Aby Warburg and the Anthropological Study of Art


Tetsuhiro KATO



     Aby Warburg (1866-1929), a Hamburg-born art historian submitted his dissertation on Botticelli to the University of Strasbourg in 1895; he then went across the Atlantic to the United States of America and stayed there until 1896.  There he visited several Indian reserves in New Mexico and Arizona, and took a lot of pictures of the rituals he saw there.  He then brought back to Hamburg many items he had bought there such as Kachina dolls.  Warburg himself had no intention to publish the result of this "field research" as a study of art history.

     The evolutionist premises betrayed in his work are incontestably outdated by our standard.  Nevertheless, his report of this journey still today, poses interesting problems as follows:

     1. How can these visual images from a pre-modern, non-European cultural world be scientifically approached through our own frames of reference?

     2. Can these images be called "art" and regarded as objects of "art studies"?

     3. What roles can the academic discipline eaestheticsf play in our present-day approach to these "art works"?

     To give some tentative answers to these problems in this paper, I will give an outline of his journey and his lecture on it, and then sketch out the essential features of Warburg's achievements.  By doing so, I would like to demonstrate the current significances and limitations of his psychological history ('psycho-history') of culture.


1. Journey to the 'Frontier'


     In September 1895 Warburg embarked on the Fürst Bismarck for New York to attend the wedding of his brother Paul (1).  After the ceremony, the young art historian full of curiosity and aspiration for romantic adventure visited the Smithsonian Institute in Washington and other famous museums and libraries, and got a lot of information about the American Indians from the most eminent cultural anthropologists and archeologists there, including Franz Boas, James Mooney, Frank Hamilton Cushing, J.W. Fewkes and James Powel (2).  His interest in Native American art had been aroused by some members of the staff at the Institute whom he had met on board the Fürst Bismarck.  But Aby had been interested in the rituals of these 'primitive' peoples and the symbolism of gesture found there, even before his journey to America.  He was a zealous listener of lectures given by Hermann Usener, a religious anthropologist at the University of Bonn.  He also felt a strong repulsion toward the contemporary mainstream art historians who only repeated praises of old masters of Italian Renaissance.  For instance, he once wrote:


"Moreover, I had acquired an honest disgust of aestheticizing art history.  The formal approach to the image - devoid of understanding of its biological necessity as a product between religion and art - ... appeared to me to lead merely to barren word-mongering..."(3)


Furthermore, he lived in an age when such artists as Gauguin and, later Picasso began to notice the expressionistic charm of the 'primitive' art.  August Macke and Emile Nolde, painters of German Expressionism at that time, produced paintings and drawings of American Indians and of their famous dolls (4).

     Now in the middle of November, Aby, furnished with all necessary information from the museums and libraries in the East Coast, departed for Santa Fe via Chicago and Denver.  After staying in New Mexico for a while, he visited San Francisco and there he had a vague plan to sail across the Pacific Ocean to Japan (5).  But, much to our regret, this plan was not realized.  Until he left America in May 1896, he spent almost his entire time observing of various religious rituals of Navahos and Pueblos in New Mexico and Arizona.

     Aby donated the materials that he had collected in his six-month stay in the United States to the Hamburger Museum of Ethnology (Hamburgisches Museum fuer Voelkerkunde) soon after he came home (6).  In the next year (1897), he got married to Mary Hertz, an artist whom Aby met in Florence.  The new couple settled in Florence, and Aby was devoted to the study of the function of image in Florentine bourgeois society in the Medicean era.  Yet it was not until April 21st 1923, 27 years after he came back to Europe, that the report of his research in America was first delivered to the audience (even if informally).

