Dear Aby

Decoding a Life Enchanted by Books

By Mindy Aloff

Published November 14, 2007, issue of November 16, 2007.
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Obsessed by Art — Aby Warburg: His Life and His Legacy
By Francesca Cernia Slovin
Translated from the Italian by Stephen Sartarelli
Xlibris, 227 pages, $22.99.

Without a belief that art is decipherable — that an onlooker can, through contemplation of symbols and patterns in a work of art, commune with intellects and sensibilities far removed in time and space — it is nearly impossible to appreciate the soaring intellectual achievements and the dizzying universal ambitions of art historian, critic, scholar and bibliophile Aby Warburg. Thankfully, Warburg has been privileged to have a living biographer who does entertain this belief, especially given the current backlash in the art world against the very notion of timelessly eloquent symbols, as determined by the artist, rather than contextual interpretation, as determined by the art scholar. In “Obsessed by Art,” Francesca Cernia Slovin presents — seriously and with affection — the excitement and suspense of individuals, working individually, to identify and decode iconography in Italian Renaissance painting or in such enigmatic images as that of Albrecht Dürer’s engraving “Melancholia I.” Aby Warburg was central to this trend in European art history. His writings and picture files, his memory map and — Warburg’s greatest legacy to civilization — his unique library of cultural history (now the Warburg Institute, housed at the University of London) all flowered from the basic presumptions that art does, in fact, contain meanings that the artist has put there and that those meanings can be pinned down and articulated: that the art can be understood as a specific communication of ideas by way of symbols, analogous to the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt.

This view of art as a focus for meditation whose goal is to lead the observer to enlightenment has a few recent exponents; in my view, they would include the late Joseph Campbell, who authored panoptic studies of world mythology; Leo Steinberg, who has written on the sexuality of the Christ Child in art, and Sidney Geist, who studies what he calls “cryptomorphs,” recondite figures and puns in the landscapes of Cézanne, which, Geist contends, Cézanne intentionally included. Yet even these formidably thoughtful and observant historians would surely bend the knee to Warburg, who projected his ideas for other scholars in a literal way by founding a library of, ultimately, some 65,000 uniquely organized volumes. Thereby, the library’s arrangement is to bring readers, book by book, to what is, in essence, an understanding of the progress of human creativity and the essence of the psyche.

In Warburg’s plan, as visitors proceed through the library’s four floors, devoted respectively from the ground up to “Image” (visual art), “Orientation” (the sciences), “Word” (imaginative literature) and “Action” (history, including the history of war), they will gradually make sense of the progress of scientific and technological advances that shrink the world in service of its betterment. The illumination experienced by a library user would also, Warburg expected, help to mitigate the anxieties the modern world entails, by providing us with an appreciation of symbols — of intellectual prisms — in whose presence we can pause to consider history and culture and so, momentarily, escape the soul-scouring pressures of the modern world.

Warburg (1866-1929) — who, from childhood, was not only an omnivorous reader but also a preternaturally focused observer of the tiniest details of life and art — had a vision, while still quite a young man, of the transmigration of images across time and space, from ancient India to ancient Greece to the Renaissance and beyond. He recognized how the gods of one era became transformed in both the high art and the folk art of another. And, as a humanist so passionate and upstanding that he could not bring himself to pronounce Kaddish at his father’s funeral, since he had long ago shaken off his affiliation with Judaism as a belief, he was convinced that, as biographer Slovin puts it, “art…was like milk.”

Although Warburg’s life included a few sensational episodes — a visit to the pueblos of the Southwestern United States in 1896; bouts of mental instability and a long period of effective incarceration in a luxury sanatorium in Switzerland (where Vaslav Nijinsky was also housed); a possible affair with one of his librarians very late in his life, on a trip to Rome and Naples — most of his excitement was internal and domestic.

Warburg’s distinguished banking family in his native Hamburg provided him with sufficient financial resources to realize his visions; his Protestant wife, Mary, and the couple’s three children adored him and put up with his bouts of ineluctable rage and unreasonable demands far beyond the point that most families would today; his friends, including such intellectual luminaries as the philosopher Ernst Cassirer, were men of considerable integrity and interiority. Warburg also managed, somehow, to escape the worst effects of the events that upended the material circumstances of most of Europe: World War I, the rise of fascism in Germany and the crash of 1929, which occurred about a month after his death.

And yet, Slovin has managed to produce a gripping story, filled with empathy and resonant prose, of the actions and interior experience of this quintessential independent scholar. (That she has done so in a self-published book is all the more remarkable.) Her models as a biographer do not seem to be the massive, impartial or aggressively judgmental Javert-like dossiers that are so popular today, but rather the novelistic and comparatively brief chronicles of an earlier age, such as Izaak Walton’s account of the life of John Donne. In terms of professional biographies, “Obsessed by Art” commits many “sins”: Its notes are scanty, to say the least; it reconstructs conversations at length; it describes everything, from feelings about the weather to intimate gestures of seduction, as if Slovin, herself, had been present. And yet, in concert with her translator she makes her subject live and breathe and seem like a person whom the reader might feel privileged to know.

Slovin’s writing is most magnetic when she’s chronicling mental activity, as in this passage about Warburg as a child, where the author’s distinction between reading and “reading” represents two stages of absorption:

The library was his kingdom. He used to enter it the way someone soaked to the bone from the winter rain sinks at last into a big hot tub. He would settle into the act of reading with similar caution, with a slow rhythm interrupted by regular breaks, sometimes to follow the train of his own thoughts, sometimes the flight of a fly; then, after a few pages, his attention would become more focused and the rhythm lighter and quicker. The outside world would then gradually disappear, and after a few hours of reading, one could speak, shout or shake little Aby, but he wouldn’t hear or react. He was ‘reading.’

To animate the experiences of reading, perceiving and thinking — indeed, to focus us on these processes as suspenseful actions at all — is quite a writerly feat, and, for this reader, a marvelous one. For that alone, this book would be a joy.

Mindy Aloff teaches courses in dance history and criticism and in the personal essay at Barnard College.

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