We have been in Hamburg for four months now, living above the shop – in the attic of the Warburg-Haus, where I am the visiting professor for Wintersemester 1998-99. This is the original home of what is now the Warburg Institute in London, the interdisciplinary centre for research in the history of the classical tradition created early this century by the brilliant, haunted cultural historian Aby Warburg. After more than half a century, the Warburg-Haus has come back to life as a centre for scholarship of a different kind, and in a different Germany.
Vol. 21 No. 9 · 29 April 1999
Anthony Grafton states that Aby Warburg ‘was interested in looking at the methods of particular artists in the context of the economic, social and spiritual history they lived through’ (LRB, 1 April). But Warburg – and his disciple Erwin Panofsky – could not develop a method for doing this. Instead they and their followers in Kunstgeschichte developed the iconological method, dominant in art history of the medieval and Early Modern eras, of grounding artistic images in written texts. This method is still pursued at the Warburg Institute in London and the New York University Institute of Fine Arts. Warburg and Panofsky did not attempt the historical sociology of art, partly because the methodology for doing it was so ill-defined and partly because it smacked of Marxism – Grafton makes Warburg out to be much bolder than he actually was. Art history in both the US and Britain has followed the cautious, picture-to-text iconological approach ever since. Not that this method hasn’t been fruitful; it has, but it has become increasingly sterile intellectually and redundant in its achievements in the past two decades. Grafton’s history of art history is Whiggish – he posits what he wants to see in it.
New York University
Vol. 21 No. 12 · 10 June 1999
I don’t know where to begin with Norman Cantor and his confusions (Letters, 29 April). Aby Warburg’s work was indeed what Cantor denies it was: a broad attempt at the ‘historical sociology of art’; it was profoundly concerned with ‘the methods of particular artists in the context of the economic, social and spiritual history they lived through’, as Anthony Grafton so aptly put it. The notion of lumping together Warburg and Panofsky in the way Cantor does – let alone under the banner of what, for some reason, he chooses to call ‘Kunstgeschichte’ – would hardly occur to anyone with more than a superficial acquaintance with their work. To see the differences clearly, one need only read the great essays by Warburg on Botticelli, on the Sassetti Chapel in Santa Trinità in Florence, on the role of magic, astrology and divination in the Reformation, and on portraiture and 15th-century Florentine society. So, too, with his remarkable study – now much commented on – of the serpent rituals of the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico and northern Arizona.
Warburg’s work was of an entirely other order than the iconological research pioneered by Panofsky, though in attaching to Panofsky the label of ‘the iconological method’ Cantor seems ignorant of the good early Panofsky (e.g. the remarkable essay on ‘Perspective as Symbolic Form’), and unaware of what was genuinely Warburgian in Panofsky’s thought.
Cantor’s knowledge of institutions is just as flimsy as his grasp of historiography. Most people who have spent more than an hour at either the Warburg or the Institute of Fine Arts are able to see the stark differences between the two. Following the departure of Gombrich and Baxandall, the art historians at the Warburg have indeed been engaged in rigorous – and often narrow – iconographical research; but those at the Institute of Fine Arts cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called either Warburgian or Panofskian.
It is true that American art history suffered for a long time from its fascination with Panofskian forms of iconographic interpretation (‘iconology’ is a different matter); and that much of the discipline in the US was barely competent enough, philologically and archaeologically speaking, to carry out such research. It is also true that the work of Warburg has lately come to be identified in many circles as deeply conservative. But ‘Marxism’ in this methodological context is a red herring.
Vol. 21 No. 13 · 1 July 1999
I hesitate to intervene in learned differences of transatlantic opinion about Warburg, but I can confirm Anthony Grafton's observation (LRB, 1 April) that, as is evident from Gombrich's magisterial Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography, there is a wealth of unexplored material relating to this exceptional scholar in the archives of the Institute that bears his name. It seems, to parody the man himself, that every scholar gets the Warburg he deserves. But perhaps I may be permitted at least to set the record straight on the Warburg Institute. Anyone who had spent more than a few minutes perusing the recent publications of my art-historian colleagues, or has attended any of our recent colloquia on art-historical topics, would know that there is no truth in the tired allegation that they are purveyors of narrow iconographical research. And the starkest difference between the Warburg Institute and the New York Institute of Fine Arts is that the Warburg's concerns, in keeping with its founder's notion of Kulturwissenschaft, and his central passion for the history of the classical tradition, reach far beyond the confines of fine art. There is not even a majority of art historians on the academic staff.
Director, Warburg Institute, London WC1