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Submission to Journal of Art Historiography, Editor: Richard Woodfield ([email protected]), Institute for the History of Art, University of Glasgow, 8 University Gardens, Glasgow G12 8QH.
Aby Warburg and Franz Boas: a discussion among history, the theory of art and anthropology
María Alba Bovisio (University of Buenos Aires. Department of History of Art; Morelos 715, Buenos Aires, Postcode 1406, telephone number: 054-4631-4711, email address: [email protected])
In the light of the important development of the studies into history of art from an
anthropological approach, it is interesting to revise in this paper the relation between two authors
who perform a fundamental role in the field of interdisciplinary studies that involve ethnology
and history of art: the historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929), historically considered “the father” of
Iconology, and the ethnologist, Franz Boas (1858-1942), who was the founder of cultural
anthropology and one of the main promoters of the studies of primitive art. The analysis of the
exchange between both in this interdisciplinary approach is so enlightening that it is worth
reconsidering it because it provides conceptual tools to analyze and examine non-occidental art.
Both authors investigate the status of the iconic image in “traditional” societies as a vehicle of
communication, in this sense they understand images as ideograms that convey social and
Key words: Anthropology of Art, Aby Warburg, Franz Boas, ethnographic art, methodology of art history, art, magic and religion.
Lately, Aby Warburg (1866-1929), considered the “father” of Iconology, has been
revalued for his role as a precursor of the anthropology of art (Didi-Huberman, Careri, Severi,
Burucúa). From this approach it is relevant to examine the exchange between this author and the
ethnologist, Franz Boas (1858-1942), who was the founder of cultural anthropology and one of the
María Alba Bovisio is a professor and a researcher at the Department of History of Art at the University of Buenos Aires. At this university she obtained her PhD in History of Art, specializing in Prehispanic Art. She also teaches Amerindian Prehispanic Art at the graduate Institute of High Social Studies at the University of San Martin. Some of her last papers are: “En busca de una estética precolombina”, Estéticas Americanas, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, 2009; “Arte, herencia indígena y latinidad: una mirada desde Argentina”, Latinidad e identidad en América, Universidad Federal de Rio Grande do Sul, 2010. She is the author (in collaboration with Marta Penhos) of the book Arte indígena: categorías, prácticas, objetos, Universidad Nacional de Catamarca, 2010.
main promoters of the studies of primitive art. The exchange between both German specialists
implies a fruitful interdisciplinary exchange, which was favoured by their qualifications that
include anthropology, history, the theory of art and psychology1.
Warburg studied at the University of Bonn and then continued his studies on art history,
cultural anthropology, psychology, medicine and philology in Munich, Berlin, Florence and
Strasbourg. The art historian Carl Justi2, introduced Warburg to the research of historical and
cultural links between northern and southern Europe. Hermann Usener, a philologist specialized in
mythology and comparative religions exerted a decisive influence on Warburg’s interest in the
genesis of primitive religion and cosmology in relation to the primary and mental processes of the
unconscious. Warburg takes from his professor Karl Lamprecht the idea that art is the expression of
the mentality of an epoch, determined by the psychic disposition of the community and the
intention to interpret the stages of cultural evolution psychologically. In Florence he takes lessons
with an art historian, disciple of Alois Riegl (whose theories exert a very important influence on
Boas’ theories), August Schmarsow, who conceives the compositive rules of art as a reflection of
human behaviour and, in this sense, art in general and architecture in particular, are dynamic
constructions generated by the relation between the body and the space through movement and
gesture (issue that Warburg raises in his famous paper about the “ninfa” in Botticelli’s works).
The philosopher Robert Vischer has an important influence on Warburg’s theories through
his book About the optical sense of the forms (1873), where he utilizes the concept of einfühlung
(empathy): process inherent to the visual perception by which the person, in an unconscious
transference act, in view of the formal configurations of the object (natural or artificial) provides
them with vital contents, emotions, feelings and attitudes: “The impulse of form belongs to the
human psychophysical self”3 .The notion of empathy underlies in Warburg’s idea that to perceive
forms is always to imagine, which implies that the human being projects himself/herself not only
1 The contribution of Levi Strauss, who takes up the work of Boas, even though it opens the possibility of analyzing art from an anthropological approach, it does so from an ethnography based also exclusively on philosophy and linguistics. 2 Justi was a professor at Kiel, the university where Boas obtained his degree in ethnology.3 Quoted in Carlo Severi, “Warburg anthropologue ou le déchiffrement d’un utopie. De la biologie des images à l’anthropologie dela mémoire”. L’ Homme, revue francaise d’antrophologie, nº 165, janvier/mars, París, 2003, 81.
individually but also collectively, it is for that reason that the forms are full of cultural senses that
activate, remain and transform throughout time.
