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A Banker, a Scholar, and the Invention of Art History
The story of the Warburg brothers
By Ingrid Rowland
Dreamland of Humanists: Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky, and the Hamburg School by Emily J. Levine (Chicago)
A school photograph taken in Hamburg in 1879 shows thirteen-year-old Abraham Warburg among his classmates, conspicuous for his dark coloring and the mischievous, bemused expression on his face. Aby is obviously a handful. He dominates this solemn group portrait as definitely as he dominated his boisterous and numerous family, seizing attention with his quick wit and his tempestuous moods.
Aby knew his own mind. At thirteen, around the time the photograph was taken, he made a deal with his twelve-year-old brother Max: if Max would promise to buy Aby all the books he wanted for the rest of his life, Aby would hand over his designated position in the family bank. Both brothers were as good as their word. Max Warburg, the illustrious banker, would later declare that “this contract was certainly the most careless of my life,” and it would cost him dearly over the years. By 1914, Aby Warburg’s personal library numbered 15,000 volumes, many of them manuscripts or rarities from the earliest days of printing. Max and the three younger Warburg brothers, Felix, Paul, and Fritz, continued to subsidize their eldest brother’s bibliomania up to and beyond his death in 1929. Aby called the resulting collection his Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg or Warburg Library of Cultural Science, and he intended the choice and the arrangement of the volumes on the library’s shelves to create bridges between disciplines that he himself saw no reason to separate.

The Warburg Institute
Bibliothek der Kulturwissenschaft, Hamburg, 1926
Aby was also crazy. Today we would call him bipolar; he alternated periods of elation with dark despondency. Considering the circumstances under which he lived, a wealthy, hard-driven Jewish citizen of the German Reich and the Weimar Republic, he had much to be despondent about. Emily J. Levine’s book details the contradictions and confusions of Jewish life in Hamburg, with ancient religious traditions suddenly vying with modern currents of thought, and ancient caution competing with tentative hopes when Jews at last began to breach the barriers of anti-Semitism in German society. Focusing on Aby Warburg’s library and two of its most illustrious users, the philosopher Ernst Cassirer and the art historian Erwin Panofsky, she reveals the ways in which the distinctive qualities of a single place conditioned the development of ideas in a larger sense to create a “Hamburg School” of thought, a school intimately connected with Jewish experience in Imperial and Weimar Germany. Her supremely well-educated, well-connected protagonists would eventually have the means to escape from Germany and the worst ravages of National Socialism, as, at the very last possible minute, did Aby’s books; but theirs is still a tragic story.
In arguing for the importance of place and social setting in the formation of ideas, Levine crosses as many scholarly disciplines as Warburg’s Library of the Science of Culture did in its heyday. Dreamland of Humanists begins by outlining the history of Hamburg (roughly between the revolutions of 1848 and the advent of the Nazis) together with its distinctive forms of cultural life. Through detailed analysis of Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky, and the Hamburg School of thought that formed around them, Levine illustrates how this commercial city, for all its apparent limitations, turned out to provide a uniquely hospitable setting for the exchange of ideas. The novel propositions that this trio of thinkers would formulate about art, symbolism, and imagery have shaped more than the course of modern art history; they are also unwittingly responsible for Dan Brown’s improbable hero Robert Langdon, whose fictitious field of expertise, “symbology,” is a direct outgrowth of the “pathos-formulas,” “symbolic form,” and “iconology” developed by the Hamburg School of philosophy and history of art in connection with the Warburg Library of the Science of Culture.
Hamburg was a rough, gritty northern European port, with rotten weather and a superb location. From the thirteenth through the seventeenth century, it belonged to the commercial cartel known as the Hanseatic League, and owing to those origins as an independent city-state it continued to go its own way after the political unification of Germany in 1870. At the end of the fifteenth century, Hamburg was one of the places where Sephardic Jews settled after their expulsion from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497. There they were compelled to work as moneylenders because so many other professions were barred to them. From the mid-sixteenth century onward, Hamburg’s Christian community adopted an austere Protestantism that meshed with a correspondingly austere version of Judaism. For Christians and Jews alike, then, personal aspirations were kept in line by an overriding emphasis on community.
