Aby Warburg’s Legacy and the Future of Iconology

Since 2013, the research network “Bilderfahrzeuge - Aby Warburg's Legacy and the Future of Iconology” has been dedicated to exploring the migration of images, objects, goods, and texts, in short, the migration of ideas in a broad historical and geographical context. As of 2018, the network is in its second funding phase. It is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and carried out in cooperation with the Max Weber Stiftung. In addition to the Warburg Institute in London, other members of the research network include the Art History Department of the University of Hamburg and the Warburg-Haus, the Institute for Art and Visual History (IKB) of the Humboldt University in Berlin, the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, and the Art History Department of the University of Basel. Each of the institutions is represented by one of the five directors who are responsible for the management of the network: Andreas Beyer (Basel), who also serves as the spokesperson for the research network, Horst Bredekamp (Berlin), Uwe Fleckner (Hamburg), Bill Sherman (London), and Gerhard Wolf (Florence).

The research network aims to make a fundamental contribution to cultural history – through a history of images and ideas that are elaborated in interdisciplinary and international research. With its special expertise in dealing with images, art history can identify the autonomous meaning of the image and introduce this in turn as an independent and constitutive aspect in interdisciplinary cultural sciences. At the same time, one of the special merits of the project is that it focuses on the genuine character of the image without generating a contradiction between image and language. Rather, it attempts to trace the complementary aspects of language. Since art history, in general, is a predestined partner for far-reaching, interdisciplinary research, the Bilderfahrzeuge project also makes particular use of interdisciplinary dialogue to promote a comprehensive cultural science approach. The goal is to provide, through the analysis of the Bilderfahrzeuge (lit. “image vehicles”), the suitable and fundamental tool to grasp the transfer of image concepts and forms and to do so from a global perspective. In terms of media studies, the focus is on the “vehicles” in their respective specific historical format. At the same time, the “images” comprise the very core of the research. The project uses material images as well as linguistic ones, and at the same time is interested in the access to images and their use in the humanities and the sciences in general.

The project is not primarily devoted to monographic Warburg research – even though some research associates focus on this. The overall work of the research project is, however, closely linked to the insights  and debates that emerged from Warburg and his circle. These form the foundation for the detailed methodological and theoretical work that is carried out in individual studies within the project. Warburg’s methods and approaches allow for an expanded, yet sensitive engagement with images. This ability is of fundamental importance since almost all aspects of modern life are influenced by images. This is as true for the entertainment industry as it is for the advertisement of goods, or images in the political sphere. With possibly even more significant consequences, images affect all areas of knowledge and research – not only the humanities but also the natural sciences. At the dawn of a new media age, Warburg demonstrated the broad applicability of his methods, examining, for example, the international press and war propaganda during the course of World War I by drawing on his experience in the study of the history of images. Here, the possibilities of reconstructing and developing his research approach become apparent. The latter is closely connected with the school of thought of iconology, in particular with Erwin Panofsky, perhaps Warburg’s most famous student, and his concept of image analysis. This school of iconology serves as the starting point of a new, inherently transcultural and transhistorical intellectual research method of visual history (Bildgeschichte).

Image Vehicles
The term Bilderfahrzeuge was coined by the German art historian Aby Warburg (1866–1929). It describes a concept that was of paramount importance to Warburg, as his work sought to demonstrate the lines of continuity between Antiquity and the Renaissance – lines that he felt arose exclusively from a “migration of images.” Of course, Warburg was not the only one interested in this problem, nor was he the first to address it. “The Migration of Symbols,” a 1891 study by Count Eugène Goblet D’Alviella is an early example of a series of works that took a similar approach. Nevertheless, it was Warburg who succeeded in expressing the phenomenon itself in a visual form: that of his famous Bilderatlas, whose protagonists – motifs whose migration through space and time is traced in the course of the various panels – are nothing other than Bilderfahrzeuge.

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Dr. Steffen Haug
The Warburg Institute
Woburn Square
London WC1 0AB

Tel: +44 (0) 20 78 62 87 75