In 1909, Aby Warburg founded a private library devoted to the study of art history. He hired Fritz Saxl as his librarian in 1913. For the next two decades, the Warburg library, based in Hamburg, would grow in importance in the European art world.
Warburg’s failing health meant that by the mid 1920s Saxl held the reigns of the institute. In 1926, under his guidance the private library became a research institute — Die kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg — at the newly founded University of Hamburg.
When Aby Warburg died in 1929, Fritz Saxl took formal control of Warburg’s library, but its residency in Germany was short lived. The Nazi seizure of power and its antisemitic policies prompted Saxl to move the library to London, first to Thames House and then to the Imperial Institute. It soon became a haven for Jewish refugees. With help from the Academic Assistance Council, Deputy Director Gertrud Bing helped find aid for emigrants, and the institute provided formal appointments to a number of them.
In 1944, the University of London, which had provided rooms for the library, formally incorporated it as a research institute.
Warburg’s approach to art was richly contextual, examining artworks in relation to the intellectual, literary, and cultural worlds within which they were created. Thus, it was a reaction to art histories which emphasized aesthetic values and formal analysis (Wölfflin and Riegl) over historical context.
Warburg was one of the intellectual leaders of a new approach to art — Kulturwissenschaft — the term with which he named his institute in Hamburg. The Kulturwissenschaft approach looked at the many strands of thought that led artists to create their works. It emphasized the fact that artistic productions could not be understood outside of their contexts. Consequently, it was the job of the art historian to study philosophy and literature as well as anthropology, history, ritual, religious beliefs, and popular practices.
Warburg’s approach to art history was part of a larger movement in Germany and Austria to ground the analysis of art in a more “scientific” methodology. The heart of this movement was at the the University of Vienna. Even though there was no single homogenous methodology among the university’s scholars, it is often referred to it as the Vienna School of Art History.
The scholars who moved to London in the 1930s to join the Warburg Institute were part of an intellectual network that spanned central Europe. Many of them shared advisors or had studied at the same institutions.
The graphic below shows their institutional and academic relationships. This is not a comprehensive list of scholars who were affiliated with the Warburg Institute, but it does include the core members of the Warburg’s circle during the 1930s.
Arrows point from advisors/teachers to advisees/students. Blue lines indicate when individuals emigrated to join the Warburg Institute.
This image is the first version of an image that I plan to include in my book Nicholas Revett and Georgian Neoclassicism. I would appreciate any suggestions or corrections. Click to enlarge.
Edgar Wind, “The Concept of Kulturwissenschaft and Its Meaning for Aesthetics ,” in the Eloquence of Symbols, ed. Jaynie Anderson (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983), 21-36.
Dorothea McEwan, “The Tale of One Institute and Two Cities: The Warburg Institute,” in German-speaking Exiles in Great Britain, vol. 1, ed. Ian Wallace (Amsterdam: Rodopi and the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, 1999), 25-42.