The reading of Myth and Science written by the philosopher and anthropologist Tito
Vignoli was another decisive text for Warburg; in this work the author, under the influence of
Darwin, analyzes animal and human behaviour in relation to the stimulus that provoke fear, and
attributes to humans the exclusive capacity of generating mechanisms to control these reactions.
The phobia impulse is one of the essential aspects in Warburg’s theory, which assigns to the
image the power of control over those impulses as long as the image is alive but does not damage
because it lives in its own sphere4.
Jacob Burckhardt was another of Warburg’ s mentors, both share the idea that culture is a
unitary body that articulates Philosophy, Art, Science, Religion and Politics; from this approach
they insert History of Art in the larger context of History of Culture and they leave aside the
question about “the aesthetic value of the work”5 because they think that its value lies in the fact
that art is an exclusive source for the reconstruction of history, which must studied with respect to
the interaction between myths and rites, which account for the conception of life of a society.
Regarding Boas, he studied at Heildelberg University and Kiel University, where he
obtained a doctorate. He took courses of Anthropology, Ethnology, Psychology of Perception,
Aesthetics, History and Theory of Art. In his book Primitive Art he rescues the contribution of
Gustav T. Fechner to Experimental Psychology. This medical doctor claims that body and mind
are two aspects of the same reality that underlie in the person, and he dedicates himself to
investigating the quantifiable relations between stimulus and reaction, taking the concept of
empathy as a starting point. Boas also reintroduces Wilhem Wundt’s theories. This physiologist
investigated sensitive perception and the emotional and psychological aspects in the creation and
apprehension of artistic forms, and he explains that these artistic forms would crystallize the
expressive movements of the body6. Gombrich alleges that Warburg’s theoretical background
4 Ernst Gombrich, Aby Warburg. Una biografía intelectual, Madrid: Alianza, 1992, 93.5 Aby Warburg defines himself as a “cultural historian” Aby Warburg, Images from the region of the Pueblo indians of North America, Ithaca-London: Cornell University Press, 1995, 2.6 Boas quotes Fechner’s book Vorschule der Aesthetik (1876) and Wundt’s book Volkerpsychologie (1919).
shows his Darwinian wish to construct a Culture Science that formulates, based on psychological
investigation, an explicative general law7; it is possible to say the same about Boas.
Another author, whose theories are resumed by Boas, is the German architect Gottfried
Semper, who wrote Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts (1860); in this work he considers
that style is determined by three variables: the materials, the technique, and the function, but
once the style developed from a technique is consolidated, it could project itself to different
materials. Boas integrates Semper’s ideas with his disciple’s ideas, Ernst Grosse, who replaces
the material and technical origin of the style for the social origin; he does not deny the
incidence of the material variable but asserts that this does not define the style because it is
immersed in the social functions of the objects.
Finally, it is necessary to mention the art historian Alois Riegl among Boas’s
influence, especially the theories that he develops in his book, Problems of style (1893). In
this work the author analyzes the evolution of ornamental forms, from the art of ancient Egypt
to Arabian art, to show that these spread and transform themselves out of “ an internal need”,
determined by a specific way of “feeling the form” in each period of history. Riegl reacts to
the materialistic determinism of Semper’s disciples, and argues that the origin of the style
does not depend on the techniques and the materials but on a “kunstwollen” (wish of form),
which arises from the development of form that begins as a projection of nature but later
becomes autonomous, creating specific forms to each epoch and place. The concept of
kunstwollen permits to articulate the importance of the autonomy of artistic forms with the
idea that art expresses “the spirit of an epoch”, one of Burckhardt’s ideas present in both Boas
and Warburg’s works.