     The presentation, titled "Images from the Region of the Pueblo Indians of North America," was held in a mental clinic "Belle Vue," located in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland (7).  Warburg had suffered from strong anxiety and obsessions since the First World War.  In April 1921 he came under the care of Ludwig Binswanger, who was an assistant to C.G Jung and would later become famous for his "Daseinsanalyse", the psychoanalytical method he invented, deriving inspiration from Martin Heidegger's philosophy.  In 1923, Warburg convinced of his own recovery, proposed to deliver an academic lecture before the doctors and patients in the hospital.  He intended to demonstrate that he could resume a normal life as an academic.  This proposal was accepted and he talked about his experience and observations of 27 years ago, showing more than 50 slides.


2. The Lecture on Serpent Ritual


     This lecture was composed roughly of three parts.  First, the symbolic function of the serpent image found in the local applied arts, such as utensils and dwellings; second, Indian's "masked dance" Warburg had actually watched in America; third, the symbolic signification of the snake as an image-language in European culture.

     In the first part, Warburg describes the symbolic significations of the design of Kachina dolls, clay vessels, and the peculiar terraced houses, while explaining the Native Americansf basic life style, the form of their religion (totemism), and their harsh living environment (8).  "Kachina dolls" are meant to represent faithfully the divine ancestral spirits.  And what is depicted on the earthenware for conveying and storing precious water in a dry land is not a mere pattern.  It is, according to Warburg, a kind of "hieroglyph," which decomposes and reconstructs the images of the serpent (which is believed to be a sacred animal having power to bring rain because of its lightning-like shape), and the image of the bird (which, not only a totem, but also has much to do with funeral rituals).  And, also on the altar in the kiva, the most sacred subterranean prayer room, the serpent is depicted in the shape of lightning as the supreme object of their worship.

     What attracted Warburg's interest most, however, was the masked dance.  He describes the details of the "antelope dance," which he saw in San Ildefonso, near Santa Fe (9), and the "humiskachina dance," a dance of praying for a good harvest he saw in the rock village of Oraibi (10), and elucidates their meaning.  And then he reports on the whole ceremonies in Walpi (11) although he did not in fact observe all of them.

     As Warburg says in the second part of his lecture, the antelope dance is an agricultural ritual dedicated to the antelope as the animal that brings water from melted snow, and in the humiskachina dance, too, people also pray for rain and fertility.  Finally, the serpent ceremonies in Walpi are the most important annual event for the Hopi Indians.  This is also basically a ritual to seek rain, where people supplicate heaven for thunderstorms just before the harvest.  In these unique ceremonies, neither the movement of snakes is imitated nor the masks are used, but, instead, the live poisonous rattlesnakes are brought into the ritual.  At the climax of the ritual, they are dispatched to the plains as messengers (12).

     In the last part of the lecture, Warburg changes the topic suddenly to the world of Greek antiquity, from which European culture sprang (13).  He suggests that only the American Indians do not conduct savage rituals.  The orgiastic cult of Dionysus is brought to his audiencefs attention at the outset of the last part of his lecture.  In these rituals, frantic Maenads dance with snakes in their hands. According to Warburg, snakes are, at the same time, the symbol of the destroying force of the underworld and that of immortality and rebirth, as is similarly found in the image of Asclepius, the ancient god of healing.  Incidentally, Asclepius becomes the Serpent Bearer and stands over Scorpio (14).  This god of healing becomes, so to speak, a totem for those who were born in October.

     Needless to say, Christianity condemned most uncompromisingly such a pagan idolatry.  The Serpent was indeed expelled from the Garden of Eden.  But, as Warburg insists, this pagan cult of the evil symbols survives also in the Christian world (15).  For example, in medieval theology, the image of a serpent is found in the Crucifixion because of its typological significance.

     What Warburg wished to make clear in these analyses, is the relationship between the process of civilization and images (16).  According to him, among Pueblo Indians symbols, gestures, and masks in their rituals represent the connection between nature and man.  Pueblo Indian society is thought to be in process of transition into civilization, in the sense that the people understand the causal relationship between natural phenomena and human activity, not as a scientific fact, but only in terms of spiritualized symbolism.  But their apprehension of nature is not so sophisticated as to be called a systematic myth or science, which must be told in a completely abstract language.  They have not yet found a way to express their world-view rationally, as they are still governed by the substantial power of imagery.

