Aby Warburg – The Law of the Good Neighbor

Have you ever walked straight to your bookshelves, knowing exactly what book you were going to pick for your next read? And is it true that you ventured into reading another book, the one next to the book you wanted to read in the first place? Confusing, right? No need to worry, there is a perfectly logic explanation to it and it even has a name: the law of the good neighbor.

Aby Warburg, the person behind this concept, thought that the book you have to read is not the one you think of, but instead, the one next to it. At first sight, things seem a little hard to believe. Stating that books have a life of their own and furthermore, that they are connected to some kind of universal order is a precarious thing to say. Not quite would Aby Warburg answer. However, in order to understand what he meant, we might need to get acquainted with Aby Warburg the man first.

We are in 1886. It is a quiet summer afternoon. In the living room of the Warburgs, the family gathered to take a decision concearning the future of Abraham – Aby for friends – the eldest son.

Eyes sparkling with hope, Aby’s grandmother sees a future rabbi, his father a lawyer and his uncle a doctor. The moment has come for Aby to speak. Looking at everyone in the room, he lets the words slip out: he wants to study art and become an art historian.

The family is shocked – for generations, no one has ever stepped out of tradition and most certainly no one has ever wanted to study art. After facing the resistance of the family, Aby forced through his plans and began to study art.
It was in this context that Aby Warburg the intellectual was brought to light. In order to set things straight with his family, he famously made a deal with his brother, Max. Aby was going to drop any claims on the family’s business in the favor of his youngest brother. In exchange, Max was engaging himself to provide all the books Aby ever needed. This was the beginning of Aby’s everlasting relationship with books.

Through the efforts of his brother, Aby became the owner of one of the most complex personal libraries of all time. Nowadays, Aby Warburg book fund is still one of the most valuable in Europe.

Aby Warburg - library (detail)
Aby Warburg’s library (detail)

The law of the good neighbor was initially the principle on which Warburg organised his library.

It was the excuse for increasing his collection and a way for keeping it coherent.  This law is different from the usual alphabetical system used by librarians, in which books are arranged according to title or author. Instead, Warburg organised his books by themes.

However, the most interesting thing about Aby Warburg is the legacy he wanted to leave to the next generations: an ambitious project that would comprise the entire human achievement in various art domains.

Mnemosyne Atlas – The Atlas of Memory was designed from forty wooden panels covered with black cloth. On these panels were pinned nearly one thousand pictures from books, art albums, newspapers, magazines.

The clippings were organized by themes after the same law of the good neighbor: coordinates of memory, astrology and mythology, archaeological models, migrations and ancient gods, vehicles of tradition, from Muses to Manet, Nike and Fortuna and the list goes on.

Furthermore, what is strange is the fact that the clippings are missing their captions, therefore, at a first glance, we don’t know what they are and neither what is their role in the scheme, why were they chosen for the atlas. It is as though Warburg wanted his successors to feel the same amazement he felt in front of those images. Maybe his project was referring to memory as one collective depository of things that need constant updating.

The Atlas of Memory – three of the forty wooden panels (detail)
The Atlas of Memory – three of the forty wooden panels (detail)

Warburg’s engaged himself in studying from anthropology’s point of view the culture and art of the South American populations, among which he has lived for some years. But his greatest achievement is his studies concerning the Renaissance. He was so much into this era and especially in the art of the Italian Renaissance that he used to describe himself as:

Amburghese di cuore, ebreo di sangue, d’anima Fiorentino. –

Hamburger at heart, Jew by blood, Florentine in spirit.

Aby Warburg’s theories were neglected during his lifetime, for he suffered from depression and was signed in a mental hospital. He spent all his time there trying to convince the doctors that he wasn’t mentally ill. Although what he stated was proven to be true, his reputation suffered from this episode.

His intellectual way of living, his eccentric behavior as an art lover was the ground on which his colleagues were placing their conviction that he really had problems.

Aby Warburg’s life followed different paths that finally led to one single road: the vast and overwhelming world of art.

He didn’t want fame or wealth. All he ever wanted was books and pictures, the things he treasured the most and which, eventually, led to such a simple and yet beautiful life.

Ștefana Bostan

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© 2017 Agata Asofroniei