A Visit to the Warburg Institute

Before his death in 1929, German art historian Aby Warburg amassed thousands of books and photographs relating to his field of research – namely, how ancient pathos, revealed in expressions and gestures, manifests in post-medieval visual culture. Warburg ceded his primogeniture rights to his younger brother, preferring to follow a career in art history than banking. He did this on the condition that his younger brother funded his academic acquisitions. His brother agreed, and eventually, not only had Warburg accrued a vast collection, but also a library in Hamburg was built especially for it. In 1933, Warburg's collection was moved to London, and eventually to the purpose built institute in Woburn Square in which it lives today. 
Warburg significantly influenced the theory and practice of art historical research, his work characterised by a cross-temporal and cultural viewpoint, drawing resources from high and low (Warburg's photographic collection files images of Greek statues alongside photographs from newspaper clippings). According to Gombrich's biography of him, published in 1970, Warburg worked in this way so that he could survey types (archetypes, though Warburg did not use Jung's terminology) and primitive models that occur across eras and places. In the context of the turn of the century in which Warburg was working, theories of racial and social memory were prominent and inevitably influenced him. Indeed, Warburg liked using the term saftesteigen (rising of the sap) to describe memory, and wrote that art was an organ of social memory. Gombrich quotes Rilke describing things 'long forgotten' rising like 'blood that courses and [...] gesture that arises from the depths of time.' The photographic collection's arrangement in sections such as Gestures is also reminiscent of Darwin's The Expression of Emotions in Animals and Men, an influence Warburg acknowledged. 
For a visitor untrained in what is often quite arcane art historical knowledge, understanding Warburg's associations (and thus why images of Rome's Four Rivers carved fountain is in the Animals section, sub-divided Crocodiles, for example) is no easy task. Warburg's scholars and archivists are practiced in his method of tangential association and tracing of origins. (The crocodile represents the Nile, one of the Four Rivers of mythology. Statues of the gods and personifications of these rivers often feature emblems of them. The Nile is represented by a male, holding a cornucopia to symbolise plenty, children to symbolise fertility, and a crocodile, native of the river.) Warburg encouraged peripheral reading, speaking of the exciting potential in picking up the book to the left or the right of the one searched for on the library shelf. Serendipity is crucial in the research of many artists such as Tacita Dean, and it is not surprising that the Warburg Institute receives much interest from visual artists. 
The arrangement of the collection is also attractive in a poetic sense, its contents reading like a list-poem of associations. From one section to another, Warburg's thinking process can be traced: Science and Magic – Alchemy – Medicine – The Humours – Charts and Calendars – Seasons – Time – Months – Days – Hours – Elements – Weather – Climate – Places – Cities... and so forth. 

Aby Warburg's Mnemosyne Atlas

Artists are also drawn to Warburg because of his visual – entirely visual – project The Mnemosyne Atlas, described by Gombrich as 'a vast pictorial symphony'. Arranged and shuffled with pins on 40 black upholstered exhibition panels, the Atlas comprised around 1000 photographs of depictions of gesture throughout history. Warburg did not complete the project, and the only evidence of the panels are some photographs of them propped in Warburg's Hamburg library sometime before 1933. In his essay Atlas: The Anomic Archive, Benjamin Buchloh likens the Atlas to Benjamin's Arcades Project because both attempt to gather a collection without providing captions (in Warburg's case) or additional commentary (Benjamin). 
Buchloh also discusses Gerhard Richter's photographic Atlas that comprises hundreds of images of everyday German life, and far fewer (and as a result, extremely shocking) ones of the Holocaust. Rather like the way atrocious images appear  in W. G. Sebald's books, each Holocaust image provides an overtly political 'punctum', to borrow Barthes' term, which startles us into a new understanding of the collective history and memory of a nation. Many historians, including Buchloh, however, are keen to point out the difference between Warburg's enterprise and that of Richter, Sebald, or collagists such as Hannah Hoch and Kurt Schwitters. While the latter group of artists and writers might share Warburg's aim and enthusiasm to forge unexpected associations between cultures and times in order to enrich understanding, their objective was more political and tied to particular contexts (such as a post-war German questioning of identity in the cases of Richter and Sebald).  
The Internet adds a new lens through which we can view Warburg's collection. Now that we can Google an image using an image, the electronic search engine presents us with a seemingly infinite number of possible visual associations and tangents. The Warburg Institute plans to put its photographic collection online. Interestingly, this plan runs alongside its continuing acquisitions – many of which reach the Institute by post or are cut out of Sotheby's auction catalogues, and pasted onto A4 sheets, then tucked into files. These files are stored in boxes and metal filing cabinets that smell of a particular vintage of brown paper and dust. The language we use to describe virtual collections is extremely spatial and archival: we create files, click drop-down boxes and send folders to the trash. As Susan Stewart says in her book On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, 'the collection relies upon the box, the cabinet, the cupboard, the seriality of shelves'. Perhaps it is partly for its tangible and imaginative organisation that Warburg's collection continues to appeal to artists and scholars alike.