     However (and here begins Warburg's unique way of thinking), Warburg argues that such rationalization or civilization through the abstract operation of symbols is, in fact, never achieved in a simple and conclusive manner (17).  The fact that the pagan iconography has survived into the Christian world testifies to this positively.  Of course, Warburg admits the importance of the role of enlightenment in the life and history of mankind.  This lecture itself was intended, above all, to prove his recovery, and consequently to demonstrate the need to overcome anxiety and fear by reason.  Nevertheless, he expresses, at the end of this lecture, an ambivalent fear toward the modern American Prometheus and Icarus, i.e. Franklin and the Wright brothers, who apparently conquered nature and substituted science and technology for the serpent-worship (18).  Thus he insists that the Denkraum, the space for symbolic thinking where the relation of human beings and their environment is understood in terms of concrete and organic shapes, is being destroyed by modern technology and abstract, rationalist education, and that this change helps produce another kind of anxiety.


3. Current Significance of Warburg's Method


     Warburg was not alone to take note of the importance of imagery as the elanguagef of the culture in the non-European world.  Other works sharing the same idea include such substantial studies as Franz Kugler's Handbuch der Kunstgeschichte (19), Dagobert Frey's Grundlegung fuer Vergleichende Kunstwissenschaft (20), and Andre Malraux's musée imaginaire (21).  Or, if we limit our scope to the pre-Columbian culture, George Kubler's Esthetic recognition of ancient American art (22), and Rudolf Wittkower's Allegory and the migration of symbols (23) must not be forgotten.  Anthropological experts such as George Boas (24) and Claude Levi-Strauss (25) have also carried out not a few important investigations.

     It cannot be stressed enough, however, that Warburgfs work is decisively different from that of these scholars.  In Warburg's iconology, what is of prime importance is cultural context.  As I have already said, he had a strong antipathy to aestheticized art history.  He never allowed painters aesthetic license even when he dealt with Italian Renaissance art.  He treated paintings, as artifacts on a par with furniture, wallpaper, or tapestry, as a "commodity," which is produced for the needs of consumers (26).  But his basic stance on artfs social context is not a so-called materialistic determinism.  His research system is rather characterized as an approach to the mentality of various people groups from a historical point of view.  He called his own method "psychology of style" or "historical psychology."  No matter what he studied, - whether Botticelli or Ghirlandaio, or whether the mask of Kachina dance or medieval astrological manuscripts, his main concern was always the ementalf effect of certain images on the human soul.  Above all, his analysis of the ambivalent roles that images play when anxiety about the irrational is rationalized in the process of civilization deserves our attention, for his work was the forerunner of the "dialectics of enlightenment" of the Frankfurter School of Sociology (32).  Pueblo Indians were at that time already ecivilized,f and the government of the United States had made the education of their children compulsory.  But, Warburg recognized lightning in the shape of a snake in many of the pictures that he asked schoolchildren to draw (33).  And he did not overlook the fact that, though the new snake that caught thunder (electric wire) brought electricity into their houses, such civilization was also accompanied by a new anxiety caused by the "loss of distance" (34).  Overcoming anxiety by rationalization was also the most serious problem for himself.  It was, however, clearly beyond his power to solve the problem of ambiguity, which he knew existed in the study of social development and civilization, or to elucidate the ambivalent effects of image and its function as a symbolic form.  It would rather plunge him into another realm of a new anthropological study of art in the sense that it should treat the problem of schizophrenic characteristics of culture.

