Historiographically, the Renaissance has been conceived of as the rebirth of reason and liberation of thought, inviting a newly defined sense of subjectivity. Hundreds of years later, in response to the ripple effects of colonialism, the rise of fascism, and the outbreak of world wars, thinkers and artists called the state of civilization into question, giving birth to what we nominally understand to be Modernism. It could be said that one of the major philosophical tasks of the era was the intensive interrogation of the Renaissance worldview.
If the Renaissance represented the emerging sense of man as an individual capable of exerting his own will through material means, then Otto Dix’s Self Portrait as Mars from 1915 rehearses a striking response, filtered through an existentialist prism. Gazing out over his left shoulder from beneath his helmet, the structure of a grave, angular face gathers amidst clashing primary hues of red, yellow, blue, black, and white that suggest the underlying bone structure, muscle, and fascia. The figure merges with its surroundings—or are they memories, visions? In geometric suggestion: teeth, a horse, architectural fragments, fences, bullet holes. Adhering to the idiomatic gestures of Italian Futurism and Cubism, the result is jarring—a blaring icon, a confident amalgam of chaos and death. Embodying here the pagan god of war, Dix seems to amplify the awesome power of the individual psyche. He paints himself from without, a god upon the earth.
Claiming once that he had been drawn to art because he loved the smell of paint, Dix prefigured something fundamental about modern art’s engagement with materiality, though he preferred to communicate allegorically. In his youth he found confidence through the writings of Nietzsche and through his own artistic instinct. This kept him busy in the trenches throughout the first World War, where he produced hundreds of works. In spite of the harsh realities he and his comrades endured, he seems to have been enervated by the challenges. Strange to think that later, in the Interwar period, his work would track a more humble path. During the Nazi regime he was driven from his teaching post in Dresden and relegated to the realm of the degenerates (Entarte), where his work was upheld as an example of the cultural degradation of Germany. Framed as a moral threat, the exhibition’s curators, under the direction of Alfred Rosenberg, invited ridicule and rejection from a public that turned out in droves to see Dix’s works hung beside a host of other talented, “entarte” painters: Emile Nolde, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Beckmann, among the displayed.
Around the same time that Dix and his contemporaries were working in Germany, researchers were also expanding their understanding of images as epistemological vehicles. Among these, Aby Warburg is perhaps the most famous, having constructed a unique research library that enabled his search to uncover the persistence of pagan forms in Western Art. What Dix intuited as an artist and from direct experience, Warburg triangulated through the reproduction of images.
In Panel C of his final work, the Atlas Mnemosyne, Warburg articulated his own vision of the bellicose deity in a series of programmatic images, arranged in two rows, simply affixed to a black ground. On the top row from left to right, the following: 1) The identification of the planetary orbits with the five platonic solids, from the Mysterium cosmographicum by Johannes Kepler, 1621; 2) the planetary orbits, according to the modern model from Brockhaus’ Konversations-Lexikon, 14th ed., 1905; 3) The children of Mars, from a 15th-century German Codex. On the bottom row, from left to right: 4) The orbit of mars according to Kepler’s observations from Astronomia Nova, 1609; 5a) The Graf Zeppelin over the Japanese coast encountering a coastal observation plane, 1929; 5b) Another view of the Graf Zeppelin, 1929; 5c) The Graf Zeppelin over New York, 1929. Given the dates of the newspaper clippings included, it is my guess that this panel was compiled towards the end of Warburg’s life in the same year. That the origin of each image is German or northern European (in particular, the textual reference to Hamburg, Warburg’s hometown, in the final image) should not be construed as coincidental.
This constellation evokes the style of news reporting in Berlin in the 1920s, wherein images came to stand in for textual explanation. Echoing likewise the Dada propensity for aggregated forms, the images in this plate suggest the evolution of pagan mythology towards scientific discovery and progress. The movement or transference of forms towards the final three images—the Graf Zeppelin—hearken to the first successful airborne circumnavigation of the globe, as Claudia Wedepohl argues. Yet, I also wonder if this image brought to mind the zeppelins that were deployed as bombers during the first World War. Interestingly, in Warburg’s atlas, the Zeppelin appears from a number of perspectives, rendering the formal qualities of this strange, airborne object as somehow abstract. In one image, the Zeppelin is seen as if from the air, elegantly elongated at a slight declination. Formally, the vessel is an oblong ellipse of flat white; only the observing airplane, which flies at a harmonious angle just beneath this form, contextualizes the air ship’s position. In the second image, the Zeppelin is seen only partially, and from underneath. From this perspective, its enormity, its leaden darkness, have an oppressive aspect. The horizon, in a similar tone, balances the composition. The final picture of the Zeppelin, on the other hand, renders the object graphically—superimposed across the title of the periodical, Hamburger Illustrietre. Underneath the Zeppelin, the words: “Telegraphierte Bilder” or “Telegraphed Pictures”.
As one moves through the images, the perspective shift implies a similar transformation in perceptual technologies. First, we visually read the 3D model giving form to Kepler’s mathematical calculations revealing Mars’ elliptical orbit. Warburg identified this discovery as the breakthrough to modern science. Math, translatable as image, both represented institutional power while it also held within it the possibility of rebellion and progress. These same mathematical models (another from Kepler, and yet another from 1905) appear rendered graphically in 2D, in a gesture that makes use of and acknowledges the limitations of the printed medium by which knowledge is transmitted.
