PRINT October 2011


“Atlas—How to Carry the World on One’s Back?”

View of “Atlas—How to Carry the World on One’s Back?,” 2010, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid. Background: Reconstructed panels from Aby Warburg’s “Mnemosyne Atlas,” 1924–29. Foreground: Anonymous Roman statue of Atlas, ca. 49 BC. Photo: Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores.

LONG FABLED as the father of iconology—indeed, of modern art history—Aby Warburg has of late assumed the role of its crazy uncle. In contradistinction to the plodding, fact-finding, tamed iconography that followed in his wake in the early twentieth century, in recent years Warburg has been revalorized as advancing a radical anachronism, discontinuity, and antipositivist turn in the understanding of images and objects. A leading figure in this revival is Georges Didi-Huberman, who in 2002 published a major study of the visionary German art historian and is a curator of one of the past year’s most curious and fascinating exhibitions: “Atlas—How to Carry the World on One’s Back?,” which premiered at Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía and then traveled to the ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany, where I saw it this summer. (It is currently on view at the Sammlung Falckenberg in Hamburg.) Seemingly tidy and scholarly but on closer inspection wild and adventurous, this is an exhibition in which to get lost, an imaginary labyrinth that soon expands beyond the confines of the museum. Its inspiration comes from Warburg’s legendary last project, the “Mnemosyne Atlas,” 1924–29, for which he brought together various combinations of photographs from his research on a large-format plate covered with black fabric, which he then photographed in turn. At the time of his death it comprised seventy-nine panels, on which were shown some thousand photographs. Like all of Warburg’s works, this vertiginous archive of images was an attempt to demonstrate the Nachleben, or “afterlife,” of antiquity in the imagery of later epochs, from the Renaissance and the Baroque all the way up to Warburg’s own time. As the eighteen reconstructed panels in Didi-Huberman’s show make clear, Warburg included a great variety of material that must have been surprising to his more conventional academic colleagues: Besides drawings, paintings, and sculptures, there are photographs of ornamental textiles and carpets, newspaper clippings, genealogical tables, illuminated manuscripts, astrological and esoteric diagrams, stamps, and mass-produced leaflets and posters. Didi-Huberman reveals a Warburg at odds with the humanist iconology that succeeded him—presenting his legacy as a worldview predicated on the loss of self rather than its redemption.

The “Atlas,” Warburg claimed, was “a ghost story for adults.” It proposes a phantom science of the image, one that explores his nebulous concept of the Pathos-formel (pathos formula), something transmitted and transformed throughout our visual history, in dances and in human gestures tout court, depicted in classical art as well as in the popular imagery and mass media of his time. (Giorgio Agamben has described this term as designating “an indissoluble intertwining of an emotional charge and an iconographic formula in which it is impossible to distinguish between form and content.”) Warburg claimed to recognize the same attitudes and expressions of hysteria and melancholy, of grace and ugliness, of desire in movement and of petrified terror, in ancient Roman sculptures and in documentary photographs of Hopi snake rituals (one of his most famous examples). He created startling visual links between the body of Mussolini as he signed a concordat with the pope and the Eucharist’s version of the body of Christ; or between astrological representations of the sun and the moon and Babylonian images depicting a sheep’s liver in which people believed it possible to read hidden messages about the future.

Warburg’s “Atlas,” which has been characterized as an amalgamation of the Internet and the Talmud, proposed a new gay science of the creative gaps between pictures, of the in-between, and of the charged relationship between seemingly disparate and radically unrelated images. This methodology, which Warburg dubbed “montage-collision,” has been compared to Sergei Eisenstein’s “montage of attractions” as well as to the dialectical text-image juxtapositions of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project (Benjamin cited Warburg in his work). But although Warburg used his panels as a pedagogical tool during lectures at his institute in London, the “Mnemosyne Atlas” is above all a hugely ambitious work of speculative philosophy. Mnemosyne, the agile goddess of memory, grants adventure rather than stability and calm. Human memory is presented as a nonlinear field of conflict, and our visual history as a great war of images, not as a stable archive to be peacefully examined.

The “presentation” of Didi-Huberman’s show by the directors of the three hosting institutions rather melodramatically calls the idea of the Warburg archive “Dionysian,” glossing that it “has to do with desire, drive and evil”—but it is nonetheless true that Warburg experienced his own work with the laboratory of pictures as a Nietzschean struggle rather than as a dispassionate archival practice. On August 18, 1928, he notes in his diary: “Morning, desperate fight with the company of specters; 1,051 images must be installed.” It is no coincidence that the construction of the “Atlas” took place during a time when the art historian had recently spent two years in a sanatorium. He was, in other words, reediting the history not only of human imagination but of his everyday life. The inhuman presence that lingers in the shadowy spaces between these pictures is, declares Agamben, “the dark demon of an unnamed science whose contours we are only today beginning to glimpse.”

