On the Library as Foundation: Thinking On and Beyond Aby Warburg’s Systematic Approach to Images and Culture
Aby Warburg (1866-1929) was a German art historian whose research focused on the remembrance and propulsion of antique forms throughout the history of art and culture. This paper will focus on two specific aspects of Warburg’s legacy: his personal library and his image-based project, the Mnemosyne Atlas. Both served as essential research tools for Warburg during his lifetime, and they continue to be tools for understanding and responding to his work today. My thesis consists of three chapters. The first focuses on the role of the library and Warburg’s implementation of an idiosyncratic system, which he called the “Law of the Good Neighbor,” within his library. This system, which is still used in an approximated form today, categorizes the books and images of the library according to their contents rather than by traditional methods like the Dewey Decimal system or the Library of Congress system, which organizes books by a set of pre-existent, broad genres or categories. I focus on the ongoing recreation and rearrangement of the library’s contents through both continued acquisitions and the library’s changing locations over the course of its history. The second chapter focuses on the Mnemosyne Atlas, an offspring of the library, which I argue similarly replicates “The Law of the Good Neighbor” system, just presented on mobile panels rather than the shelves of the library in an abbreviated, more succinct form. The third and final chapter focuses on my own relationship to these sources as an artist, focusing on the library and Atlas’ influence by offering an account of their impact on my studio practice. I argue that my understanding of Warburg’s work is fortified by my own replication and interpretation of Warburg’s sources.