Comparatively, the illustration from the calendar book of a Carthusian monk from 1475 seem arcane and fantastical. Here the order is hierarchical, on a vertical axis, with Mars pictured as a knight, his children below engaged in battle on the temporal plane.
Interestingly, this image is the only one that makes explicit use of the human figure—in motion during battle. The human activity implied through the appearance of Zeppelin and its real-world consequences in global politics, on the other hand, illuminates the way in which advances or evolutions in conceptual understandings of celestial bodies perform a symbolic erasure through the elimination of the human individual from his imagined reality. An uncomfortable sensation results from the suggestion that the planetary body, Mars, as it was experienced in antiquity and through the Renaissance, had found its way into modernity as a manifestation of mastery and triumph on one hand and aggressivity and destruction on the other. As Otto Dix had once remarked in his journal while on the front lines, “even war must be regarded as impersonal”.
Warburg had worked in “picture press campaigns” during the Reformation in response to the devastations of World War I, remarking that, “the horror-fantasy of the ongoing war will be inconceivable without a picture-historical analysis of the belief in monsters”. What, or who, were the monsters? The answers, it might seem, could be found in the archive of the everyday.
As Horst Bredekamp observes, Warburg began to expand his research beyond the strictures of the fine art object to include images from contemporary life. Method and research thus seemed to merge with a novel artistic process, as exemplified by artists like Kurt Schwitters and Pablo Picasso, who drew together disparate articles and fragments to produce novel artifacts. In a world inundated with images, new meaning could be excavated and re-conveyed in a way that gave expression to an underlying structure. This is not dissimilar to Claude Levi-Strauss’s approach to anthropology, which argued for a transmission of forms and myths across cultural space. For Levi-Strauss, images (as formal manifestations of mythical discourse) had a concrete agency in locating humans within a cosmological framework. And while the French anthropologist would evince a colonialist anxiety about what constituted “primitive” versus “modern,” Warburg sought to emphasize how the modern and the antique were, ultimately, part of the same system.
This was before Hitler officially captured control of the German government, but fascism was already gaining its foothold in Warburg’s home country as well as in Italy, his adopted second home. In the same year that Warburg composed the Mars plate, Mussolini and Pope Pius XI signed the Lateran Treaty, in which the pope officially abdicated his temporal power through the creation of a new Vatican state as separate and distinct from Rome, the latter to which Mussolini would now lay claim. Warburg was present for that event. He collected a number of photos that he then purposed to illustrating his last collages (plates 78 and 79) for his Bilderatlas. Panel 78, entitled “Church and State. The religious power renounces its secular power” brings about a dramatic conclusion in which Renaissance monuments and images—Saint Peter’s Basilica, Bernini’s bronzes, Botticelli’s painting, Giotto and Rafael frescos—foreground and contextualize the symbolic moment. Here, as Charlotte Schoell-Glass argues, images are shown to exert their power chiefly in sacrificial rituals. Consider how the photo in Plate 78, where the attending officials are shown seated as they sign the accord, mirrors the image of the Last Supper during which Jesus gathered with his Apostles and initiated the tradition of the Eucharist.
This becomes the explicit theme of the final Plate 79, entitled “Eating God. Bolsena. Botticelli. Paganism in the Church. Miracle of the bloody host. Transubstantiation. Italian criminals receiving extreme unction.” (Warburg’s colleague, Gertrude Bing, named all panels, in fidelity to the telegraphic impulse present therein.) The discursive range of meanings here is myriad; I will comment only on a few. Included in this constellation of images: a hara-kiri, or ritual suicide, clippings from the press, photographs of the procession that accompanied the signing of the treaty. Raphael’s fresco of the miraculous bleeding host, Botticelli’s last communion of Saint Jerome—both echoing again the Final Supper as well as the ritual act in which ritual power brokers the distinction between religion and politics, or rather, reconstitutes pagan symbolism in a modern context. One photograph, showing Pope Pius XI beneath a baldachin amidst the eucharistic procession, ontologically transforms the Bishop of Rome into a miraculous image, not unlike the portable, wooden sculptures that were (and are) frequently brought out in mass processions on feast days and in response to environmental crisis, plagues, and other social disturbances. Thus, Warburg gives witness to the consecration of fascism in Italy, accompanied by a renegotiation of the cosmic order.
Finally: the sacrament of extreme unction acts as a stand-in for the ritual violence through reference to a scene of Jewish host desecrators sentenced to death, a common theme in Christian art. State-sanctioned violence and sacrifice, transferred as they were in Christianity to the symbolic realm, generated the basis of a social and juridical code concerning belonging. Writ large, that allegory exerted immeasurable force on the present. The ancient beast, antisemitism, would once again drive political activities back into the human sphere where blood was still blood and flesh still flesh.
Whatever Warburg’s feelings about Europe’s future may have been, the final images he left behind are ominous. For, not only does Warburg register the beginning of a new political reality with the rise of fascism, he also gives witness to something more sinister; that is, he seems to prophesize just how complicit the spiritual order would be in the atrocities that would follow during World War II. He did not live to see that war.