Gino Querini

On the political use of images. Some reflections on the last panels of Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas

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Studies in Visual Arts and Communication – an international journal / Dec 2015 2(2)


Aby Warburg’s (1866-1929) final project was the Mnemosyne Atlas, a collection of approximately one thousand images structured over about 70 plates. In this unfinished project, the scholar traced instantiations of the classical figure in western visual culture, focusing especially on the Italian Renaissance, producing an artefact that, once completed, should have showed immediately the intricate network of said heritage. The last two plates of the Atlas (78-79), however, are composed of photographs from the 1929 signing of the Lateran treaty, contemporary newspaper clippings and even depictions of Japanese tradition ritual suicides, clearly trespassing the original, self-imposed, boundaries of the project.

This paper investigates these two plates, showing how they vindicate a reading of the Atlas as an historical investigation that precedes under the premises of an anthropological consideration of the role of images in our experience.

The examination will consider the double nature of images as halfway between scientific signs and mythical symbolism. These extreme poles referred, for Warburg, to the double nature of images as attempts to dominate our pathos-laden experience via creative expressions. This is due to the a-historical condition of human beings as liminal creatures in between rationality and animality; a polarity that deliberately echoes Nietzsche’s opposition of the Dionysian and Apollonian in a transcendental sense. In this specific case, I will describe, via Warburg’s examples, how this liminality is reflected in the application of power, and how this same power is understood in its figurative expression.

More precisely, I am going to examine the connection that images share with their cultural milieu following Warburg’s reflections on Fascism’s self-understanding and consequent (mis)use of the classical. The result of said examination will prove the validity of Warburg’s reflections for an overall understanding of the nature of political imagery both as an instrument of self-understanding and of propaganda.

Keywords: Aby Warburg, Mnemosyne Atlas, Political iconology, Symbols, Sacrifice, classical heritage, fascism.

Biographical note

Gino Querini
Ph.D. student, Philosophy of Art and Culture structured Ph.D.
(Supervisor: Paul Crowther)
National University of Ireland
Galway (NUIG)