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Review: Aby Warburg's Bilderatlas Mnemosyne at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturan der Welt and Online

Aby Warburg’s Bilderatlas Mnemosyne is a show consisting almost entirely of reproductions. A tattered, frenetic display of nearly a thousand images of paintings, coins and sculpture, sketches, pages torn from books, stamps, adverts and family trees. Named after Mnemosyne, goddess of memory, this vast map of images traces the roots and reverberations of the Italian Renaissance, from antiquity into the early twentieth-century. Displayed on sixty-three large black panels, it represents a visual history of western civilisation underpinned by Paganism and Christianity, by violence and lust, both human and divine. For the first time since 1929, the Bilderatlas is on display.

I first met Aby Warburg as a student at the Warburg Institute in London, studying in rooms weighted with concentration, the soft smell of old books, and the squeak and shine of the lino-covered staircase. His was the melancholic face gazing from the dust jackets of countless library books, and he became my silent companion during a year in which I have never been so inspired, nor so intimidated.

As the eldest son of a German-Jewish banking dynasty, Warburg should have taken over the family business. And yet with uncanny foresight he traded this birthright with his younger brother Max when they were both children, extracting a promise in return to buy any book he ever wanted. On the back of this deal Warburg was able to amass his own library in Hamburg, and by 1905 it already housed six thousand books and several thousand photographs. Save five years institutionalised during a major breakdown, this was Warburg’s intellectual home for the next twenty-four years.

The panels, as incomplete as they were at the time of Warburg’s death in 1929, mimic the curved walls of his library reading room. These meandering curves also seem to mirror the thought processes they were designed to set in motion. While Warburg was alive, the Bilderatlas was too, an interdisciplinary and radical conglomeration of high and low culture. Here, a celestial map sits above a newspaper cutting of a Zeppelin, a Delacroix is displayed beside German golf champion Erika Sellschopp, mid-swing.

Though his mind focused on the past, Warburg’s aesthetic was entirely modern, and his collages echoed the surreal flamboyance of Dada. His panels still have the power to speak to us today, we can recognise their fractured display in online platforms like Pinterest and Instagram. The same can hardly be said for the staid and academic art history of his contemporaries. In bursts of inspiration Warburg would use his panels like a storyboard, shuffling images around to highlight new connections in his thinking. He had intended to make it a permanent record, but this was research that would never be stilled between the pages of a book. To see the Bilderatlas like this, a work-in-progress cut short, is an extraordinary chance to step inside the mind of one of the most brilliant art historians of the twentieth century. His presence is striking. It is as if he has just stepped out of the room.

This ground-breaking exhibition is the culmination of an arduous journey undertaken by curators Roberto Ohrt and Axel Heil. The Bilderatlas disappeared when Warburg’s library was whisked out of Hamburg to London in 1933. This bold action should have saved it from destruction by the Nazis, and yet it became the holy grail of the Humanities: pivotally important, but also, unfortunately, missing. Its only relic has been a handful of photographs taken while Warburg was alive.

Originally, they set off for Italy, planning to photograph every artwork included in the Bilderatlas. Working only from those old black and white pictures, they often had to use a magnifying glass to work out exactly what they were looking at. But then they decided to visit Warburg’s library in London. Leafing through the enormous photographic collection they discovered an image from one of the original panels. Digging deeper, they find eighty percent of the original collection, muddled into the 450,000-strong image collection and all annotated in Warburg’s own hand. They had been hidden there for almost a century.

Locked down on the Welsh borders, I enter the exhibition virtually. My virtual attendance enables me to wander about the enormous display, to zoom in and step back into a luxurious emptiness usually reserved for the most established critic. Running parallel to the show, Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie has assembled fifty of the original works reproduced on the panels. One click and you are transported from repro to original, another bonus of online viewing. Unlike a show of sculpture or painting, where detail might be diminished by a screen, nothing is lost in Warburg’s atlas of reproductions. The point of this show is not what the pictures look like, but what they can tell us.

(All picture credits: HKW)

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