Aby Warburg

By: Anthony Miller
June 13, 2015


On the day he turned 13, ABY WARBURG (Abraham Moritz Warburg, 1866–1929) gave the family banking business to his younger brother Max — provided that Max buy him whatever books he requested. This anecdote alone would be enough to endear Warburg to any bibliophile but the private library he accumulated through this pact was to become the Warburg Institute, one of the most sui generis of the world’s libraries. The collection’s unconventional organization exemplified its creator’s “rule of the good neighbor,” the principle that the book one was looking for was not to be sought in traditional card catalog-based research but through a dreamlike shelf-scavenging serendipity. “In a sense, his library was an attempt to disclose, in all their rawness, the bare nerves of his thought, and to allow room for his ideas to migrate and mutate and mate,” writes Alberto Manguel in The Library at Night. “If most libraries of his time resembled an entomologist’s display case of pinned and labeled specimens, Warburg’s revealed itself to the visitor as a child’s glass-fronted ant farm.” An exacting interpreter of Botticelli and the art of Quattrocento Florence, Warburg’s fascinations with symbols and his interdisciplinary reach heralded the fields of iconology and cultural history. His unfinished Mnemosyne Atlas, a visual analogue of his library, was comprised of 64 panels of images, a repository for penetrating the secrets of patterns, a Pinterest precursor resembling the “wall of crazy” fashioned by investigators and villains in TV procedurals. On April 21, 1923, forty-four years after his covenant with his sibling, Warburg would strike another life-defining deal: If he could deliver a coherent lecture, he would be released from Ludwig Binswanger’s sanitarium where he had spent four years after a nervous breakdown discoursing with butterflies and moths. With a brilliant disquisition on the Serpent Ritual of America’s Hopi Indians he extricated himself from institutionalization. Warburg’s work rearranged how we look — at the details of paintings, the configuration of libraries, and the assemblage of memory.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Dorothy L. Sayers, Fernando Pessoa, William Butler Yeats, Basil Rathbone, Steve-O, Gerald Gardner.

READ MORE about members of the Anarcho-Symbolist Generation (1864–73).