figure, and arrayed them on black linen screens. Although the originals did not survive, photographs of his “Mnemosyne Atlas” are what decorate the Warburg Library’s stairwell.
Original systems are usually organic and improvisational in nature. Most often, the immediate followers of the organic master cannot quite absorb the system; they can only axiomatize it. Warburg’s system was axiomatized by his colleague and sometime student Erwin Panofsky, who moved Warburg’s iconology in the direction of the academic study of “iconography,” the demanding but ultimately simpler decoding of the set symbols that filled Renaissance and post-Renaissance painting up to the time of Manet: dogs were a sign of fidelity, unlit candles of virginity about to end, and so on. But anyone who looked into the turbulent, shifting waters of Warburg’s actual beliefs knew that there was something more, and much stranger, there. At a minimum, there was something compellingly incongruous: on the one hand, his vision was haunted by half-clothed women dancing ecstatic Dionysian dances; on the other, it was devoted to minute archival research meant to record their choreography through time.
London last fall, or some circles of it, was filled with rumors about the decision that the judge in the lawsuit, one Dame Sonia Proudman, who had been considering the case for several months, would make. The betting was that she would break the deed, since it was so clearly burdensome to the university, and because it had been made in such strange and hurried circumstances. Charles Hope, a recent director of the institute, and the leader of its “loyalists,” told me that, in his view, the deed, far from being the hastily scribbled wartime gift of legend, was in truth a much considered and political act on the part of the British establishment, merely endorsed by the final paper. “What people don’t understand is that the decision to absorb the library wasn’t simply an act of absent-minded philanthropy,” Hope said. “It was made at very high levels of British government, and was intimately connected to other decisions about art, including the beginnings of the Courtauld Institute.”
Among those who might be called the semi-loyalists, the sense arose that the real problem was not in fact monetary but intellectual—that the Warburg had lost its way for the paradoxical reason that its greatest director had been out of sympathy with the library’s founding premise. Oscar Wilde says that every great man has disciples and that Judas writes the biography. Gombrich, the institute’s director from 1959 to 1976, and the official biographer of its founder, was hardly a Judas, but he was certainly a Josephus—a doubter of the obsessional causes of his time, including Warburg’s.
Gombrich’s great work involved mapping the methods of the sciences, their search for new knowledge through self-correcting experiment, onto the history of painting. Art, he thought, progresses rationally, as science does. He had a horror of romantic irrationalism of all kinds; it was, he thought, at the heart of the Nazism that had destroyed Germany’s intellectual heritage and sent a generation of European scholars, himself included, into exile. The implicitly “Jungian” nature of Warburg’s later work—with its call to shared cultural spirits, to archetypes in the sky and engrams in the brain—bore for him too close a resemblance to ideas of blood and racial memory.
It’s clear that Gombrich, although he doesn’t quite say so in his “Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography” (1970), believed that by the end Warburg’s thinking had many obviously loony aspects, and that his collages of poses had some of the indiscriminate, free-associating character of schizophrenic art. (Warburg’s son, Max, who suffered from many of the difficulties that had afflicted his father, was often at the institute in the sixties and seventies, and some felt that Gombrich was less than perfectly sympathetic to him. “Of course, you couldn’t expect the director to have much time for the troubled son,” one witness to the time says, “but when Max appeared at the Warburg teas, I was always dismayed by the way Gombrich paid so little attention to him.”)
For Gombrich, the continuities of art were not the result of engrams stuck in the mind. They were traditions near at hand, hypotheses attempting to solve problems, rather than recurrent images haunting the collective unconscious. The Nympha kept coming back for the same reason that every musical comedy has a second lead who sings soprano: it is a convention. “Gombrich did not create a school or attract scholars to succeed him,” Saumarez Smith told me. “I remember him at his eighty-fifth-birthday dinner being very contemptuous of those who came after him, a Grand Old Man who had had no succession plan and, like some grand intellectual figures, felt that no one was up to the job of succeeding him.”
In the years since Gombrich’s biography of Warburg, however, what once seemed suspicious or wacky in the Warburg tradition has become cool, and even trendy. In the past two years alone, at least ten scholarly books on Warburg and his work have been published. There are fashions in academia as in everything else, and Warburg has never been more fashionable. The contradictions, the fragmentary achievement, the image-mongering: crazy scholars with strange ideas now attract rather than repel us, and we are sufficiently far from the disasters of Romanticism to once again be open to its joys. Free association liberates us from the canon, and contradiction fires weapons against the logocentric mind. We can even look at the German Romantic fascination with a shared unconscious without immediately thinking of Auschwitz.
