Review by Victor Claass
Last year, French philosopher, journalist, translator and biographer Marie-Anne Lescourret published an ambitious biography of Aby Warburg. The 400-page tome adds another entry to the massive Warburgian bibliography that includes, as Lescourret comments in her introduction, more than 3,500 works. Lescourret’s Aby Warburg ou la tentation du regard is a milestone in France, contributing to the knowledge and understanding of the life and career of the prominent Hamburg art historian, many of whose important writings remain inaccessible to the francophone public. It should also be noted that Gombrich’s “intellectual biography”, first published in 1970, has never been translated into French.
Built on extensive research and an in-depth knowledge of the archives of the Warburg Institute (London), Lescourret’s biography consists of eight chapters, offering readers various perspectives on Warburg’s life. Lescourret sets the stage in great detail, describing Warburg’s familial and cultural background, including his religious upbringing and his confrontation with anti-Semitism during his Strasbourg years. More broadly, Lescourret’s biography analyses Warburg’s position as a young intellectual in Imperial Germany, painting an accurate portrait of a man in and of his time.
The specificity of Lescourret’s biography lies in her wish systematically to situate Warburg’s thoughts within the trajectory of German art historical discourse as it had developed from the eighteenth century, as well as to redefine his position among his contemporaries. Lescourret integrates biographical and intellectual points of reference as the narrative evolves, establishing links between Warburg and several of his tutelary figures. These monographic interludes seek to acquaint non-German speaking readers with names like Treitschke, Janitschek, Lamprecht, Wundt, Boas and many others, or even Alfred Lichtwark, curator of the Hamburg Kunsthalle. Lescourret investigates also the relationship between Warburg’s own thoughts and concepts, and the ideas developed by his predecessors, while maintaining him at a distance from other strands of art historical discourse and its agents – like the “Stilschnüffler” [Style sniffer] Bernard Berenson, as Warburg calls him.
Never outright confronting the reader with the precise materials of Warburg’s investigations, Lescourret’s biography focuses more upon his relationship to images in general and the way in which he sought to integrate them into a broader “anthropological enigma.” Lescourret links key Warburgian concepts to his personal trajectory, describing a personality caught in the turmoil of what he perceived to be a constant polarity between reason and irrationality, a man for whom art seemed to be a “trial” brought by human beings against the universe. A prominent role is attributed to Warburg’s 1895-96 American journey (and to its resurgence during his period of internment, of which Lescourret gives a detailed account). The trip was perceived by Warburg as a confrontation with the “unchanging organism” of the primitive man, and the key moment of transition between primitiveness and civilisation. Lescourret emphasises Warburg’s reaction against the idea of the so-called “purity” of culture. She is then able to introduce her readers to Warburg’s understanding of Kulturwissenschaft, which leads to the analysis of anthropological invariants.
Beyond a simple contextualization of Warburg’s mentality, this biography dwells on the relationship between the art historian and German culture of his time. Lescourret recalls Warburg’s affinities for some of the tastes and ideals of the German Bildungsbürgertum, for instance, his views of modern painters like Arnold Böcklin (an artist allowing “simmering archetypes of social memory to find their expression”), his own “sense” of German identity, and his reaction against “French hegemony.” However, Warburg emerges as a European thinker, one who tried to keep narrow-minded nationalism (like that of Henry Thode) at a distance. Confirming his life-long search for an “ennobled” patriotism, Warburg’s active role in cultural policy and the foundation and development of institutions hold major places in Lescourret’s narrative and demonstrate other facets of his personality.
Warburg stands out as a man of science whose research was invariably guided by an intransigent, systematic and profound engagement with archives and sources. Lescourret describes Warburg’s relationship to art as “sans état d’âme”, which permitted him to consider every object of human creation without any form of hierarchy. Describing the intellectual path of an art historian as opposed to the “cultivated“ art amateurs of his time and other defenders of the autonomous genius, Lescourret’s work, written in a fluid and serious style (in spite of some irritating repetitions), will definitely encourage francophone readers to rediscover Warburg’s Kulturwissenschaft.