[NetBehaviour] Mnemosyne Atlas question

Max Herman maxnmherman at hotmail.com
Fri Apr 2 21:38:14 CEST 2021

Hi all,

I finally had a chance to view some of the great links from Johannes and Stefan, with some comments below.

Overall I am most interested whether Warburg's thesis of appearance, disappearance, transformation, and recirculation makes sense, and if yes, how applicable is it to our time?  In some ways I see the point of it but wonder if it isn't perhaps a bit too closed of a system.  Can the principle of transformation (and inversion) Warburg applies to the relationship between classical antiquity (Greece and Rome) and post-medieval Europe (from the Renaissance to the present) have meaningful relevance to the wider scope of culture we exist in now, or is it too narrow and thus less relevant to the present?

Maybe the idea is not that there is never anything new, but that new and old co-exist in a kind of ongoing variable ecosystem?  Benjamin discussed the old/new dynamic quite often, and his Arcades Project is sometimes compared to Warburg's Atlas.

Many thanks again for sharing these!



This informative 10-minute video from the Director of the HKW in Berlin makes a great comparison of Warburg and the Atlas to a seismograph, which tried to understand the terrible transformations the 20th c. was bringing, including the aftermath of WWI.  I wonder, do folks on list think there are helpful comparisons between the interwar years 1918-1938 and today?

Some fragments I noted in the video, apologies for inaccuracies:

  *   Art history for Warburg is always characterized by breaks.
  *   Warburg never had a linear conception of art history, but looked for psychogrammatic patterns as if in currents.
  *   Tried to see tectonic shifts in cultural memory, like continents "floating" on the surface of the earth.
  *   One can study the pictures and motifs in the Atlas, but also just respond to the simple shapes of the images.
  *   Warburg hesitated to put in words or typify the relationships and processes.
  *   Warburg tried to create a seismograph of transformation processes.



From the article in the London Review of Books:

"He referred to the project as an ‘iconology of the interval’ and it is the empty spaces
 in the panels, filled with unknown and uncertain matter, that hold the images in
constellations of thought."

"Warburg was greatly influenced by Gotthold Lessing’s essay on Laocoön,
the central text of the German Enlightenment, and particularly by the
idea that an emotion such as agony could be represented in a range of modes.
 He gave the name Pathosformeln to the recurring gestures, or symptoms,
that carve a path of social memory across different forms of representation:
 a certain pose, say, migrating from a tomb carving to a postage stamp.
Images were, he thought, uniquely expressive of emotional undercurrents
often lost to textual history."

"despite Warburg’s mistrust of technology (‘having enslaved electricity,
captured lightning in the copper wire, man has created a culture that leaves
 no room for poetry’), the building was fitted in his absence with twenty
 phones, a conveyor belt for books and a pneumatic post system."

"Like Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, to which it is frequently compared, it
could never really be completed. But its fragmentary and elliptical character
doesn’t diminish it – quite the opposite. It’s all the more fascinating for being
inherently melancholic, incantatory and unresolved (Matthew Vollgraff of the
Warburg Institute calls it a modernist ruin); by reconstructing the atlas, the
curators have revived it as a site of contemplation."


From the introduction (by the editor, first excerpt) and text (by Warburg, the second) of Warburg's essay on Manet and Antiquity:

"Aby Warburg's fragments on Manet and Italian Antiquity contain the most concise
summary of one of his fundamental theoretical ideas: namely, the <<energetic inversion>>
of pathos formulas [pathosformel] that leads to a change in their meaning."

"The dynamic influence of this style is not due to the destruction of old forms
but to their subtle transformation."



From Stefan:

Hi Max,

The best general introduction to the Atlas project in Ernst Gombrich's Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography.

The Altas’ key (and only) text besides an enigmatic introduction is Warburg’s essay on Manet (in Collected Works).

Here’s an excellent introduction by Claudia Wedepohl, Archivist of the Warburg Institute London:


Further reading: Georges Didi-Huberman, The Surviving Image: Phantoms of Time and Time of Phantoms.



From: Johannes Birringer <Johannes.Birringer at brunel.ac.uk>
Sent: Wednesday, March 24, 2021 10:54 AM
To: NetBehaviour for networked distributed creativity <netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org>
Cc: Max Herman <maxnmherman at hotmail.com>
Subject: Re: Mnemosyne Atlas question

Hi Max

the Warburg ''Bilderatlas" (Mnemosyne), I remember, is a late work of this researcher/collector, and there are a number of panels now freshly reprinted (in an expanded book/catalogue) and also exhibited from the Mnemosyne Atlas. This last project of the German Jewish cultural scientist Aby M. Warburg (1866-1929), is an unfinished attempt to map the pathways that give art history and cosmography associated signifinces or, one might say, evoke constellations? . Warburg imagined as this visual, metaphoric encyclopedia, and I was fascinated that he just seemed to use the images, without text or explanations......

Bernd Scherer, who's from my home region in the Saarland and has been Intendant of Haus der Kulturen der Welt, talks wonderfully about the book in his video presentation: that video was produced on the occasion of the exhibition: "Aby Warburg: Bilderatlas Mnemosyne. The Original" curated by Roberto Ohrt and Axel Heil in cooperation with the Warburg Institute, Hais der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin (04.09.- 30.11.2020).


For a rich interpretive reading of the exhibit, I can recommend an article published in London Review of Books, Vol. 42 No. 21 · 5 November 2020
"At the HKW", by Chloe Aridjis

best wishes
Johannes Birringer

From: NetBehaviour <netbehaviour-bounces at lists.netbehaviour.org> on behalf of Max Herman via NetBehaviour <netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org>
Sent: 24 March 2021 15:08
To: NetBehaviour for networked distributed creativity
Cc: Max Herman
Subject: [NetBehaviour] Mnemosyne Atlas question

Hi all,

Is anyone familiar with this rather unusual, and unfinished, work by Aby Warburg?  I have just started looking at his career and this work as part of researching his lectures about Leonardo.


The Warburg Institute is also doing a series of lectures online to commemorate Dante's 700th:


All best,


PS -- Thursday March 25 is also International Dante Day.  🙂
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