CABINET
Aby Warburg’s Atlas

By:  Max von Werz and Enrique Giner de los Ríos

This method drawing on connections, confrontations and contradictions with its infinite possibilities was an obsession that captivated Warburg for years.

Between 1924 and his death in 1929 Aby Warburg developed the Mnemosyne Atlas. It consisted of 63 numbered panels measuring approximately 1.5 by 2 meters and covered with an endless number of images fixed in place with pins to allow their continuous rearrangement. The different images, of great symbolic meaning and originating from different cultures and eras, were constantly repositioned, resulting in a set of continually shifting relationships between each other. The project was never completed and the photographic record that remains merely reflects one possible narrative of thousands that Warburg delved in to. Nevertheless the Atlas - his masterpiece - transformed our way of understanding the images forever.

His combinatorial experiments follow a personal and intuitive logic, coupled with the rigor of years of academic research. The images in his panels belong to different periods of history charged with great symbolic and intellectual value. By juxtaposing material from diverse sources and epochs Warburg sought to track the repetition and relationship of many of these symbols and archetypes over time, from Alexandrian Greece to magazine clippings of the early twentieth century, with a particular emphasis on the Renaissance, a period he considered especially conflictive given its contradictions between reason and the lack thereof.

The constant rearrangement of the elements displayed on each panel, but also of the order of the panels themselves, generated new readings and relationships. If a mood board might be understood as a collection of similarities, the Atlas Mnemosyne was quite the opposite: an almost violent clash of differences where hidden connections between seemingly unrelated elements are revealed via their juxtaposition. This method drawing on connections, confrontations and contradictions with its infinite possibilities was an obsession that captivated Warburg for years.

His personal library was organized following the same system; linking titles, authors and historical periods intuitively and continually reconfiguring the possible sequences. Some believe it was this almost Borgesian logic that had him interned in a psychiatric clinic for three years. 

The infinite combinatory possibilities of Walburg’s panels parallels a cinematographic experiment of his contemporary Lev Kuleshov, in which he showed the audience the image of an inexpressive face of a famous actor following three other images: a soup plate, a girl in a coffin and a woman lying on a couch. Although the actor’s image was always the same the audience’s perception of his expression was utterly different depending on what had preceded. The same image was perceived as showing a hungry, devastated, or desiring man. Alfred Hitchcock did a similar experiment, with images of himself with slightly open eyes, then an image of a woman with a baby, and then we see Hitchcock smiling. In a second sequence the woman and the baby are replaced by a young girl in a bikini, but his images remain constant. The audience first perceive a tender old man then a pervert. This editing experiment, known as the Kuleshov effect, proves how the content of images can be less important than their combination and sequence.

The Mnemosyne Atlas takes its name from the daughter of Uranus, the personification of memory in Greek mythology, alluding to the great evocative power of images. Warburg, with his encyclopedic and combinatorial methodology, constitutes an endless body of thought about images and their destinies, generating a complex visual essay open to interpretations. Somewhat like spending a nice afternoon browsing the social networks.

Warburg, with his encyclopedic and combinatorial methodology, constitutes an endless body of thought about images and their destinies, generating a complex visual essay open to interpretations.