June 16, 2013
by fosco lucarelli
The Mnemosyne Atlas is a figurative atlas consisting of a series of plates. Each plate is made up of a montage of works of art from the Renaissance, from the antiquity (artworks, playing cards, archeological finds…) and from the 20th Century (newspapers, stamps…).
The Bilderatlas uses thousands of images inasmuch they can provide an immediate way of “speaking the world”, of vehiculating, through their primordial energy and evocaton, cultural tradition and social memory. The images are put in relation so as to weave several themes around a core element, and inducing the beholder to an interpretative process: “the word to the image” (zum Bild das Wort). In this sense the Atlas works as a machine that illustrates the mechanisms of tradition, themes and figures from the past to today. The entire range of emotional stirrings (aggression, defence, sacrifice, mourning, melancholia, ecstasy, triumph, etc.) is expressed through the revival of movements, gestures and postures, that is the Pathosformeln – expressive formulas of emotion that are either taken directly from ancient models, or reappearing as mnemonic traces (Engram) in successive works.
The Atlas was left unfinished due to Warburg’s death. The “Daedalus Version” (the first published edition of the “Letzte version” of 63 plates) sunk to oblivion and has been only recently rediscovered, with the work of philosophers and art historians such as Georges Didi-Huberman (whose exhibition “Atlas – How to Carry the World on One’s Back” is a direct heir of Warburg’s plates) or the online “Rivista di Engramma“, that organised an exhibition of the Mnemosyne Atlas in Venice in 2004 (and that is the principal source of this description). See the online reproductions here.
Flavien Menu gently gave us the possibility to reproduce here this content, for the sake of archival and diffusion. We just replaced the French translation of the introduction (The Absorption of the Expressive Values of the Past) with its English translation by Matthew Rampley. (Originally: “Einleitung,” written in German c. 1926–9. First published in Der Bilderatlas Mnemosyne (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2000) (a second edition published in 2003).)