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Ghost Stories for the Very Adult

An image of a computer screen can be seen, displaying the words “The Culture of Change”. This figure illustrates the concept of how society is continuously in a state of evolution and how individuals must adapt to their environment in order to survive.

It was in 1895 that Aby Warburg, a German Jewish banking heir and art historian, began WWI, although his family was only informed of this on an October night twenty-three years later – and at gunpoint.

That evening in 1918, Warburg was taken away and eventually sent to Bellevue, an exclusive clinic located near Kreuzlingen.

The place had witnessed the presence of famous individuals before, such as the French writer Raymond Roussel, the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, the Expressionist painter Ludwig Kirchner, and Bertha Pappenheim (who is more famously known as Freud’s “Anna O.”).

Warburg, one of Bellevue’s patients, was anything but an imaginary invalid. His insanity was evident in his eating habits, believing they were serving him the flesh of his family, so he opted to only eat vegetarian.

His mental illness was also apparent in his daily routine, where he would start off each morning in a feral state, roaring. Warburg’s doctor welcomed visitors, but suggested afternoons to be the best time.

One day, a colleague of Warburg’s who came around noon heard the sounds of a jungle coming from afar. After being welcomed by Warburg, he was taken aside and to his amazement was told, “That was me!” with a hearty laugh.

The two then continued their conversation about Renaissance Florentine art.

Shortly after the famous art historian was taken to Bellevue, Sigmund Freud wrote to the medical institution’s director inquiring about Warburg’s future.

Ludwig Binswanger, whose uncle had taken care of Nietzsche and was well-acquainted with the struggles of talented people, declared that Warburg had manic-depressive disorder and was likely to stay that way.

(In the letters between Freud and Binswanger, “Prof. V from I” is an encrypted reference to “Prof. W[arburg] from H[amburg].”) Binswanger mentioned with disappointment that Warburg was not open to “the talking cure,” but he would talk to his Seelentierchen, or his “tiny soulful animals”–the butterflies and moths that kept him company in his lonely moments.

Binswanger had a better understanding of what was really bothering Warburg one evening, almost three years after his patient showed up.

He noticed Warburg telling one of his fluttering friends about the fear he felt during the First World War. He was certain that a chaotic bunch was heading to his home to brutally tear apart his family, which led to the arrival of men in white coats.

Through his physician’s attentive care, Warburg’s anxieties and loud outbursts eventually abated.

After five years, in 1923, Binswanger declared him sufficiently recovered to resume his academic career–but with one condition. Warburg was to prove his recuperation by delivering a lecture to a select group on a subject of his preference.

Interestingly, Warburg chose not to focus on his area of expertise, the Italian Renaissance, but to reminisce on a trip he had taken to the American West, a voyage that initiated the Great War.

The summer of 1895 saw a 29-year-old Warburg go to New York for his brother’s wedding to the daughter of Solomon Loeb, a banker.

Warburg, however, was far more interested in books and libraries, and more specifically his own library, than enjoying the festivities of high society, and so he found the event to be rather tedious.

Warburg, being the eldest of five sons, was meant to lead his long-standing and prosperous family bank. By the time he was 13, he had realized he was not destined for this role.

Thus, he proposed a deal to his younger brother, Max, wherein he would hand over all his first-born rights in exchange for Max’s agreement to buy him any book he desired for the duration of his life. Surprisingly, the pact made by two adolescents was held.

Max was working hard at his family’s bank while Aby was similarly engaged in amassing an extraordinary library devoted to the field of Kulturwissenschaft, a German term for the humanities and social sciences.

The library was remarkable for its organizing principle, which Warburg called “the law of the good neighbor.” Instead of classifying works by subject, author, title, or the date of acquisition, books were grouped according to their ability to interact with those on either side.

A concept presented in one volume could be either attested to, attacked, continued, contradicted, refined, or refuted in the adjacent one.

The constantly shifting collection was an ever-changing labyrinth in which Warburg was Daedalus, Ariadne, and Minotaur all at once. Upon initial inspection, the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer, a man renowned for his intelligence, had two options: leave immediately or remain for ten years. He chose the former and then returned to take the latter.

In 1895, Aby Warburg’s library was in its infancy and he was given a free hand by his brother to obtain items. Eagerly, he left the wedding festivities and traveled to Cambridge and Washington, DC, where he gathered numerous ethnographic texts.

During his adventure, he heard stories about Native American culture from specialists at Harvard and the Smithsonian. Undeterred by the fact that it was winter, Aby decided to go out to the wild West to gain more knowledge.

As Warburg took a seat to explain the voyage that could free him from Bellevue, he was unable to find the words. He scrawled one word in capital letters at the beginning of his notes: Help! And it soon arrived–an image of a multitude of intertwined serpents.

During Warburg’s expedition in the winter of 1895 to 1896 in the West, he was fascinated by the ritual of the Hopi Indians known as the snake dance.

This ritual consisted of a sand painting of snakes which were believed to come from the sky. After the painting was finished, the dancers began to swirl around it.

Later, a large number of snakes, some of which were poisonous, were taken to the center of the dancing area and scattered on the sand painting, so much so that the live snakes and their drawings seemingly blended together.

Eventually, one by one, the serpents were taken and brought to the brink of the mesa and then released into the desert. This was done so as to ask the Gods of Rain to put an end to the drought.

At the sophisticated Bellevue gathering, Warburg enlightened his exclusive crowd on the significance of the ceremony.

Friends, family, and coworkers were taken aback to learn of this particular ritual, and even more so when Warburg spoke not about Italian art, which they had anticipated, but alternatively about his encounters with the Hopis, something he had not previously shared either verbally or in writing.

