Mnemosyne Lost

HKW in Berlin revives Aby Warburg’s original picture atlas. For contemporary audiences it is a display both evocative and impenetrable.

Aby Warburg, Bilderatlas Mnemosyne – The Original, 2020. Installation view from HKW. Photo: Silke Briel / HKW.

Aby Warburg’s (1866–1929) Mnemosyne Atlas, sixty-three panels of stretched black cloth carrying a total of almost one thousand photographs and clippings, is the only thing that is illuminated inside the darkened room in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin. The Mnemosyne Atlas constitutes Warburg’s attempt to map, among other things, the afterlife of Western antiquity by following some of its most influential motifs through history.

Most of the panels show pictures that were already historical in Warburg’s own time. Here, viewers find paintings by Dutch, German, and Italian masters; a Norwegian bridal chest; and German advertisements from the interwar years alongside newspaper clippings from Warburg’s own day. The most famous of the panels focuses on Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (c. 1485), which was also the subject of Warburg’s doctoral dissertation. Other panels deal with zodiac signs, the tarot, and biblical motifs. New techniques introduced in the 20th century, such as plastic film reels, had made image reproduction more easily accessible than ever, and Warburg was one of the first to use the new technology for art historical purposes.

The HKW admits only a limited number of visitors at a time. We booked tickets in advance and were allocated a time slot. Everyone wore a face mask; children dashed underneath the panels. I happened to overhear a father explaining Warburg’s project to a five-year-old, who followed up by asking what humanism means. The father answered nonchalantly, abstractly, as if talking to an adult, that humanism is an outlook that puts humans at the centre of everything. Their exchange goes straight to the heart of Warburg’s work. His panels do not depict landscapes, machines, or buildings – humankind is the central motif. A creature whose influence on the planet has been so significant that it now has a geological epoch named after itself. As such, the exhibition ties in well with the HKW’s programme in recent years, which has focused on the Anthropocene. But who is this ‘human’?

Aby Warburg, Bilderatlas Mnemosyne, panel 39 (recovered). Photo: Wootton / fluid. Courtesy of The Warburg Institute, London.

Warburg himself was the firstborn son of a wealthy banker in Hamburg. At the age of thirteen, he ceded his rights to take over the family firm to his younger brother, one year his junior, on the condition that the brother provide him all the books he wanted – an agreement that eventually resulted in a library containing hundreds of thousands of volumes. After a life devoted to the study of art history, he spent his last years composing the Mnemosyne Atlas – a so-called Bilderatlas (picture atlas). A few years after Warburg’s death, the atlas and his library were shipped out of Germany, which had fallen under Nazi rule. Today, Warburg’s visual materials, including the atlases, and his books are housed in their own separate building belonging to the University College London.

Who Warburg was is made clear at HKW. What he actually intended with his picture atlas is harder to grasp. Warburg’s idea of ​​carrying out a mapping of the visual memory of culture was ahead of its time. The result is akin to an analogue approximation of a digital image search, which ought to make it easy to relate to today. And it is, on a formal level. But whereas we share a considerable visual competence as far as our own time is concerned – we immediately recognise everything from Beyoncé’s tresses to Pepe the Frog – Warburg’s visual world feels strangely mute, at least to me. Like the child viewing the exhibition with their father, I could have used a helping hand.

Next day, I dutifully hopped on my bicycle and set off for the Gemäldegalerie, a couple of kilometres south of HKW, where some of the paintings Warburg features in his picture atlas are on display. Being a museum aimed at a wider audience than the HKW, the information provided alongside the works here is more comprehensive. It is useful to be reminded that Warburg was a contemporary of Freud and other well-known psychoanalysts, and that his method was inspired by the idea of ​​the unconscious. It helps to have the biblical story – concerning seven women fighting over a man’s trousers – referenced on one of the panels explained (this despite the fact that I grew up in the Norwegian Bible belt). Importantly, it helps to see original works like Botticelli’s Venus, and to be reminded that when Warburg follows “an invisible force” through images from art history based on Venus’s tresses, it is because they have been gilded in a manner so seductive that it is hard to take your eyes off them.

Aby Warburg, Bilderatlas Mnemosyne, panel 77 (recovered). Photo: Wootton / fluid. Courtesy of The Warburg Institute, London.

This is not my first encounter with Warburg, and reams of pages have been written about him in books I can buy from the museum shop, the latest being a complete overview of the atlas printed in connection with the exhibition – a snip at EUR 200. Warburg’s panels were also displayed at ZKM | Centre for Art and Media in Karlsruhe just three years ago, using copies of the original photographs. The unique thing about the exhibition at HKW is that we get to see the originals, which the exhibition’s curators, Roberto Ohrt and Axel Heil, have painstakingly dug out of Warburg’s towering archives and finally been able to reunite.

Perhaps I’m nitpicking, but I couldn’t help notice that on Warburg’s original panels, the photographs were attached with metal clips, which gave the compositions a tentative, temporary feel, whereas in its reincarnated version at HKW they have been pasted onto the panels. Now they feel more permanently placed, as if Warburg’s last placement of them was the final one, ready for framing, no further amendments allowed. Indeed, most of the panels are considered to have been fully finished by Warburg, but some were still works in progress when he died.

The devil is in the details, and image hoarders from our own time, such as Wolfgang Tillmans, have demonstrated the importance of how one hangs and contextualises an unframed photo when the object itself is almost worthless. It is difficult to determine whether the reason I find Warburg’s atlas so dead is a result of the rigid museum hanging, the lack of evocative dark wooden furniture – as in the original library – the dust that has been wiped away from the panels, or simply how Warburg’s atlases are dwarfed by our present-day flood of images.

Artist Camille Henrot describes the seductive expansiveness of the digital archive in her video Grosse Fatigue (2013), presenting historical artefacts from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington side by side with images from the internet in what she calls an “intuitive unfolding of knowledge.” Like Henrot, I easily get swallowed up by the wormhole that is the internet, but I have to muster all my focus to gain even a foothold in Warburg’s visual world. The focus on the human form which runs as a common thread through the Mnemosyne Atlas should engage me, and yet I feel that I remain outside. The situation reminds me a little of when I, as a child, felt excluded when the older children bonded over poster walls. Back then, my inability to understand was due to a lack of knowledge I would obtain at a later point. Perhaps my sense of indifference before Warburg’s atlas is due to a lack of knowledge that culture at large has forgotten, and which HKW sadly does not provide me the tools to reconnect with.

Aby Warburg, Bilderatlas Mnemosyne – The Original, 2020. Installation view from HKW. Photo: Silke Briel / HKW.