By profession, the citizens of Hamburg were sailors, shopkeepers, innkeepers, and merchants rather than landed aristocrats, and their city therefore lacked the kinds of cultural institutions that kings, bishops, and aristocrats tended to foster, amenities such as universities, opera houses, art collections. When cultural institutions finally came to Hamburg, they came late, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, at which point they grew out of a different social stratum, the merchant class, and responded to different, more private stimuli, as expressions of personal hospitality and ancient Jewish traditions of self-help. As Levine shows, Jewish philanthropy played a fundamental role in creating the cultural life of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Hamburg, a cultural life that depended almost entirely on private patronage and aimed at a more egalitarian, practical audience than the elaborately stratified social layers of Berlin, Munich, and Vienna. At the same time, the Jews of Hamburg were carefully circumspect about their involvement in public life. A Jewish merchant or professor could move only so far within German social circles, although Hamburg’s Protestant burghers were more accommodating than most. Both Aby Warburg and Max Warburg belonged to the exclusive Patriotic Society, the point of reference for most of the city’s philanthropic efforts, but their father, Moritz, advised Max against both a military career (in a letter of marvelous brevity: “My dearest Max, meschugge, Your loving father”) and, later, against running for the city Senate (warning that he would never be considered an equal).
As one of Hamburg’s wealthiest families, the Warburgs felt the conflicting pressures of family and religious loyalty, hope, ambition, and frustration all with a particular intensity. They expressed these conflicts as fierce competition among themselves, a fierce drive to achieve, and an abiding awareness that on the whole it was wiser not to let the world know the full extent of their exuberance, their talents, and their accomplishments. Moritz Warburg competed madly with his brother, Siegmund, falling behind personally but triumphing through his five sons, four of whom (minus Aby) transformed a successful local bank into an international powerhouse that helped to finance such disparate projects as the Baghdad railroad and the U.S. Federal Reserve. The contest between the two Warburg sisters-in-law, Theophilie and Charlotte, was if anything more intense than that between their husbands.
Since so much of Hamburg’s cultural life occurred in the private sphere, as Levine shows, it was conditioned significantly by women, although they usually participated on a private level as hostesses, amateur artists, amateur musicians, and amateur thespians rather than as professionals. Women may have exerted unusual influence for a German community, but they were still confined to a limited sphere of action. In the close-knit and closely guarded German-Jewish world to which the Warburgs belonged, a woman with Emily Levine’s scholarly talents (though she is too subtle a writer to say so outright) would have been compelled to expend all her energies, intelligence, and historical insight on counseling her husband, attempting to discipline her many children, and vying with her friends and relatives for little social victories. Even those women who fit with relative ease into a traditional wifely role, such as the regal Toni Cassirer, were still forced to deal with the endless succession of little injustices to which they and their husbands were continually subjected because of their religion, long before the extreme humiliations to which National Socialism would expose them.
Hamburg may have been a tight-knit, provincial city in many respects, but its immemorial merchant tradition also compelled its citizens to keep a close eye on the rest of the world. The civic art gallery, the Kunsthalle, opened as late as 1869, but its first director, Alfred Lichtwark, made an instant splash by collecting avant-garde work by the French Impressionists—foreigners!—and “rediscovering” German artists such as Caspar David Friedrich. As a newcomer to the cultural sphere, Lichtwark had nothing to lose by making bold decisions. As Levine notes, “Hamburg’s uncultivated cultural world could provide fertile ground for an ambitious visionary.” It certainly provided fertile ground for Aby Warburg, and through him for the people whose lives were transformed by his library and his ideas. (By a similar ineffable alchemy, several decades later, the clubs and brothels of Hamburg’s infamous red-light district would transform a grubby rock band from Liverpool called the Beatles into a quartet of serious musicians.)
Not long after making his pact with his brother, Aby Warburg decided to become an art historian. This was a brand-new profession in the late nineteenth century, a profession greatly facilitated by the new medium of photography, which enabled scholars to keep extensive, informative visual records of the things they had seen as a supplement to written notes. Aby collected photographs as eagerly, as imaginatively, as he collected books. He assembled his photographs for a specific purpose: he wondered how and why images could trigger such powerful emotions. Hamburg’s most famous Enlightenment intellectual, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, had addressed the same question in his essay “Laoco÷n,” a poignant meditation on the relationship between beauty and suffering that focused on an ancient marble statue group unearthed in Rome in 1506. The sculpture, signed by its three Greek creators, portrays the Trojan priest Laoco÷n and his two sons wrapped in the coils of two gigantic deadly snakes, slowly suffocating to death. Lessing marvels that the figures can provide such pleasure with their beautiful bodies and exquisite surface polish as they writhe and grimace in their private agony. (Lessing, amazingly, might have worked from engravings and a plaster cast of the sculpture rather than the real object.)
Aby Warburg marveled at this mystery, too. After studying art history at three different universities in Germany from 1886 to 1888, he spent a year in Florence doing research for his doctoral thesis on Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Primavera; he completed it in 1892 and it was published a year later. In 1898, he returned to Florence with his bride, the painter Mary Hertz. The couple would spend four and a half years in Tuscany, where Aby began, following Lessing’s lead, to search for what he would term “formulas for pathos,” Pathosformel, visual triggers that set off an automatic emotional response in viewers. He built his growing collection of photographs around this idea and called the collection “Mnemosyne,” the Greek word for “memory.”

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