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A Banker, a Scholar, and the Invention of Art History
The story of the Warburg brothers
By Ingrid Rowland
Cassirer’s ideas about symbolic form galvanized another bright young scholar
in Hamburg. He was Erwin Panofsky, who was appointed full professor of
philosophy at Hamburg in 1926, an exceedingly rare honor for a Jew, followed by
appointment as dean of the faculty in 1930–1931. A scintillating teacher,
Panofsky applied Cassirer’s aesthetics to the Italian fifteenth century in an
influential essay, in 1927, called “Perspective as Symbolic Form,” before
moving on to a coin a term of his own—iconology—to refer to the systematic
study of images. As short and homely as Cassirer was tall and stately, the merry
Panofsky reveled in his nickname, “Pan,” the libidinous ancient Greek
goat-god of high living and pan-like terror. In the University of Hamburg’s
firmament, he really was Pan to Cassirer’s Olympian Zeus, as histrionic and
capricious as a pagan god.
It is one of history’s dreadful ironies that Cassirer’s term as rector of the University of Hamburg, in 1929–1930, should have coincided with the onset of the Great Depression, the terrible German inflation crisis, and the growing power of jingoist and anti-Semitic elements in German politics. Ironically, he completed a book called Philosophy of the Enlightenment in 1932, as the clouds began to gather in Europe. In the spring of 1929, Cassirer accepted an invitation to debate the younger German philosopher Martin Heidegger at a conference in Davos, Switzerland. Levine provides a detailed analysis of this debate, which pitted the genteel, refined Cassirer against the blunt, brash Heidegger in a conflict of generations as well as philosophies (a subject on which Peter Gordon’s Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos deserves special mention). The students who attended this short course tended to side with Heidegger, whose blunt emphasis on studying concrete things (he described it as phenomenology) and aggressive relativism they found more attractive than Cassirer’s reasoned disquisitions on form and symbolism. The subsequent course of philosophy in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries still reflects that choice, although the debate happened almost a century ago. Heidegger, of course, became a member of the Nazi Party, by whose efforts Cassirer and Panofsky would soon be compelled to escape from Germany and live out their lives in exile. Levine’s insightful account of this showdown suggests that the students’ reactions to the two debaters were conditioned not only by philosophical criteria but also by their own feelings about gentlemen of the old school and young men on the move, about Jews and German patriotism, about reasoned argument and emotive demagoguery. Heidegger’s intellect was immensely seductive, as a young Jewish student named Hannah Arendt discovered in spite of all the National Socialist cant.
Aby warburg died on the eve of the stock-market crash in October 1929. He missed Cassirer’s tumultuous, difficult term as rector of the University of Hamburg, the Great Depression, the rise of National Socialism, and the elevation of anti-Semitism to German state policy. (Max Warburg, ever Aby’s alter ego, would experience them all.) Cassirer fled first to Sweden and then, with the outbreak of war, to the United States, where he taught first at Yale and then at Columbia. He died in 1945 at the age of seventy.
By 1931, “Pan” Panofsky, not yet forty, was already alternating terms at New York University with terms at Hamburg; when the Nazis came to power two years later, he simply stayed in New York, moving eventually to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, along with other Jewish exiles such as Einstein and the historian Felix Gilbert. Once he arrived in the United States, Panofsky wrote exclusively in English, which had the effect, Levine laments, of blunting the subtlety of his writing. Yet his English prose was sufficiently vibrant, persuasive, witty, and infectiously enthusiastic to make the diminutive Panofsky a giant in his field, with books that have become classics of art history: Studies in Iconology (1939), Early Netherlandish Painting (1953), Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art 1960). All of these works are written in a lucid, delightful style that has been matched by few of his successors. Her assessment of Panofsky is the one aspect of Levine’s account that smells too much of the lamp and not enough of the aesthete.
In the American setting, Dora Panofsky also came into her own as a scholar for the first time. The couple was known among friends as “PanDora.” When Dora died, Pan married a beautiful Bavarian Gentile named Gerda Soergel and returned briefly to Germany, as he declared, simply to meet the in-laws. With its wide range of scholarly disciplines, notably including the sciences, the Institute for Advanced Study provided all the Panofsky family with an ideally stimulating environment; his two sons, Wolfgang and Hans, would become physicists. For his part, Pan was convinced that New York, not Europe, had become the real center for art history.
Aby Warburg’s library narrowly missed destruction, but through the joint efforts of Panofsky, Max Warburg, Fritz Saxl, and another Cassirer student, Edgar Wind, the books were moved to London in 1933, along with Saxl himself and Gertrud Bing. In 1944, the Warburg Library became the nucleus for a new academic center, the Warburg Institute of the University of London, under whose auspices the holdings have grown to 350,000 books, ten times the size of Aby’s original collection. Transplantation inevitably changed the library’s character. Saxl’s fascination with astrology encouraged research into other areas of Renaissance culture that diverged from modern science: topics such as magic, mysticism, what Edgar Wind called, in an important book, Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance. Thus Aby Warburg’s efforts to find a scientific basis for aesthetic responses turned, in subsequent generations, into a more specialized search for the legacy of classical antiquity in the European Renaissance. Aby’s huge, unfocused collection of photographs, Mnemosyne, was difficult to use, and it exists now as a historical document; in its stead, in 1948, the young scholars Phyllis Pray Bober and Ruth Rubinstein created what would become the Census of Antique Works of Art Known in the Renaissance. Today, in many ways, Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study probably comes closer to Aby Warburg’s vision for his library than the Warburg Institute itself.
The Warburg Library may have presented Ernst Cassirer with the map of his own mind, but for many student users, as Levine notes, it was a forbidding and incomprehensible place, the refuge of a select few. Like the marvelous library of Werner Oechslin in Einsiedeln, Switzerland, and David Wilson’s Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, California, it was probably most vibrantly alive in the presence of its inventor. (Happily, these latter-day tutelary geniuses are still very much in evidence in their creations.) A century after Aby’s heyday, it is not immediately apparent that a Warburgian arrangement of books, that is, a choice collection arranged alphabetically, will stimulate a more productive train of thought than, say, the Dewey Decimal System or the Library of Congress; both these classification systems were also the product of brilliant and wide-ranging minds, and there, too, the physical rubbing together of book and book can ignite the spark of new ideas. The Vatican Library’s arrangement of books, for a variety of historical reasons, is simply weird—it has absorbed entire collections, each with its own cataloguing system based on such various principles as size, subject, and date of acquisition; but it is hard to imagine a more inspiring place to read, and think, and build castles in the air. Emily Levine shows how crucially time, place, and people can affect what we finally study and ponder; but in the end, if we are lucky, we all make our own Dreamland of Humanists with the materials at hand.
Ingrid Rowland is a professor at the Rome campus of the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture and the author, most recently, of From Pompeii: the Afterlife of a Roman Town (Belknap).
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