     Of course Warburg's method has its limitations, a fatally emodernf problem.  For example, like most contemporary art historians, he made much of classical art.  However, in his case, it was not because classical art had any aesthetic value.  It was because it had succeeded in controlling primitive emotions (35).  Yet we must not overemphasize the fact that Warburg set out to analyze "Kachina" dolls, motivated by the contemporary enthusiasm for the expressionistic character of primitive arts.  Furthermore, he was an evolutionist who associated Athens and Oraibi linearly in historical terms.  He believed in the continuity of the primitive and the prehistoric (36).  Like an anthropologist, he went on a series of field research.  But what he discovered was just what he had wanted to see (37).  He believed that the pagan rituals such as those observed in Oraibi had been kept frozen as a specimen of ancient pagan culture as if time had stopped, like the relics of Pompeii.

     But what is at issue here is not so much the defect of, as the present-day significance, of Warburg's method.  To sum up, the following three points are the main features of his achievements.  First, he put forward a new, comprehensive and anthropological approach by which he boldly uncovered the hitherto hidden facts, which the symbol systems of the new and the old world held in common.  Second, he tried to go beyond the parameter of the fine arts set by modern aesthetes who believed in artfs autonomy, and grasp art in the context of "culture."  And third, he stepped into the field of mental mechanism in the production and the circulation of images, which deals with such issues as overcoming anxiety and controlling crude emotions.


4. Conclusion


     As I said earlier, Warburg had a plan to visit Japan.  In his famous picture atlas "Mnemosyne", we find photographs of the scene of HARAKIRI and the sculpture of thinking Buddha.  He might have met with some bankers.  And then?  Would he have discovered another "Greece" in Nara, as did Fenollosa and Okakura?  He could also have found some new aspects of Ukiyo-e prints, and possibly have visited Okinawa or Ainu as he fled from the snobbism of East Coast...?

     I should not indulge in fantasy now, but concentrate on how we can make use of Warburgfs method today.

     Finally, I give the answer to the three questions, which I mentioned initially.

     European (especially modern) aesthetics has prioritized those forms of art whose aesthetic function is dominant in society.  But this attitude certainly betrays a kind of bias and abstraction.  Moreover, this particular school of aesthetics has had power to compel other art forms to assimilate into fine arts.  In this sense, the name "art" will be unnecessary henceforth.  But, it is not only the aesthetic function of intuitive form that has been privileged in European world, as is seen in the history of visual culture.  Visual cultures in all over the world (including Europe) have relied not only on the formal aspects of the function of "art" but also on its other aspects, such as communication, and the control of mentality, as Warburg pointed out.  Such an aesthetic function, in the wider sense of the word, will play various roles in society as long as we invent things and concepts.  It is indeed possible that aesthetes will again deploy the abstraction of this aesthetic function excessively in future.  I believe, however, that the role of aesthetics is to offer a critical observation and respond quickly to such a foreseeable situation.




1. For Warburg's Travel to the United State, cf. [see] Saxl 1992; Gombrich 1986: 88-92; Raulff 1988; Forster 1991.

2. Guidi 1998: 31.

3. Gombrich 1986: 88f.

4. For the relation between German Expressionists, Gauguin, Picasso and so-called "primitive" art, cf. Goldwater 1938; Wichmann 1972; Rubin 1984; Raulff 1988: 90f.