Ritual of the serpent and Primitive Art
7 Gombrich, Aby Warburg, 91.
This paper is intended to analyze two works by Boas and Warburg: Primitive art8 in
Boas’ work where he records forty years devoted to the study of ethnographic art, in his text he
intends “to give an analytic description of the fundamental traits of primitive art”9, through a
great variety of cases, such as Paleolithic rock art, embroidery huicholes from the twentieth
century, pre-Hispanic Peruvian textiles, Scandinavian bronzes from the eighth century, selk’nam
body painting, to name a few.
Ritual of the serpent10 is the text of the famous conference that Warburg gave in 1923 in
the Bellevue psychiatric clinic, where he was confined, as proof of his psychic recovery. In this
text Warburg investigates the role of symbols in primitive thought through the analysis of three
native rituals that, in spite of evangelization, the New Mexico Indians continue to practise, a fact
that he could prove in situ.
Warburg arrived in New York in 1895 for personal reasons (to go to his brother's
wedding) but in his conference notes he declares that his trip is motivated because he is in crisis
with the ruling trend in Hamburg: “...I had developed a real repugnance to art history
aestheticism. I think that the formal consideration of the image produces a sterile set of words
because it's unable to understand image’s biological necessity, as an intermediate product
between art and religion”11
Warburg's interest in Ethnology leads him to meet his compatriot, the ethnologist Franz
Boas, who was working in the Museum of Natural History and studying the Vancouver kwakiutl.
During the months spent in the United States, he established a prolific exchange with Boas and
8 In a previous text, the author of this paper has analyzed the logic of the construction of the category of primitive art in Boas’ theory, pointing out that, according to the primitivism common in the theories of the 19th century, its definition is based on “not to be” what occidental art was from Renaissance to the end of 19 th century: “illusionist art”, determined to achieve a virtuous mimetic copy. From his relativistic position, he claims through his book different variables that do not define “primitive art” but the diversity of representation systems. He analyzed each of these variables from a concrete example showing that these variables are not present in all the cases invoked. María Alba Bovisio, “¿Qué es esa cosa llamada “arte...primitivo?” Acerca del nacimiento de una categoría”. Epílogos y prólogos para un fin de siglo, Buenos Aires: CAIA, 1999.9 Franz Boas, Primtive Art, Toronto: Dover Publications Inc., 1955, 1.10 The edition used in this paper has been titled Images from the region of the Pueblo indians of North America, Ithaca-London: Cornell University Press, 1995.11 Quoted in: Gombrich, Aby Warburg, 17.
then with one of his disciples, Gladis Richard12. After his stay in New York he went to
Washington DC and for a few months he studied at the Smithsonian Institute, where he could
research the Annual Reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE), an important source
of information about myths and customs of the Native Americans. It was in New York where he
met two prestigious American ethnologists, Frank Hamilton Cushing and Matilda Coxe Evans
Stevenson, whose works were utilized by Boas in his text, Primitive Art. Cushing was a self-
taught researcher who lived among the zuñis from New Mexico. Stevenson was also a specialist
in the zuñis who promoted the development of the BAE. In 1896 Warburg, stimulated by these
researchers, went to New Mexico and Arizona, where he met the Pueblos and he could attend
two of the three rituals that he analyzes in The ritual of the serpent.
Among the common conceptions between Boas’ theory and Warburg’s theory, there
exists the idea that images are inserted in the system of communication based on historical and
cultural codes (this position questions the idea that the ethnographic cultures do not have
writing). Warburg, with reference to the “bird hieroglyphic” present in the pots that were used to
transport water, claims:
“We have here an intermediate stage between a naturalistic image and the sign, between a
realistic mirror image and writing. From the ornamental treatment of such animals, one can
immediately see how this manner of seeing and thinking can lead to symbolic pictographic
As far as Boas is concerned, he distinguishes three kinds of ethnographic art according to
their function: ornamental, in which technical grasp is necessary only to achieve a “good shape”,
and it is present in almost all the objects of daily use14; representative: objects and images in
which achieving a good shape is not important but transmitting meanings through the use of
12 In a letter dated March 1923, Warburg mentions that he visited Boas in New York, and in 1927 in his diary, he mentions the exchange of ideas that he maintained with Gladis Richards for a few years. Michaud Philippe-Alain, Aby Warburg et l’image en mouvement, Paris: Macule, 1998,174-6 and 281. I am grateful to José Emilio Burucúa for this information.13 Warburg, Images from the region of the Pueblo, 8.14 “The formal interest is due to the impression derived from the shape. It is not expressive in the sense that it has a meaning or expresses an emotion”, Boas, Primitive Art, 63-4.
