“Aby Warburg. Mnemosyne Bilderatlas” at ZKM Karlsruhe

On the occasion of the 150th birthday of Aby Warburg (1866-1929), the ZKM Karlsruhe is exhibiting a complete reconstruction of his Bilderatlas in original size. All panels will be provided with detailed commentary for the first time.


Aby Warburg, Tafel 37 des Mnemosyne Bilderatlas, historische Aufnahme der Originaltafel © Warburg Institute, London

Aby Warburg, Tafel 37 des Mnemosyne Bilderatlas, historische Aufnahme der Originaltafel © Warburg Institute, London


In addition, two of the total 63 panels can be exhibited for the first time since 1929 as exactly as Warburg himself had in mind: with the original images from the Warburg Institute in London. Furthermore, 13 “artists’ panels” which have been exhibited by contemporary artists for this occasion can be viewed. Among the artists featured are Linda Fregni-Nagler, Andy Hope 1930, Sarah Lehnerer, Jochen Lempert, Jannis Marwitz, Paul McCarthy, Olaf Metzel, Matt Mullican, Albert Oehlen, Tal R, Elfie Semotan, Christian Vind and Peter Weibel.


Practical information

“Aby Warburg. Mnemosyne Bilderatlas”
August 31 – November 13, 2016
ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe
Lorenzstraße 19
76135 Karlsruhe


This revision demonstrates that the Bilderatlas found much greater acclaim and recognition in artistic circles than among art history experts. Aby Warburg. Mnemosyne Bilderatlas follows the exhibition ATLAS – How to Carry the World on One’s Back, curated by Georges Didi-Huberman, which was exhibited with great success in 2010 at ZKM.


The Mnemosyne Atlas in the original format The Mnemosyne Atlas, which was compiled between 1924 and 1929 by Warburg and remained unfinished, is named after Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory, and Atlas, who is regarded as the progenitor of astronomers and geographers. At the same time, the term “Atlas” stands for demonstrative forms of knowledge: whether it is the compilation of geographical plans for a self-contained map series or whether it is a constellation of images which systematically and critically link entirely different references and areas. In the meantime, the Mnemosyne Atlas has the status of a legend with international fame and is at least just as well- known as Warburg’s Library, which has been domiciled in London since 1933.


"Aby Warburg. Mnemosyne Bilderatlas" exhibition view, ZKM © ONUK

“Aby Warburg. Mnemosyne Bilderatlas” exhibition view, ZKM © ONUK

"Aby Warburg. Mnemosyne Bilderatlas" exhibition view, ZKM © ONUK

“Aby Warburg. Mnemosyne Bilderatlas” exhibition view, ZKM © ONUK


Although the atlas is of extraordinary importance for pictorial science, as experts also concede in the meantime, it found no practical application in art history, neither successors nor emulators. In fact, the atlas is still resting to a great extent unexplored in the archive of sciences, even if the interest in Warburg’s research activities has noticeably increased in recent years – as the international acclaim at the congress for the celebration of the Hamburg cultural scientist’s  150th  birthday  held  in  London in June 2016 revealed.


Künstlertafel Andy Hope 1930 Foto: 8. Salon

Künstlertafel Andy Hope 1930 Foto: 8. Salon


To some extent the surprisingly long ineffectiveness of the atlas probably has to be attributed to the unfinished state in which Warburg left behind his late work when he succumbed to a heart attack in October 1929. In the last years of his life he did his utmost to solidify his comprehensive knowledge of the picture story in this project and to render it in a publishable form. It was an unusual endeavor and the invention of an instrument  for  which there was no actual precursor. He himself had already come very far on his path, yet after his death the “original” panels “vanished” in the collection of photos in his library. Even the administrator of his scientific legacy had unsuccessfully tried until 1937 to bring the project to a conclusion and to publish the panels as a folio volume. Several decades passed by until Warburg’s late work returned to the consciousness of   research.


