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13.12.06, McEwan, Fritz Saxl: Eine Biografie

13.12.06, McEwan, Fritz Saxl: Eine Biografie

Scholars all over the world revere the Warburg Institute of the University of London as an abode of learning and a temple of interdisciplinary research. Differently from institutions of similar standing in this country, such as the Morgan, the Newberry, the Huntington, or the Getty, the Warburg Institute owes its existence and its very name not to the generosity and the idiosyncratic taste of a benefactor, but to the groundbreaking scholarship of its namesake Aby Warburg (1866-1929), one of the leading intellectual figures of the twentieth century. Warburg's influence reaches well beyond the field of Renaissance art history, in which he gave his major scholarly contributions with seminal interpretations of Botticelli's mythological paintings and the Schifanoia frescoes in Ferrara, and extends to a variety of other disciplines, most notably cultural studies, which he helped to define also through the founding of the Institute that bears his name.

Dorothea McEwan's biography of Fritz Saxl (1890-1948) is a welcome tribute to the scholar who perhaps more than anybody else contributed to the survival of Warburg's legacy, or its Nachleben, to use the German term that Warburg himself popularized in the formula Nachleben der Antike, the afterlife of classical antiquity that his work and his library were devoted to investigate--what Saxl circumscribed, more precisely, as das Nachleben der nicht-Winckelmannschen Antike in a 1921 letter to the literary scholar Eduard Wechßler (67). The first part of the biography rests largely on the ample selection of the Warburg-Saxl correspondence, from their first contacts in 1910 to Warburg's death in 1929, that McEwan edited in two volumes in 1998 and 2004 ("Ausreiten der Ecken". Die Aby Warburg-Fritz Saxl Korrespondenz 1910 bis 1919 and "Wanderstrassen der Kultur". Die Aby Warburg-Fritz Saxl Korrespondenz 1920 bis 1929, München and Hamburg: Dölling und Galitz). At the time McEwan had rightly called Saxl's biography a desideratum and this book goes a long way to fulfill that wish, though one would have hoped for a deeper engagement with his scholarly trajectory instead of a mostly hagiographical narrative. McEwan took on the formidable task of cataloging Warburg's correspondence, including ca. 38,000 items, in 1993, when she entered her position as archivist of the Warburg Institute, and she relies on an additional approx. 20,000 letters for the period leading up to Saxl's death in 1948.

The role of mediator or interpreter of Warburg's thought is one that befell Saxl almost by chance, as the young Austrian art historian was originally hired as Warburg's assistant and librarian. Saxl went on to play, however, an essential role in ensuring the transformation of a private library (the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg) into the world-renowned public institution that the Warburg Institute remains to this day, especially during the turbulent years that Warburg spent in various mental institutions at the end of World War I, following a nervous breakdown. Saxl became interim director in 1920 when Warburg's recovery and healing appeared only a remote possibility, and served as such until Warburg's almost miraculous return to Hamburg in 1924 from Ludwig Binswanger's sanatorium for the mentally ill in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland. Saxl took then over the reins of the library following Warburg's death on 26 October 1929, but it was only after its adventurous and indeed audacious transport to London by cargo ship in the aftermath of the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 that Saxl came truly into his own. The account of this epoch in Saxl's life is the most satisfactory part of the book, where the reader has the most to learn and much new information is made available on those early, decisive years of the newly named Warburg Institute.

