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Warburg, [Abraham Moritz] "Aby M."

Date born:

December 31, 1969

Place born:

Date died:

December 31, 1969

Place died:


Founder of the Warburg Institute (now part of the University of London) and theorist of a mytho-psychological form of art history.  Warburg grew up the eldest son in a wealthy devoutly Jewish banking family. His father Moritz Warburg, hoped his son would take over as a banker as did his mother Charlotte Oppenheimer (Warburg). Warburg developed Typhoid fever at age seven and remained in delicate health thereafter. At age thirteen he made a pact with his brother to sell his birthright provided his brother would keep him in books. Though Warburg pursued art, his family fortune allowed him to remain independently wealthy his whole life. He attended the University in Bonn, studying religion/philosophy under Hermann Usener (1834–1905) and history under Karl Lamprecht (q.v.), who himself had written art history, and taking courses with the art historians Carl Justi (q.v.) and Henry Thode (q.v.).  Justi was too rigid for him and Thode too society-conscious and chummy to consider working with for a Ph.D. For his graduate work, Warburg studied at various universities--as was the standard model for the humanities in Germany--Bonn and Munich. In 1889 he was one of eight students in the Florentine experiment of August Schmarsow (q.v.) to create a German research institute there. Warburg settled on Strasbourg and a younger art historian, Hubert Janitschek (q.v.).  His 1891 dissertation on Botticelli, written under Janitschek, employed one of the notions that would occupy him his entire life:  the transmission of antique iconography in other cultures, in this case the Renaissance.  He moved to Berlin to study medicine, an interest fed by his study of psychology in art. But psychology led to anthropology and in 1895 he visited the territories of the southwestern United States in order to observe Navaho and Pueblo native-American traditions. Returning to Germany, he married the artist Mary Hertz in 1897. During this time, Warburg became ever more interested in how science and pseudo-science effected knowledge and its visual representation.  In an effort to find a relation between astrology and emergence of natural science, he began to collect rare books on the zodiac and representations of the human body.  These he added to his vast personal library, which he had begun in 1886.  In 1907, Warburg published a key study on Francesco Sassetti’s burial chapel at Santa Maria Novella in Florence.  He again emphasized the Renaissance adopting Classical visual conventions to convey emotion and sympathy.  In 1909 he moved his book collection to a house in Hamburg with the intent of creating a research library.  Warburg hired the young art historians Wilhelm Waeztoldt (q.v.) between 1909-1911 and then Fritz Saxl (q.v.), beginning in 1913, to manage the library and its objects.  The following year Warburg discussed turning it into a research institute, but Germany's entry into World War I the same year delayed it.  At age forty-eight, Warburg was too old to fight.  However, the war drew his interests toward propaganda literature, principally the German renaissance prints of Dürer and pamphlets of Martin Luther. He visited the British renaissance scholar Herbert Horne (q.v.) in 1915 in Siena.  In 1918 he developed severe mental illness requiring hospitalization. In 1922 Warburg hired a young Ph.D., Gertrud Bing (q.v.), to be his new librarian (and later personal assistant).  He had recovered sufficiently by 1923 to deliver a lecture on the ‘Serpent Ritual’ of the Navajo.  The next year, Saxl assisted in launching Warburg's library as a research center, called Die kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg (KBW).  The Library officially opened in 1926.  In the final years of his life, Warburg became preoccupied with the role memory played in civilization.  This fascination resulted in an image atlas, called Mnemosyne, consisting of forty large canvases to which almost 1000 images were affixed. Warburg chose the format in order to graphically represent the relationships between images. Groups of representations under categories such as pathos, human sacrifice, redemption, and Oriental astrology were juxtaposed to each other in order to define them, not by word as much as through contrast.  Among the categories was one Warburg had created himself, the Nympha, the image of a young woman with a swirling garment.  After his death, the library continued to operate.  The ascension of the Nazi's to power in Germany in 1933 made existence for the library, named for a Jew, very difficult.  Saxl fled to London with the Library that year.  Initially the library was housed in the basement of Thames House.  Later it was incorporated as the Warburg Institute into the University of London in 1944.

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Hofmann, Werner, and Georg Syamken, Georg. Die Menschenrechte des Auges: über Aby Warburg. Frankfurt am Main: Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1980;