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Memory, Metaphor, and Aby Warburg's Atlas of Images by Christopher D. Johnson

Memory, Metaphor, and Aby Warburg's Atlas of Images

Part of the Signale: Modern German Letters, Cultures, and Thought Series


Memory, Metaphor, and Aby Warburg's Atlas of Images by Christopher D. Johnson

The work of German cultural theorist and art historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929) has had a lasting effect on how we think about images. This book is the first in English to focus on his last project, the encyclopedic Atlas of Images: Mnemosyne. Begun in earnest in 1927, and left unfinished at the time of Warburg's death in 1929, the Mnemosyne-Atlas consisted of sixty-three large wooden panels covered with black cloth. On these panels Warburg carefully, intuitively arranged some thousand black-and-white photographs of classical and Renaissance art objects, as well as of astrological and astronomical images ranging from ancient Babylon to Weimar Germany. Here and there, he also included maps, manuscript pages, and contemporary images taken from newspapers. Trying through these constellations of images to make visible the many polarities that fueled antiquity's afterlife, Warburg envisioned the Mnemosyne-Atlas as a vital form of metaphoric thought. While the nondiscursive, frequently digressive character of the Mnemosyne-Atlas complicates any linear narrative of its themes and contents, Christopher D. Johnson traces several thematic sequences in the panels. By drawing on Warburg's published and unpublished writings and by attending to Warburg's cardinal idea that pathos formulas structure the West's cultural memory, Johnson maps numerous tensions between word and image in the Mnemosyne-Atlas. In addition to examining the work itself, he considers the literary, philosophical, and intellectual-historical implications of the Mnemosyne-Atlas. As Johnson demonstrates, the Mnemosyne-Atlas is not simply the culmination of Warburg's lifelong study of Renaissance culture but the ultimate expression of his now literal, now metaphoric search for syncretic solutions to the urgent problems posed by the history of art and culture.


This is a rich and learned book, and also an extremely humane and attractive one. The final chapter, on Warburg and Bruno, has the status of revelation. It is absolutely fascinating, not only as a dialogue in intellectual history but also as a political allegory. Christopher D. Johnson pays close attention to Warburg's ethical and epistemological aspirations when he focuses on Warburg's final and uncompleted project: the Atlas of Images. Assembled during the years prior to his death in 1929, these collages strove to mount a history of cultural memory via a dense series of images from antiquity to the present. -Michael P. Steinberg, Director of the Cogut Humanities Center and Barnaby Conrad and Mary Critchfield Keeney Professor of History and Professor of Music, Brown University Who could ever tire of Aby Warburg and his ceaselessly meandering mind? Can we ever read enough about this idiosyncratic and brilliant thinker? Probably not. Memory, Metaphor, and Aby Warburg's Atlas of Images is a most erudite and thoughtful analysis of Warburg's role in twentieth-century intellectual history. Christopher D. Johnson focuses on the way Warburg's triumph is rooted in metaphor and metonymy. -Michael Ann Holly, Starr Director of Research and Academic Program, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute Johnson's dense, rich, often digressive book defies summary. It is centrally concerned with Mnemosyne as a work of cultural memory based not on metonymy, like modernist montages, but on metaphor. . . . He does much both to illuminate the Mnemosyne project and to place Warburg in the larger context of philosophical and critical thinking about metaphor. -Ritchie Robertson, Modern Language Review (January 2014)

About the Author

Christopher D. Johnson is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University. He is the author of Hyperboles: The Rhetoric of Excess in Baroque Literature and Thought.

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Book Info

Publication date

28th August 2012


Christopher D. Johnson

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Cornell University Press and Cornell University Library an imprint of Cornell University Press


288 pages


Art & design styles: c 1900 to c 1960
Individual artists, art monographs



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