As a consequence, Warburg is now seen increasingly as an early master of modern disorder, a bookend and rival to Walter Benjamin. But where Benjamin famously saw mass reproduction as separating art from ritual, mystery, and “aura,” Warburg’s vision was more like that of a banker: images were a currency, circulating freely through time, and even collecting compound interest as they aged. We reaped the profits as images proliferated, growing in intensity and varieties of possible meaning: Nympha, born on a sarcophagus, could, multiplying through the ages, end happily on a stamp.
Warburg’s most influential student in the English-speaking world was, of all people, Kenneth Clark, the mandarin overseer of the British art establishment from the thirties through the seventies. In fact, one of the most living reminiscences of Warburg is a short one in Clark’s autobiography “Another Part of the Wood.” Clark was the prize pupil of Bernard Berenson, the master of connoisseurship. Hearing Warburg lecture in Rome in 1928 altered Clark’s entire world picture. “Warburg was without doubt the most original thinker on art-history of our time, and entirely changed the course of art-historical studies,” Clark wrote. “He had, to an uncanny degree, the gift of mimesis. He could ‘get inside’ a character, so that when he quoted from Savonarola, one seemed to hear the Frate’s high, compelling voice; and when he read from Poliziano there was all the daintiness and the slight artificiality of the Medicean circle. . . . Warburg, who preferred to talk to an individual, directed the whole lecture at me. It lasted over two hours, and I understood about two thirds. But it was enough.” Though Clark remained outside the faculty of the Warburg Institute proper, his beautifully lucid writings, in popular books like “The Nude,” brought Warburg’s ideas to a broad audience.
Clark, in the second volume of his autobiography, mentions in passing his 1961-62 Slade Lectures at Oxford, on what he called “Motives”—recurrent patterns of poses in art. I wondered if the lectures survived in some form, and, recalling that Clark, elsewhere in his memoirs, writes that he had never given an “improvised” lecture, decided, while I waited for the Warburg judgment to come down, to seek them out in the Clark archives, at the Tate.
The manuscript did indeed survive, complete and unpublished, and I spent hours turning over its pages at a carrel there. The “Motives” lectures were perhaps the best thing of Clark’s I had ever read: a Warburgian investigation of a set number of poses—“where the fusion of form and subject . . . has taken a recognizable shape, either because it recurs with unquestionable power over a long period, or because, over a short period, it is used with compulsive intensity.” Clark set out to explain where the poses began, where they went, and why they mattered. The motives that he examined included the child (almost invariably the infant Jesus turning in contrapposto toward its mother’s breast and face), two figures embracing, the image of a wild beast devouring a horse, and the “ecstatic spiral,” a form that unites primitive decoration and the epiphanies of Baroque ceilings.
There was something pleasingly archaic about reading lectures given so long ago, and still full of the speaker’s housekeeping notes: “Next Thursday it will be the motive of Encounter—the experience of two people meeting in love. On the 16th it will be the motive of the Pillar and the Trunk—the act of defying the law of gravitation; and on the 23rd it will be the Recumbent Figure—the act of accepting the law of gravity. I shall not give a lecture on the 29th.” What gives the lectures their force, though, is their easy Warburgianism. “Motives are states of mind which have taken visible shape,” Clark explains. “They are thus very similar to the subject of a lyric poem or a piece of music; with this difference that the poem or musical composition can develop in time, whereas the visual motive has to compress all conflicting or amplifying associations into a single symbol. This intense concentration seems to explain why recurring motives are so few and so tenaciously held.” From Warburg, Clark had taken over not only the core idea that poses have power but a sense of how they communicate from generation to generation. Popular imagery could “carry” an image more effectively than art: “Indeed, it often seems as if the ‘carrier’ of a motive needs to be artistically worthless in order that the artist who uses it should feel a greater urge to bring it to perfection.”
Perhaps the most beautiful set piece in the lectures comes in the one on the “ecstatic spiral,” a lecture obviously haunted by Warburg’s Nympha: “We twist in agony, we twist in ecstasy, we twirl in the dance. A leaf in an eddy of wind rises in a spiral, so does a waterspout. Flames curl upwards, to comfort or destroy, as matter is transformed into energy.” Clark ends this last lecture with the note that this spirit “now can find expression only in music and dancing. Although our buildings are as rigid as gridirons, we still find release and emotional satisfaction in the Twist.” Clark may have been making a donnish jest—you can almost hear the dry laughter in the lecture hall—but he was also on to something real: Warburg’s engrams of energy are now more often pop than not.