To delineate these contours, Didi-Huberman has put together a sprawling exhibition of works by modern and contemporary artists, as well as by writers and scientists who employ comparable methods of arrangement and visual display, from modernist pioneers such as Étienne-Jules Marey and Brassaï to Conceptualists like John Baldessari, Hanne Darboven, and Sol LeWitt, as well as a few of today’s most indefatigable collectors of pictures, such as Hans-Peter Feldmann and Christian Boltanski. It is perhaps inevitable for any such project to be hard to separate from a mere catalogue of visual resemblances, a vast pseudomorphology. Speaking of his 1947 “Museum Without Walls,” André Malraux acknowledged the “rather specious unity imposed by photographic reproduction” in his encyclopedic photographic archive.

In this show, by contrast, the connections between countless discrete and specific visual impressions in various media often appear wild and sometimes far-fetched. A structure seems necessary to make them visible at all, however, and the installation is dominated by grids and well-ordered sequences, rectangular groupings of photographs placed in vitrines or arranged on the wall, innumerable pictures organized according to a formal framing device that creates a sense of order. Nonetheless, this is not a show about art. It is an exploration of the atlas itself.

The show’s ensembles of images are arranged according to broad subjects (“Knowledge Through Images,” “Piecing Together the Order of Things,” “Piecing Together the Order of Places,” and “Piecing Together the Order of the Times”), which are in turn subdivided into themes such as “landscape” (which includes work by Josef Albers, Roni Horn, Gordon Matta-Clark, Dennis Oppenheim, and Robert Smithson), “subjective geographies” (where Stanley Brouwn and Guy Debord can be found), and “ghost stories” (Boltanski, Gerhard Richter, and others). The migration of forms is never hindered by conventional boundaries between disciplines: The exhibition includes handwritten manuscripts by the likes of Walter Benjamin and Samuel Beckett and the thrilling world of natural forms scrutinized by speculative biologist Ernst Haeckel around the turn of the twentieth century. Notebooks with drawings by major scholars, from Jacob Burckhardt to Meyer Schapiro, are presented next to Conceptual artworks by Alighiero e Boetti and Rosemarie Trockel, a constellation that evokes the exhibition’s emphasis on “piecing together,” which sometimes suggests that the Warburgian montage table or tableau is a kind of board game on which each piece is always ready to enter a new set of relationships. In another instance, a taxonomic urge creates a sense of visual coherence between Christopher Williams’s sublime photograph of a jellyfish, Pacific Sea Nettle . . . , 2009, the natural artistic forms catalogued in Karl Blossfeldt’s Urformen der Kunst (Archetypes of Art), 1905–25, botanical studies by August Sander and Paul Klee, and a typological study of water towers in several photographs by Bernd and Hilla Becher. By such means, the atlas emerges as neither a dictionary, a scientific manual, nor a systematic catalogue but an epistemic device, i.e., as a tool to generate knowledge through images. What could be more attractive and liberating to critics, historians, and museum curators (such as myself) bored with standard narratives and collections organized according to disciplines, geography, chronology, or some more or less predictable themes that we find replicated in institutions all over the world? Ultimately, this is a show about human imagination and pathology as such, and it promises a revolution.

The exhibition thus disregards Bertolt Brecht’s old distinct of appearances (“A photograph of the Krupp works or the AEG tells us next to nothing about these institutions”), suggesting instead hitherto unrecognized connections and promising forms of knowledge based on a life of forms rather than on subject matter. In what sounds like a definition of the atlas, Didi-Huberman writes of “a collection of singular things, often extremely heterogeneous, whose affinity produces an infinite (never closed) and strange knowledge.” But what, more exactly, is this infinite knowledge? Even Malraux insisted on some kind of hidden “higher” forms of affinity, a “Babylonian” style that emerges beyond all classification, “resembling, rather, the life-story of a great creator.” Nevertheless, the “Museum Without Walls” still centers on a kind of universal family of man, whereas Didi-Huberman sees in Warburg the pursuit of an anti-universality, of aphasic and anachronistic connections premised on the idea that certain forms and materials could have a delayed reception, telegraphing meaning in ways that are not predetermined but instead are contingent on the coursings of history.

Like Warburg, Didi-Huberman is a thinker searching for prophetic truths in the visual fragments of the past; that this is so may help explain why Warburg’s real disciples were not figures such as Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl, who normalized his legacy and made it fit for the academy, but artists. Indeed, the lasting achievement of this exhibition may be to show that visual artists have most enthusiastically responded to the notion that the kind of knowledge in question cannot be tamed. Experimental laboratories of images and mobile archives are wild by nature. The day Warburg passed away, he wrote a brief remark about an apple tree that had blossomed mysteriously late, when everyone already considered it lifeless. He was fascinated by the idea of late blooming. Didi-Huberman’s real desire is, I believe, to present the artworks and ephemera in his exhibition as such blossoms on a tree that most of us thought to be dead. There is no doubt he has fulfilled his wish, and in the future I expect to spot Warburgian flowers all over the place.

Daniel Birnbaum is the Director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm.