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New Left Review 107, September-October 2017

leonardo impett & franco moretti


Operationalizing Aby Warburg’s Pathosformeln

1. mnemosyne

The object of this study is one of the most ambitious projects of twentieth-century art history: Aby Warburg’s Atlas Mnemosyne, conceived in the summer of 1926—when the first mention of a Bilderatlas, or ‘atlas of images’, occurs in his journal—and truncated three years later, unfinished, by his sudden death in October 1929. Mnemosyne consisted in a series of large black panels, about 170cm by 140cm, on which were attached black-and-white photographs of paintings, sculptures, book pages, stamps, newspaper clippings, tarot cards, coins and other types of images (Figure 1). Warburg kept changing the order of the panels and the position of the images until the very end, and three main versions of the Atlas have been recorded: one from 1928 (the ‘1–43 version’, with 682 images); one from the early months of 1929, with 71 panels and 1,050 images; and the one Warburg was working on at the time of his death, also known as the ‘1–79 version’, with 63 panels and 971 images (the one we shall examine). But Warburg was planning to have more panels—possibly many more [1] In one of his last journal entries, in October 1929, Warburg speaks of an ‘Atlas von circa 200 Tafeln’: see Gesammelte Schriften, vol. vii, Karen Michels and Charlotte Schoell-Glass, eds, Berlin 2001, p. 543. —and there is no doubt that Mnemosyne is a dramatically unfinished and unstable object of study.

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Franco Moretti, Leonardo Impett, ‘Totentanz’, NLR 107: £3

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