conventional rudimentary shapes15; and expressive, which articulates the representative and the
ornamental functions, i.e., that “the shape has a sense that fills it completely”, thus this kind of art
is representative not only of beings and material objects but also of ideas and concepts, and the
“good shape” is necessary to transfer these contents16. Warburg’s proposal to conceive history of
art as “the history of images that transfer ideas” is severely impregnated with Boas’ premise that
expressive phenomena are “representations of meaning”17.
Throughout the book the ethnologist concentrates on the problem of reading symbols:
“The large variety of […] interpretations for the same picture and the many forms to express the
same idea demonstrate clearly that the terms used to describe the designs are not mere names,
rather, certain associations between the general artistic pattern and some ideas chosen according
to the customs of the tribe and according also to the momentary interest of the person who gives
Furthermore, he points out that the context also defines the meaning of the symbol and
thus the variations of the former modify the latter: a rhombus in the clothes of a Sioux man
represents a dead enemy; the same design in a Sioux woman’s clothes represents a turtle, animal
identified with femininity19. Boas introduces another variable of analysis: the incidence of the
material support in the definition of design because this design could be conditioned by the shape
and dimension of the area on which it is applied, the requirement of symmetry (present,
according to Boas, in all kinds of artistic productions) and the functionality of the decorated
These problems, the dynamic character of the signs, the variability of their sense in the
process of communication, the interaction among design, techniques and materials, sink their
15 “When Karl von den Steinen made the natives of South America draw a white man, they put a mustache on the forehead as a characteristic symbol because it was enough to put this symbol anywhere, Boas, Primitive Art, 82.16 Boas, Primitive Art, 88.17 Omar Calabrese, El lenguaje del arte., Buenos Aires: Paidós, 1987, 27.18 Boas, Primitive Art, 102.19 Boas, Primitive Art, 118.20 Boas, Primitive Art, 142.
roots in a notion that Boas shared with Warburg about the image: representing does not imply
making a description; thus, every representation deserves an interpretation.
Both authors, regarding the communication of meanings under the influence of the
studies of the aesthetics of perception, point out the role of the emotional factors in addition to the
notion of “symbol image”. They agree that to see means to establish a relation between the
external shape of the object and an unconscious formal model. Boas claims that not only reason
but also “emotional attraction” play an important role in the communication of ideas through
images because they refer to the experiences and realities of each culture: “The simple ornaments
of red dyed cedar bark used by the Columbia British indigenous, provoke this attraction […]
because they symbolize the gifts that the person who uses them has received from his
supernatural protector”21 .
Warburg approaches the interpretation of the symbolism of the snake from the close
similarity among a drawing of a snake as a meteorological deity, made by a painter and priest of
a kiwa22 from the village of Santa Fe, the images of the prehistoric vessels found by the
archaeologist Jesses Fewkes in his excavations in Arizona, and the cosmological paintings on
the walls of a church at Acoma. Moreover, he considered the presence of the serpent form in the
indians’ houses and stairs used in the granaries. In relation to this symbolism he analyzes the
ritual dance of the snake carried out by Moki and Walpi indians to invoke the August rains. In
this ritual, which Warburg knows through photographs and accounts from the nineteenth
century, rattlesnakes participate directly because dancers catch them in the desert and take them
to the kiwa, where serpents are washed and fed and natives worship them. The ritual culminates
in a dance to the rhythm of rattles and turtle shells with little stones tied to them, in which the
dancers keep the snake in their mouths23 , when the dance finalizes the snakes are released in the
desert. Warburg found the explanation for the role of these reptiles in a myth from the village of
Walpi about Ti-yo, the hero and totem of the serpent clan, who descends to the subterranean
21 Boas, Primitive Art, 99.22 Kiwas are underground temples of the Pueblos.23 Warburg points out that the natives do not remove the serpents’ poisonous fangs, but he does not explain how they can dominate them and avoid the bite.