5. Gombrich 1986: 91f.

6. Cf. Zwernemann 1984: Kat.Nr.298,300,301,302.

7. For his cure in Kreuzlingen and his lecture on Serpent Ritual, cf. Gombrich 1986: 216-227; Diers 1979; Raulff 1988.

8. Warburg 1988: 10-25.

9. Warburg 1988: 25-27.

10. Warburg 1988: 28-40.

11. Warburg 1988: 40-43.

12. Warburg 1988: 41.

13. Warburg 1988: 44-50.

14. Warburg 1988: 49.

15. Warburg 1988: 50-54.

16. Warburg 1988: 25, 54f.

17. Warburg 1988: 55-59.

18. Warburg 1988: 59.

19. Kugler 1841-42.

20. Frey 1949.

21. Malraux 1947.

22. Kubler 1991.

23. Wittkower 1977.

24. Boas 1960.

25. L vi-Strauss 1958; 1962.

26. Cf. z.B. Warburg 1992: 165-171.

27. For the relation of Warburg to the Frankfurt School of Sociology, cf. Diers 1992.

28. Warburg 1988: 1,56.

29. Warburg 1988: 57-59.

30. Warburg 1992: 125-130; Gombrich 1986: 177-185,229-238.

31. Cf. Gombrich 1986: 91.

32. Gombrich 1986: 91.



1. Works by Warburg

- Warburg, A.  Schlangenritual: Ein Reisebericht. Berlin: Verlag Klaus Wagenbach, 1988.

- Warburg, A.  Ausgewählte Schriften und Würdigungen.  Hrsg.v. D. Wuttke.  Dritte, durchgesehene und durch ein Nachwort ergänzte Auflage.  Baden-Baden: Verlag Valentin Koerner, 1992.

2. Others

- Boas, F.  Primitive Art. N.Y.: Thames and Hudson, 1960.

- Diers, M.  "Kreuzlinger Passion".  kritische berichte 7-4/5(1979): 5-14.

- Diers, M.  "Von der Ideologie- zur Ikonologiekritik: Die Warburg-Renaissancen".  Frankfurter Schule und Kunstgeschichte, hrsg.v. A. Bernt et al. Berlin: Reimer, 1992: 19-39.

- Forster, K.W.  "Die Hamburg-Amerika-Linie, oder: Warburgs Kulturwissenschaft zwischen den Kontinenten".  Aby Warburg: Akten des internationalen Symposions Hamburg 1990.  Weinheim: VCH, Acta Humaniora, 1991.

- Frey, D.  Grundlegung zu einer vergleichenden Kunstwissenschaft.  Innsbruck and Wien: Margarete Friedrich Rohrer Verlag, 1949.

- Goldwater, R.  Primitivism in Modern Art. N.Y., 1938.

- Gombrich, E.H.  Aby Warburg. An intellectual biography.  With a memoir on the history of the library by F. Saxl.  Oxford; Chicago: Phaidon, 1986(1970).

- Guidi, B.C. et al. (Hg.).  Photographs at the Frontier: Aby Warburg in America 1895-1896.  London: Merrel Holberton, 1998.

- Kubler, G.  Esthetic Recognition of Ancient American Art.  New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1991.

- Kugler, F.Th.  Handbuch der Kunstgeschichte.  Stuttgart: Ebner u. Seubert, 1841-42.

- Lévi-Strauss, C.  Anthropologie structrale. Paris: Plon, 1958.

- Lévi-Strauss, C.  La Pans e sauvage_. Paris: Plon, 1962.

- Malraux, A.  Le musée imaginaire. Genève: Skira, 1947.

- Raulff, U.  "Nachwort".  Warburg 1988: 61-94.

- Rubin, W.(ed.)  "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art; Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern.  N.Y.: The Museum of Modern Art, 1984.

- Saxl, F.  "Warburg's Besuch in Neu-Mexico"(1929/30).  Aby M.Warburg, Ausgewählte Schriften und Würdigungen, hrsg.v. D.Wuttke.  Baden-Baden 1992: 317-326.

- Wichmann, S. (Hg.)  Weltkunst und Moderne Kunst. Die Begegnung der europäischen Kunst und Musik mit Asien, Afrika, Ozeanien, Afro- und Indo-Amerika.  Ausstellungen veranstaltet von Organisationskomitee für die Spiele der XX.Olympiade München 1972.  München: Verlag Bruckmann, 1972.

- Wittkower, R.  Allegory and the Migration of Symbols. N.Y.: Thames and Hudson, 1977.

- Zwernemann, J.  Hamburgisches Museum für Völkerkunde.  München: Prestel, 1984.