March 12th, 2013
Dear Aby Warburg, What Can Be Done with Images?
By Noemi Smolik
Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the German art historian and theoretician of Neoclassicism, believed that it was the concern of art to give expression to beauty. To express this concern he developed the concepts of “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur.” He applied these concepts to, of all things, the antique statue of Laocoön, a work of art that is neither noble nor quiet, but seems to absolutely explode with struggle, aggression, and despair. Aby Warburg noticed this discrepancy and it awakened in him a passion that lasted a lifetime. Warburg asked himself to what extent the things that we perceived in an image were merely the projection of our particular culturally determined convictions. For example, in Warburg’s view, Winckelmann projected his own ideals of beauty regarding classical antiquity onto the statue of Laocoön. Yet perhaps there might be universal pictorial structures, of physical and psychic origin, stored in our memories as “pre-concepts” or forms. The Greeks called such images mnemosyne [remembrances/memories]. Warburg began to search for such pictorial “pre-concepts,” which he termed “pathos formulas.”
Warburg began his search for these “pathos formulas” at exactly the right moment. Photography had become established and offered previously unimagined opportunities for comparing images. “Thanks to the resource of photography, the comparison of images can be further developed,” Warburg stated. As a means of refuting Winckelmann’s ideal of beauty, in the 1920s Warburg collected plates with photographs not only of works of art, but also of stamps, coins, and newspaper pictures. Warburg believed that art served as a means of overcoming traumatic experiences.
Warburg’s plates, which he called the Bildatlas Mnemosyne [Mnemosyne Album], were groundbreaking in their treatment of images. They proved provocative both for art theory and for art itself, and are still stimulating today. The intensity with which young artists in particular attempt to emulate Warburg is amazing, and was vividly displayed in this exhibition, which explicitly references the famous scholar and researcher of images. The exhibition also demonstrates, however, that these twenty-three young artists often do not share Warburg’s view of photography as simply an auxiliary resource for pursuing concrete interests. For them, photography has value in and of itself and can stand alone. This can be dangerous: believing every picture has inherent meaning can easily lead to randomness and nostalgia. One only needs to conjure a gentle appearance of old age and the job is done.
What are these artists doing with their images? If you are Manfred Pernice, you construct a pedestal out of used crates to house a photograph of the first demonstration that took place in East Berlin on November 4, 1989. The artist originally bought it for eighteen Euros as a framed souvenir. Katalin Deér installs photographs in plaster and builds large blocks of them; Tobias Buche makes photos transparent by affixing them to walls of Plexiglas. These artists spatially extend their photographs, as does Alexandra Leykauf, who transfers a photograph of a Turkish tent into the third dimension and, in the process, creates a photographic tent. Images found in the archives of the Ullstein Publishing Company are confronted with texts written by Ulrike Kuschel. She writes Lenin Gives a Speech next to one photograph. But does it really depict Lenin? Sometimes the description corresponds to the photograph; sometimes they seem to contradict each other; sometimes one discovers absolutely no correlation between them, as in the case of Lenin. Confusion reigns.
These artists also use photographs as material for creating works of art. Thea Djordjadze unrolls a carpet on the floor. In an allusion to André Malraux’s Musée imaginaire, she spreads out upon it erotic photographs from India. A tableau, a picture, an installation is created. Other artists tell stories. Marianna Christofides projects two images side by side—flower sellers, a beach, palm branches, maps on a wall—while a female voice hovers “off-screen.” The photographs are mismatched, not associated with each other, and the narration is completely unrelated to anything else. This leaves space for our imagination to solve the puzzle.
Two works in the exhibition refer to Warburg directly. In their film, Ines Schaber and Stefan Pente attempt to grasp Warburg’s photos of the Pueblo Indian Snake Ritual from New Mexico, in part by taking pictures of themselves in front of his photographs. Elke Marhöfer’s silent film documents a trip to London, where she filmed the glass plates of Warburg’s Mnemosyne Album (the original plates have been lost). One thing becomes clear in this exhibition: in contrast to many works by younger artists, which often slip into arbitrariness or randomness, Warburg was concerned with essentials. Another fact emerges with great clarity: the search for the “pathos formula” is nowhere near complete.
Noemi Smolik is a critic living in Bonn, Germany, and Prague.
Translated from German by Alan Paddle.
The exhibition Dear Aby Warburg, What Can Be Done with Images? Dealing with Photographic Material was on view at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst Siegen, in Siegen, Germany, from December 2, 2012, to March 3, 2013. It is accompanied by a catalog published by Kehrer Verlag.