world, the place of the dead, to discover the longed-for water; in the great serpent kiwa, he
receives the magic baho that will invoke the weather. Ti-Yo returns from the underworld with
the baho and two serpent-maidens, which bear him serpentine children, who force the tribes to
change their dwelling place and find the serpent clan. Warburg interprets that: “In this snake
dance the serpent is therefore not sacrificed but rather, through consecration and suggestive
dance mimicry, transformed into a messenger and dispatched, so that, returned to the souls of
the dead, it may in the form of lightning produce storms from the heavens. We have here an
insight into the pervasiveness of myth and magical practice among primitive humanity”24.
Warburg confirms the persistence of this symbol even in the imaginary of
Occidentalized natives because he finds serpents in the place of lightning in a drawing by a
Pueblo child with schooling. In his analysis of the symbol of the serpent Warburg proceeds in
the same way as Boas: he connects material culture, ethnographic information and iconography
to identify which meaning fills the form completely. The serpent form in relation to lighting in a
desert region, where the lack of water is a permanent threat, condenses meanings linked to fear
of serpent poison, drought, necessity of water, and at the same time evokes ancestors who
provide water. The continuity of the symbol of the serpent permits Warburg to ratify Vignoli’s
theory about the existence of formulas through which a human being controls and at the same
time invokes what he fears articulating ethos and pathos. In this proposition lies the origin of
Warburg’s pathosformel theory, which suggests the power of images to control phobic reflexes
and at the same time to refer to these reflexes.
Although the concept of pathosformel cannot be matched to Boas’ concept of
“expressive art” because this is restricted to integrations of ornamental and representative
functions, both of them assert the indissolubility between form and content and the ideographic
status of image. Moreover, when Boas affirms that it is necessary to take into account the
historical and psychological circumstances under which the styles arises, he agrees with
Warburg on the idea that stylistic exchanges are not a resolution to formal problems but
“symptoms” of emotive orientation of society (“mood swings converted into images”). The
24 Warburg, Images from the region of the Pueblo, 38.
pathosformel (pathetic formula) is based on expressive structures linked to associations of
psychic treads, which characterize the society of each epoch. However, Boas directs his analysis
of the psychological and cultural variables to answers based on uses and customs that generate
emotive affection and movement habits. This pragmatism is absent from Warburg’s perspective
that looks for symbols of civilizations.
The approaches of Warbug and Boas regarding the aesthetic dimension and the relation
between symbolic forms and pure forms, are very different. Boas, quoting Riegl, supports that
“the will to produce an aesthetic result is the essence of artistic work [and this will is universal
and it’s linked to the technical domain]…in art of primitive man the feeling of form is closely
linked to technique experience”25. Like Semper, Boas states that: “…representations are art
works only when the technique of manufacture is perfectly dominated, at least by a certain
number of people”26. However, Boas attaches great importance to images as transmitters of
meanings so he considers that “when forms contain meanings because they evoke previous
experiences or because they operate as symbols, a new element is added to aesthetic pleasure”27.
In addition, Boas considers that “…artistic value always depends on the presence of a
formal element that is not identical to the form that is in nature”28. In this quote he expresses his
adhesion to Ernst Cassirer’s29 theory that art forms do not arise from the copy of nature but they
are preexistent in the same way as other symbolic forms: “…the theory that tales (myths) have
developed as an immediate effect of the contemplation of the natural phenomena is untenable
[…] the tales are preexistent and the explanation was added later, precisely as art forms that
existed first and a meaning, according to the mental disposition of the tribe or the individual, is
25 Boas, Primitive Art, 11.26 Boas, Primitive Art, 81.27 Boas, Primitive Art, 18.28 Boas, Primitive Art, 85.29 Cassirer was a philosopher in Warburg’s intellectual circle who wrote his seminal work, Philosophy of symbolic forms in the 1920s, at the same time that Boas published Primitive Art and Warburg developed his project of Mnemosyne, atlas of “symbols-engrams” of European tradition.30 Boas, Primitive Art, 131.