Künstlertafel Linda Fregni-Nagler Foto: 8. Salon

Künstlertafel Linda Fregni-Nagler Foto: 8. Salon


Since Warburg documented the atlas photographically, it was able to be published over 20 years ago in “diminished form”. After that it remained for  the most part unused, since the activation of this memory necessitates an indispensable prerequisite: the visibility of all  details.  Only  the  reconstruction in the original format of 170 x 140 cm makes it possible that the individual pictures (around 30 per panel / in total nearly 1,000) can be studied so that the constellations of each panel are legible. The  reconstruction in the original format was  implemented  by  the  MNEMOSYNE research group at the 8. Salon cultural center (Hamburg) on  the basis of data from the Daedalus  transmedia society (Vienna). In 2011,   the research group (Roberto Ohrt, Christian Rothmaler,  Philipp  Schwalb, Axel Heil et al.) started to prepare panel after panel in the original format in order to research the 63 panels step by step in detail. By 2016 the research group was able to prepare commentary that decoded every single panel for the first time.


"Aby Warburg. Mnemosyne Bilderatlas" exhibition view, ZKM © ONUK

“Aby Warburg. Mnemosyne Bilderatlas” exhibition view, ZKM © ONUK

"Aby Warburg. Mnemosyne Bilderatlas" exhibition view, ZKM © ONUK

“Aby Warburg. Mnemosyne Bilderatlas” exhibition view, ZKM © ONUK


In addition to the reconstruction of these 63 panels of the  atlas  in  the original format, for the first time since 1929 the exhibition at the ZKM  is  also displaying two panels (Panel 32 on the subject of “Carnival” and Panel 48 regarding Fortuna) with the images which Warburg himself used. These “exhibits” were able to be localized in the “Photographic Collection” of the Warburg Institute in London. Up to now researchers assumed that the  original pictures of the atlas were  lost.


The commentary on all 63 panels and the structure of the atlas prepared by the MNEMOSYNE research group is being put up for discussion for the first time with Aby Warburg. Mnemosyne Bilderatlas at the ZKM. The exhibition supplements the series of 63 panels with some proposals regarding how the atlas could be completed.

The Mnemosyne Atlas has been reconstructed since 2011 by the MNEMOSYNE research group (Hamburg, Karlsruhe  and  St. Gallen) at the “8. Salon” in Hamburg. Individual sequences of four to six panels were precisely analyzed in order to then explain them within the scope of public events. In addition to these events, 13 editions of the magazine series Baustelle [“construction site”] were published, in which the research results  can be read. The magazine issues ensure that the decoding of the atlas can also be comprehended and updated beyond the events. The  magazine issues were reissued in revised form for the  exhibition.

REVISION: Warburg today!

The Mnemosyne picture series is mainly chronologically structured and follows the – as Warburg called them – “Wanderstrassen” [“migrating roads”] of “Bilderfahrzeuge” [“image vehicles”] on which  the  radical change took place in the Renaissance. They spread the new emotional pictorial language throughout Europe, a story replete with conflicts and confrontations which are restaged on the field of panels like on the stage of a theater. The open exhibition of all panels in Atrium 1 + 2 makes it possible to comprehend the complex links within the atlas. The transfer of artistic notions, which can be described as a kind of unpredictable picture story –fragmentary, but also open at the same time–  particularly links the exhibition with the research activities at the ZKM and the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design (HfG), which examine the history of art and media under current issues.

The notion of “Bilderfahrzeuge” corresponds to an idea which  is  again  popular today with keywords such as iconic turn or pictorial turn. Warburg’s notion of image carriers and pictorial media as “vehicles” on which  messages, forms and figures can be carried through the different contexts is the focus of practical research by contemporary artists and art scholars.  His research activities are not only of interest today as a precursor for the processes examined in the sphere of  pictorial science, but  also  because with the Mnemosyne Atlas he established a system that portrays the path of images in different historical eras and cultures in an exemplary, interdisciplinary manner in its entire  complexity.


Faun, eine Schlange würgend, Schule Andrea Mantegna, um 1490–1550

Faun, eine Schlange würgend, Schule Andrea Mantegna, um 1490–1550


Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas – in terms of its complexity a kind of pictorially  historic ‘multipurpose  weapon’ – is an instrument that can not only be decoded but also applied. Events with lectures, comments and “Bilderfahrten” [“image journeys”] in front of the  individual panels  are  the  first step for this purpose. The goal of the exhibition at the ZKM is to make  this instrument available to the international research community, to confront their level of knowledge with the atlas and to put its diverse opportunities to the test.

Curators: Roberto Ohrt and Axel Heil. Conception in cooperation with Christian Rothmaler and Philipp Schwalb. Contribution concerning the “Sprengung der Burgundischen Larve” by Regine  Steenbock.


News source: ZKM
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