There were, of course, no images attached to the manuscript, and the “lantern slides” that Clark used I assumed had been lost. So, as I read, I had the thought that, with the Tate archive blessed by Wi-Fi, I could search for the images Clark was citing right on my laptop. I went to Google Images, and there they were, the embracing emperors and brides and the ecstatic spirals of the Baroque. Indeed, there were motives from far more sources than one could have imagined. The Google Images search instantly brought forth embraces in Rembrandt and encounters in Facebook photographs, ecstatic spirals not just in rococo ceilings but in Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” and in fusilli pasta with spiral-cut zucchini. It occurred to me that there was a broader visual likeness here: the Google Images page eerily reproduces the form of the Warburg “Mnemosyne” screens—the horizontal rows of similar images, neatly framed in long boxes, and the vertical distribution of them irregularly across a surface.
Warburg’s essential insight—that imagery is viral, communicable, contagious, and crossbreeding—was, I realized, right. Reproductions, like the black-and-white photographs that Warburg himself used, don’t serve as stoppers to meaning; they serve as carriers of the force of symbols from imagination to imagination. This process, already accelerated in the Renaissance, goes still faster in our time, and is not just the primary dynamic of our visual experience but also the primary matter of our art. We live now on Mnemosyne screens. For good or ill, the methodology of visual serendipity is our own.
The decision about the fate of the Warburg, endlessly delayed, came down in early November. It was, remarkably, almost entirely in favor of the institute. The judge found the University of London responsible for the Warburg’s upkeep, its continuation, and its integrity. Charles Hope wrote a triumphant piece in The London Review of Books: “The effect of this judgment has been to establish that the university has been in serious breach of the trust deed for many years. The Warburg Institute must now be adequately funded by the university.”
Last month, it was announced, in a short statement, that the Warburg and the university had arrived at a “binding agreement” allowing them to “draw a line under past disagreements and look to the future.” Then, just last week, it was announced that a new director had been chosen, from outside the institute: David Freedberg, a distinguished art historian who has been resident for many years at Columbia University, had agreed to take over the directorship, at a considerable reduction of salary; he will live in a small apartment in walking distance of the library.
Freedberg spent many formative years working at the library, and, like every newly created boss of an old institution with a high opinion of itself, he is obviously tactful about seeming to want to change the institution too radically. But he also makes it clear that he feels the Warburg has departed from some of the richer intellectual paths it pioneered. “In the past thirty years, the Warburg seemed, I think it’s fair to say, to have become wary about exploring the lower and more basic levels of cultural formations—those rougher sides of culture, the superstitious and even the barbaric, which fascinated Warburg himself,” he said the other day. “Warburg was interested in the engines that sustained imagery in human minds and caused symbols to recur, rather than wanting to simply collect archival evidence of its persistence. There’s been a reluctance to explore the sides of Warburg that were concerned with the irrational and the universal. We need to get back to thinking about the Urformen and the engrams in contemporary terms—to the study, including the neurological and scientific study, of culturally modulated gestures. The failure to understand that task contributed to the decline of the Warburg, even while, paradoxically, the public interest in Aby Warburg has grown.
“My dream of reviving the Warburg is a dream of making it the center of vigorous and vital cultural history in our time. It needs to engage with current debates, however dismaying. The Warburg is very well positioned to take a stand on crosscultural ethical issues, on cross-disciplinary issues—even questions of human rights. It can be, and, I hope, will be, more engaged with contemporary issues than it has ever been before.”
Brooke Palmieri says that she feels “optimistic,” but no more than that. “I think that the court case was really great as a wakeup call for the University of London,” she says. “We’ve got twenty-five thousand more sets of eyes on the Warburg Institute than I would have thought possible. But there’s a button on the Change.org petition page—you press it to declare your petition a success. Well, I haven’t pushed that button. ” Lisa Jardine, for her part, notes, “I have a hard time believing that in the next five to ten years the situation will not arise again. Unless, of course, a major benefactor is found.” Freedberg recognizes as well that the future will depend on ambitious fund-raising, a daunting task in a country where state funding is still more the norm for higher education than American-style private endowment. As bankers know, sooner or later someone will have to pay.
The decision was, in other words, a perfectly Warburgian event: conservative and reassuring to a pedantic degree, it was also potentially destabilizing. For the time being, the books are still there, open on their shelves, and in the stairwells the nymphs rejoice. ♦