Two of Cassirer’s ideas are present in the thought of Boas and Warburg: That all forms
of symbolic expression can be assimilated to language (first, expressive elements are
established, from mime to articulate language, and then abstract concepts, such as time, space,
and number, are elaborated and are useful to develop complex propositions); and that art is a
specific way of knowledge just as other symbolic forms, it is not an imitation but a “discovery
of reality”. However, there are differences in how each author understands cognitive processes
through art. Boas agrees with the philosopher Ernst Cassirer, who belonged to Warburg’s
intellectual circle, as already mentioned, that to know through aesthetic experience implies that
we are not living in the immediate reality of things at that moment but in the sphere of the pure
and sensitive forms, the visual structures31. In this sense, art is a specific way of knowledge,
which does not explain the causes or the function of things but brings a sympathetic view of
them that permits, through sensitive intuition, to discover the pure forms existing a priori in the
multiform and diversity of things32.
Warburg, instead, differing from the neo-kantian conception, conceives art as a specific
way to explain the universe through a causality based on analogy, which rules articulation forms
from the mental and affective experience of each culture. He points out that primitive religiosity
corresponds to a kind of thought that establishes global causalities based on “incarnative
relations between the human being and the surrounding world”.
With regard to the antelope dance, which he saw in the village of San Idelfonso, where
men dance with masks imitating the movements of animals to bring about their hunt, he points
“The insinuation into the animal mask allows the hunting dance to simulate the actual
hunt through an anticipatory capture of the animal […] In their bonding with the
extrapersonal, the masked dances signify for primitive man the most thorough
subordination to some alien being. When the Indian in his mimetic costume imitates, for
instance, the expressions and movements of an animal, he insinuates himself into an
31 Ernest Cassirer, Antropología filosófica, México: F.C.E., 1977, 213-15.32 Cassirer, Antropología, 251.
animal form not out of fun but, rather, to wrest something magical from nature through
the transformation of his person, something he cannot attain by means of his
unextended and unchanged personality”33
In the same way, Warburg emphasizes the logic of analogy in his analysis of
humiskachina dance, an agricultural ceremony that he saw in the village of Oraibi, dedicated to
kachinas, supernatural beings to which they pray for rain. The pumpkin rattles filled with little
stones and the turtle shells, to which little stones are tied, call thunders through sonorous
mimesis, thus horse mane that hangs from the masks evokes rain34.
Warburg announces one of the topics that other authors will later develop in researching
about systems of thought in pre-modern cultures: in this kind of societies Nature is sacred
because it confronts human beings with their limits (and with their fears) and it is for that reason
that they, in order to appropriate superhuman powers, must mimic with the animal, metaphor of
nature par excellence: “…the Indians confront the incomprehensibility of natural processes with
his will to comprehension, transforming himself personally into a prime causal agent in the
order of things. For the unexplained effect, he instinctively substitutes the cause in its most
tangible and visible form. The mask dance is danced causality”35.
The drawings, the choreographies, the masks and the costumes are formal
configurations that integrate human and animal elements because “These indians […] form an
attachment out of reverential awe –what is known as totemism- to the animal world, by
believing in animals of all kinds as the mythical ancestors of their tribes” 36. At the same time,
these symbolic formalizations allow human beings to interact with these alien beings.
Finally, both Boas and Warburg subscribe to Cassirer’s postulate about “the
fundamental sameness of mental processes in all races and in all cultural forms of the present
days”37 and about the development of thought from magic to religion and then to science. The
passage from magic thought to religious thought implies a process of spiritualization: “…the
33 Warburg, Images from the region of the Pueblo, 18-19.34 Warburg, Images from the region of the Pueblo 36-7.35 Warburg, Images from the region of the Pueblo, 48.36 Warburg, Images from the region of the Pueblo, 19.37 Boas, Primitive art, 1.
passage from a symbolism whose efficacy proceeds directly from the body and the hand to one
that unfolds only in the thought”38
However, it is worth noting that, according to Warburg, the initial moment when the
human being moves away from nature, through the processes when nature becomes sacred,
always remains present in the core of culture39. In the last part of his conference, he speaks at
length about the presence of the serpent symbol in the Western world from Antiquity to present
times, with the same connotations that he observes among New Mexico Indians: “The return
from within the earth, from where the dead rest, along with the capacity for bodily renewal,
makes the snake the most natural symbolism of immortality and of rebirth from sickness and
He finishes his conference claiming the universality of certain symbols: “…the serpent
is an international symbolic answer to the question: Whence come elementary destruction,
death, and suffering into the world?”41
Crossing the frontiers
Warburg spends the last years of his life working on his unfinished project Mnemosyne,
which consists in an iconography atlas of pathosformel of occidental civilization that expresses
the dilemma of the analysis of symbols between cultural relativism and human universality. As
Burucúa points out: “…could Warburg’s enterprise be understood as a tenacious search […] for
the continuities between magic men and modern men….?42” .
