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Urworte leidenschaftlicher Gëbardensprache, 1927

Aby Warburg (1866-1929)

Installation views of panels used by Aby Warburg to illustrate his series of talks, “Urworte leidenschaftlicher Gëbardensprache” [The primitive words of a passionate gestural language] given at the Kunstwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg in Hamburg between January 
29 and February 12, 1927. 
Warburg Institute Archive, Londres. 
© Warburg Institute, Londres, 2020  

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Copying images of artists who lived in times past has been the most common way of starting to learn about the plastic arts. As a result, comparing them is an effective strategy for detecting influences, parallels or differences between them: to construct the journeys undertaken by the images that have survived their particular period. 


The German historian Aby Warburg was a pioneer in the use of this approach to investigate and divulge the history of art. In the 1920s he began to give talks at his library, with the help of panels such as the ones reproduced in this mural. 


In these panels, he included elements that were generally not considered to be of aesthetic value, such as stamps or domestic utensils. Above all, however, he incorporated reproductions of all kinds: from photographs to plaster molds, drawings or etchings. Warburg grouped works of art in defiance of any chronological rules, and employed a variety of academic disciplines to draw his interpretive conclusions. His conception of time in art was based on presenting a chronology that stretched back to Pre-Classical Antiquity. 


He grouped the images in order to contrast them and compare different motifs. His educational panels offered complex structures, proposing different ways of linking the images they contained. Some of these structures were arranged like montages, reminiscent of the cutting-edge language of cinematography, which he also studied. 


This interlacing made it difficult to gain an understanding with a single glance. Warburg, the author of Atlas Mnemosyne (1924-1929), was an art historian who was little understood – and often misunderstood – during his time: this was because, among other reasons, he exposed not only the contradictions between the images, but also the limitations of conventional art history.