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A Banker, a Scholar, and the Invention of Art History
The story of the Warburg brothers
By Ingrid Rowland
The Warburg Institute
Like his contemporary Bernard Berenson (they were born one year apart, Berenson in 1865, Warburg in 1866), Warburg took special delight in the sinuous lines of late-fifteenth-century Florentine painting and sculpture, aware that these works had been inspired in turn by the era’s reawakened interest in ancient art (including the remains of frescoed walls as well as works of sculpture in marble and bronze). Both men revered Botticelli, and Warburg also admired Botticelli’s contemporary Ghirlandaio. (Baroque artists such as Bernini, Borromini, and Caravaggio struck them both as monstrous corruptors of the classical ideal.) Warburg particularly loved a frescoed maiden by Ghirlandaio from the Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella in Florence, who virtually dances into a room with a tray of fruit on her head, her dress and veil billowing gracefully behind her. Unlike Lessing’s tortured Laoco÷n, with its agonized beauty, this nymph’s Pathosformel was Warburg’s formula for sheer bliss.
Both Berenson and Warburg hoped to give the study of art an objective, even scientific basis. For Berenson, the key to scholarly rigor lay in the close analysis of visual details: if an artist drew an ear in a certain way, then he would continue to draw an ear in that way, and his work could be identified by a series of these characteristic touches. Warburg, like contemporary classical scholars such as Jane Harrison and Francis Cornford, turned to the new field of anthropology. In 1895, he sailed to the United States to attend the wedding of his brother Felix (the three younger Warburg brothers all emigrated to New York, with triumphant success). Appalled by what he considered the barbarity of New York society, Aby escaped for two weeks in 1896 to the deserts of New Mexico. Clad for the occasion in cowboy hat and bandanna above his three-piece suit (all the Warburgs were dapper dressers), he visited several Hopi pueblos in New Mexico and watched a snake-handling ceremony. He recounted a fairy tale from the brothers Grimm to a group of Hopi schoolchildren and asked them afterward to draw a bolt of lightning. He was thrilled when two of them portrayed an arrow-headed snake, the traditional Hopi symbol, rather than a visually accurate zigzag. The eager young scholar could want no more vivid proof of the enduring grip that symbols had on the human mind.
In 1904, Aby and Mary Warburg moved into a new house at 114 Heilwigstrasse to accommodate their three young children and Aby’s nine thousand books (by 1926, however, the library required its own separate building). Ornamental brickwork traced out the letters K B W on the fašade; and with the blessing of brother Max, the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg came into being. Max Warburg is one of several unsung heroes in Levine’s epic. Since he stuck so steadfastly (and selflessly) to banking and public service, he is not essential to the intellectual history of the Hamburg School, but he was its bulwark all the same. (Ron Chernow’s The Warburgs gives Max his due.) Aby, small, in precarious mental and physical health, was always dependent on the help of others, from legions of household servants to his far-seeing, long-suffering wife, Mary, to the two people who eventually kept his library running for risible salaries: Fritz Saxl, an Austrian graduate student in art history with an abiding interest in astrology, hired in 1911 as librarian, and Gertrud Bing, a student of philosophy who came to Hamburg to work with Ernst Cassirer, the first professor to be appointed, in 1919, by the brand-new University of Hamburg.
Attracting the internationally renowned Cassirer was a grand coup for Hamburg, a splendid way to announce a new school moving in new directions. A decade later, at fifty-five, he would become the first Jewish rector of a German university. But by then conditions for Jews were changing rapidly for the worse. Cassirer belonged to a group of German philosophers, many of them Jewish, who had begun to draw fresh inspiration from Kant, who conceived his transcendent ideas about the human capacity for reason and social justice while pacing the streets of his native K÷nigsberg. By extending Kant’s rational philosophy, the neo-Kantians hoped to blaze a political “third way” between the extremes of Marxism and capitalism, an effort to which the stately Cassirer contributed by his manner as well as his ideas. A gifted writer with a bent for history, he made his reputation with a series of comprehensive books on large topics: The Problem of Knowledge (1906–1950), a multi-volume history of philosophy from the Renaissance to his own time, Substance and Function (1910), Freedom and Form (1916), and Kant’s Life and Thought (1918), all written as a private lecturer at the University of Berlin, the usual position for Jewish scholars in the German system of higher education. The invitation to take up a real professorial chair in Hamburg was thus a change of immense significance in his life, in the history of Hamburg’s university, and in the German world of higher education.
In the wake of World War I, Cassirer had begun to lose his faith in reason and the neo-Kantian rational view of human behavior. Inspired in part by his friend Albert Einstein’s explorations of physical relativity and in part by his own strong spiritual bent, he turned to the investigation of myth and what he termed “symbols created by intellect itself” to find a way to reconcile science and aesthetics. By 1921, he had coined the phrase “symbolic form” as a way of accounting for the distinctions between sense and intellect. It was in this restless, receptive state of mind that he came into contact with Aby Warburg and his remarkable library.
He met the library first, through his acquaintance with Saxl; the savagery of the war had sent Aby into a deep depression and a series of sanitariums. In 1924, Saxl arranged a meeting between the two men, an occasion of tremendous significance for both. As the Warburg library provided Cassirer with a means to articulate his complicated thoughts, Cassirer’s compassionate companionship guided Aby back to health. The relationships were never simple. Warburg’s mental agitation had squelched his scholarly productivity, which led him to idolize Cassirer and resent Saxl, who had kept the library going throughout Aby’s stays in the hospital. Cassirer regarded the Warburg Library as a virtual portrait of his own mind, a place where Einstein, Freud, and modern anthropology could keep company with the ancient Greeks and Romans.
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