Doesn’t Boas in a certain way look for the continuity of the human condition through
universal aesthetics pleasure as well?
38 Warburg, Images from the region of the Pueblo, 49. It is probable that both authors were acquainted with the work of Hubert and Mauss Esquisse d’une theorie general de la magie (1902-3).Sketch about a general theory of magic.39 José Emilio Burucúa, Historia, arte, cultura. De Aby Warburg a Carlo Ginzburg. Buenos Aires.: F.C.E, 2002.2002: 27).40 Warburg, Images from the region of the Pueblo, 42.41 Warburg, Images from the region of the Pueblo, 50.42 Burucúa, Historia, arte, cultura, 74.
The foundation of the anthropology of images is linked not only to the problematic of
the symbolic, communicational and cognitive role of images but also to the question of the
continuities between man and human beings as a psycho-physical unity integrated and
confronted with nature.
Warburg raises studies of American ethnology in order to develop “a historical
psychology of the human expression”: “A glance at similar phenomena in pagan Europe will
bring us, finally, to the following questions: To what extent does this pagan world view, as it
persists among Indians, give us a yardstick for the development from primitive paganism,
through the paganism of classical antiquity, to modern man?43”
Boas proposes that each culture must be studied as a spatial and temporal unity, and
considers “every cultural phenomenon as the result of historical happenings”44; in this sense, it
is necessary to consider not only the material and formal conditions of ethnographic art but also
the historical dimension. His interest in the problem of the diverse meanings of symbols
coincides with Warburg's conception of the image not as a simple event in the historical future,
or as a block of eternity unaffected by the conditions of this future but as an entity that
possesses a double temporality that allows it the possibility to be recreated, condition that places
it in the centre of historical life45 .
Although Warburg's Iconology does not develop in the domain of ethnographic art, his
text about the images of Pueblo indians, under the influence of the American ethnology led by
Boas, is a promising precedent of an anthropology of images based on the investigations of “a
dense weave of men and objects”46 considering the lengthy duration and the intercultural
If Boas needed the distance from other cultures (especially kwakiutl) to confirm his
ethnology, Warburg, after his brief but decisive interest in “the primitives”, will dedicate
43 Warburg , Images from the region of the Pueblo, 4.44 Boas, Primitive art, 1.45 Georges Didi-Huberman, Ante el tiempo. Buenos Aires: Adriana Hidalgo, 2005, 125; Georges Didi-Huberman, L’ image survivante. Histoire de l’art et temps des fantôme sselon Aby Warburg, Paris: Les Èdition de Minuit, 2002, 46 Burucúa, Historia, arte, cultura, 19.
himself to the ethnology within his cultural universe: occidental modernity. Art is, for both, the
way to satisfy an innate necessity of man: according to Boas, the necessity of aesthetic pleasure,
and according to Warburg the necessity of emotional equilibrium. The work of both authors
contributes to elucidate the problematic of the role of images, embodied in concrete materials
and circulating into human societies.
Boas does not conceive of an ethnology that approaches the problem of art without
turning to the theory and history of art, whereas Warburg disowns the cult to the specialist who
he called “the frontier guardians”47 because he considers that the mere study of the works of art
implies leaving aside an array of information that helps understand their sense in their historical
and cultural context and their transformations and persistence.
The anthropological approach towards the study of images and symbols proposed by
both authors almost a century ago has not been consolidated yet due to the efficacious resistance
of the “guardians of disciplinary frontiers”. This paper intends to rescue this approach in order
to contribute to generate an interdisciplinary field of study that accounts for the complexity of
human creations from a perspective that integrates human beings into the Man without denying
the differences but recovering our common humanity.
Buenos Aires, June 2010
47 Gombrich, Aby Warburg, 96.