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Interdisciplinary Journal on Human Development, Culture and Education
Revista Interdisciplinar de Desenvolvimento Humano, Cultura e Educação

ISSN: 1533-6476

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Book Reviews / Resenhas

Junho / June / 2002

Woodfield, Richard, editor
Art History as Cultural History: Warburg's Project
Amsterdam: G+B Arts, 2001
293 p.

a review by Marcelo Guimarães Lima

Recent  translations of works by Aby Warburg are allowing English-language readers interested in the history of modern art history, a more direct examination of a quasi-legendary figure, researcher and writer who appeared,  through the works of some of his associates and "pupils" in the post-war US and in Europe, as a sort of grey-eminence" of art historical studies. Art historians such as Panofsky, Saxl and Ernst Gombrich, to name just a few, have acknowledged
the importance of Warburg in the modern developments of the discipline,
specially in regard to the studies of Renaissance art and culture, of
central importance for the early methodological foundation of the
history of art in the last part of the 19th and the early part of the
20th Century. And yet, the same writers have revealed, in different,
more or less subtle ways, what we may call a deep ambivalence towards
Warburg's art historical theory and practice.

The present volume, edited by Richard Woodfield, brings together
critical essays and the text of a  1914 lecture on the art of the
Renaissance by Aby Warburg's himself , as well two pieces by Ernst
Gombrich: an essay on the 19th century notion of a "pagan revival"
(central to Warburg's investigations on the Renaissance)  and his
Warburg Centennial Lecture delivered at the Warburg Institute of the
University of London in 1966.

In the introduction, series editor Saul Ostrow observes that what we my
call  the crisis of the dominant positivistic model of art history of
the mid 20th Century, and the development of Cultural Studies and Visual
Studies as interdisciplinary fields in the later part of the century,
has prompted a renewal of interest in  Warburg's "attempt at producing a
cultural psychology". While recognizing the heterogeneous nature of the
discipline of art history, Ostrow nonetheless states that Warburg's
project had less to do with art history per se than with the psychology
of culture, as embodied and processed through works of art. One wonders
here if the setting of strict boundaries between cultural practices and
cultural disciplines is not positivism itself and, therefore, perhaps not the
best way of characterizing Warburg's "antiformalist" and "antipositivist"
art history.

One of the main interests of Warburg's unfinished work (a work that was
perhaps, by its very nature and scope, impossible to complete) is the,
explicit or implicit, methodological questioning of the foundations of the
discipline through the engagement with the products of art considered as
living by and through their historical contexts, in the confluence of a
horizontal (temporal)  and a vertical (psychological structural) series,
as both the mediators of culture in time, that is, historical semiotic
entities: historical signs remaking themselves across cultural epochs,
and the mediators of the structural instances of the psychological
foundations of the human mind and the human heart.

In this, Warburg's project echoes, at times anticipates, or reproduces
in its own mode, some important themes and ideas that, in different
ways, marked the theoretical passage between the 19th and the 20th
Centuries, the soil of cultural and theoretical developments such as
psychoanalysis, the study of symbolism and  logical analysis, structural
linguistics and semiotics, of existentialism and the philosophy of
values (Nietzsche). The "symptomatic" dimension of Warburg's works in
relation to its cultural soil may in fact give us the key for the
"universal" difficulties of a more coherent account of his "project":
Warburg's art historical project, a work "between two worlds" we may
say, inhabits a sort of deserted landscape at the foundations of
modernity (that very historical modernity  that was, in a general way,
one of its main objects) and confront us still today, in its "untimely"
(Nietzsche) dimension, with the dilemmas of historical possibilities.
One here may evoke Walter Benjamin's researches on the passages
between historical epochs such as the Baroque, the 19th and the 20th Centuries.
Benjamin's notion of the ruin (the baroque ruin mirroed and transformed in the
romantic allegories of Baudelaire) both as the image of the historical past, 
of what once fully was,that is, a given totality, as well as of arrested life,
of incompleteness and lack, explored the dilemmas of historical time and experience. The paradox of the dialectical fragment was Benjamin's central object, and the fragmentation of reified totalities formed the core his methodological
praxis that aimed at the subversive use of fragments.

Warburg's investigations of the migrations and transformations of images across
times and cultures traced also the fragments of cultural totalities and their 
structural and functional mutations. We can say that the fragmentation of art history itself as a historical project and as cultural practice in our post-moderm time may prompt us to a rereading of Warburg's that will perhaps contribute to produce a new understanding of the dimensions of modernity and of our own moment.

copyright (c) 2002  Centro de Estudos e Pesquisas Armando de Oliveira Souza CEPAOS 

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