They were even more stunned to hear him explain how he would not have been able to recognize the subtleties of Renaissance art had it not been for his stay with the Hopis.

From the beginning of his writings in the 1880s, Warburg was focused on a single subject, to which the institute that celebrates his name is still devoted: the resurgence of images from antiquity in Renaissance art.

He argued that this revival was not merely caused by a revived interest in humanism and fresh archaeological discoveries (e.g. the Laocoon statue’s re-emergence, which Michelangelo so admired).

Former generations of art historians had perceived Greek culture as “a tranquil and noble simplicity” that the Renaissance had borrowed, however, Warburg saw something quite different.

Everywhere he looked, he witnessed Dionysian energies hidden in the crevices of Apolline art.

Warburg founded an institute with the aim to resolve a disconnect he had noticed in the study of art. On the one hand, he recognized the necessity of formal and historical analysis and of the neutral assessment Kant had emphasized.

On the other, there was the experience of the art, a powerful and often confusing encounter.

His journey to the Wild West led him to understand the artistic image not just as a set of features but instead as a representation of powerful emotions and a conveyor of cultural influences that could be recovered.

This vision gave rise to Mnemosyne, the “image atlas”, where he selected images to demonstrate the process of cultural transmission.

For instance, a picture of the Roman deity Mars from the fifteenth century was placed next to illustrations from Kepler’s Mysterium Cosmographicum (1621) illustrating the orbit of Mars, and a photo of the Graf Zeppelin airship followed by a Japanese coast guard aircraft.

Another panel showed a graceful golf player alongside Donatello’s Judith decapitating Holofernes.

Like Warburg’s library, the image atlas was meant to trace the mysterious movements of a culture’s memory; yet, both would never be concluded since they couldn’t ever be finished.

In his work, Aby Warburg viewed certain aspects as dangerous, dubbing his scholarly writings as “ghost stories for the very adult.” As news of World War I unfolded, his sensitive nature could not handle the distress caused by the images he referred to as “dynamograms.”

He worried that his research on ancient paganism had unleashed a Pandora’s box, bringing to life the primitive forces that had long been dormant in Western art, leading to fatal consequences.

He wanted to protect his family from this fate, and so, one night in 1918, he took out a gun in order to spare them a more gruesome death.

The talk on the ritual that resembled madness with venomous snakes seemed to be the one that brought Warburg’s own madness to an end.

Not long afterwards, he was back in his library and his institute that was established in 1921, and he was contentedly at its center until his passing in 1929.

The publications of Warburg during his lifetime were limited and of a niche nature, and his impact on art history is similar to that of the dark matter.

It can be estimated from the accomplishments of his many renowned colleagues and learners, such as E. R. Curtius’s research on literary topoi, Edgar Wind’s delving into art and anarchy, Frances Yates’s work on the art of remembrance, Fritz Saxl’s studies of dejection, and Erwin Panofsky’s iconological research of everything from the Rolls-Royce to Arcadia.

In 1994, the well-known art historian E.H. Gombrich cautioned his Padua audience against “recent attempts to make Warburg a prophet of our time”.

This was not the first time he had done this; in 1970, he published the much-awaited Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography.

As most of Warburg’s writing was not available to the public, especially in the English-speaking world, Gombrich’s work was a crucial source.

Although Gombrich was the director of the Warburg Institute for seventeen years and was one of the first directors to succeed Warburg, they never actually met.

He was hired in 1936, three years after the institute moved to London, to catalog the large amount of papers Warburg left behind at his death.

Gombrich was soon frustrated with Warburg’s writing and wrote a biography of him from 1946 to 1947 that he showed to some at the institute, who discouraged him from publishing it due to its simplified portrayal of Warburg and his work.

Nevertheless, Gombrich eventually released it in 1970, which provoked an anonymous critique in the Times Literary Supplement (written by Wind).

Those who might have defended Warburg’s memory had already passed away and the popular image of Warburg became one of insignificance, mania, and ineffectiveness.

Gombrich’s biography of Aby Warburg has not been enough to keep the quirky thinker in the dark; the recent years have seen a surge in serious and sympathetic studies of Warburg’s thought.

French thinkers, renowned for embracing eccentricity, have been prominent in this area with Phillipe-Alain Michaud publishing Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion and Georges Didi-Huberman’s L ‘image survivante: Histoire de l’art et temps des fantomes selon Aby Warburg .

In Germany, books such as Ulrich Raulff’s Wilde Energien: Vier Versuche zu Aby Warburg and the long-awaited publication of Warburg’s complete works have added to this revitalized interest in his works.

Gombrich’s 2002 book, The Preference for the Primitive, has rekindled attention to the idea that the “primitive” is not just a trend or a phase of the past.

Warburg believed that mankind is eternally and at all times schizophrenic, in the sense that the raw, passionate response to a work of art should be taken into consideration, even if it does not fit into the canon of cultivated taste.

This led him to explore beyond the conventional boundaries of art history, making it a more hazardous venture than his travels to America’s uncharted West.

His goal was to bring art back to its roots, to the writhing of snakes, the roaring of lions, and the flight of fritillaries. To him, it was not enough to just look at a museum painting; one must also know how to dance around a sand painting full of writhing snakes.

Although Warburg established a library and an institute, he did not create a school. The reason for this is straightforward: he did not dictate any particular methodology which has proven to be difficult to replicate.

In his unpublished documents, there is a set of well-bound notes, dating from near his death, which deals with this very matter.

The first page has a single word: Method. The subsequent four pages have one word each: Nietzsche, Conclusion, Flight, Destiny. Then, twenty blank pages follow.

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