Until the Getty Research Institute issued in 1999 a complete translation of Warburg's published works, the English-speaking reader depended largely on Sir E. H. Gombrich's 1970 "intellectual biography" (2nd ed., Aby Warburg, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986) to become acquainted with his multifarious contributions. As it has become clearer over the more than forty years since its publication, however, that work provided an influential but flawed account of Warburg's life and thought. A team of scholars in England and Germany is currently working on an edition of Warburg's unpublished writings. The edition, however, is not meant to be complete, and the schedule of publication is as yet undefined. An assessment of Warburg's work remains thus still based on a painfully inadequate knowledge of its true scope. Saxl's work, on the other hand, became well known to the English reader thanks to an intense activity of publication in the country of exile, which was brought to an abrupt end only by his premature death in 1948. Had he lived a longer life, and McEwan speculates with some reason that it was the stress of those terrible years that cost him so dearly, when he and the Institute had to restart from scratch in a new environment and in a new language, he would have probably exerted on that side of the Atlantic an influence equal to that, on this side, of his close associate Erwin Panofsky, with whom he coauthored one of the most renowned books coming out of the Warburg tradition: the interpretation of Albrecht Dürer's engraving Melencolia I (a third author, Raymond Klybansky, was added when the book first appeared in English in 1964 under the title Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion, and Art). In his last lecture Why Art History?, Saxl sums up his trajectory as that of "a labourer tilling the soil on the borderstrip between art history, literature, science and religion," and this characterization neatly fits the profile of Warburg's first and most loyal disciple.

McEwan's book lacks the sense of unity that, for instance, Gombrich's biography, with all its limitations, was able to achieve by tackling head on the intellectual side of Warburg's life, rather than its more mundane aspects. Here we encounter more of a history of the institution that Saxl first served, then headed, and always identified with rather than a history of his intellectual contributions that were numerous, and would have deserved more space, from the Rembrandt studies that were the topic of his 1912 Vienna dissertation to the astrological studies that brought him in touch with Warburg, who "pointed a gun to his chest" (252) and demanded that he choose between the two. And yet Saxl was able to maintain both interests alive and actually to cross-fertilize them in ways that were in turn influential on Warburg. One may refer to Salvatore Settis' sympathetic introduction to the Italian translation of a wide selection of Saxl's writings for a more comprehensive discussion (La fede negli astri, Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 1985) or to Gombrich's introduction to a selection of Saxl's lectures (The Heritage of Images, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), which is here reprinted and offers a crucial insight in the difference between Warburg's and Saxl's attitude towards their subject of study: Warburg, Gombrich writes, "was never concerned with the past for its own sake. His aim was to establish a Kulturwissenschaft, or "science of culture" that would allow us to apply the lessons of the past to the present. It was in this light that he studied certain traditions deriving from pagan Greece and Rome with which, in his view, Western civilization had to come to terms. A subject such as the history of astral symbolism illustrated for Warburg the ambivalent nature of this heritage. It had helped science to map out the heavens, but it had also been the instrument by which men's minds had been seduced to the degrading superstitions of astrology. When, in his lecture on the revival of late-antique astrology, Saxl comes to speak of the belief in stellar influence, it is with the detached sympathy of the intellectual historian who looks with understanding and compassion at astrology as fulfilling the religious need of the uneducated. Anxious though he is not to distort Warburg's message, his concluding words transform the warnings of the prophet into the statement of a historical fact, the fact that both Western rationalism and Western irrationalism have their roots in the intellectual heritage of classical antiquity" (304-305).

A particularly valuable part of the book, which makes indeed almost half of its content, is the appendix of documents, which includes, besides Gombrich's introduction and other disparate materials, a lengthy letter to James Loeb, the founder of the Loeb Classical Library and relative of Warburg, arguing forcefully for a transferal of the library to Rome (another possible site that remained long in contention was New York), and a couple of wonderfully eloquent and passionate letters by the great Viennese art historian Max Dvorak, who had been Saxl's mentor at the University of Vienna, protesting the restitution of works of art to Italy at the end of WWI in name of the shared European legacy of the two countries.

Saxl's life is in sum inextricably tied to that of the Warburg Institute and McEwan's biography is ipso facto also a valuable contribution to a history of the Institute, which is very much a reflection of the tragic history of twentieth-century Europe. The publication of this book is particularly welcome at a time when the very survival of the Warburg Institute has become a matter of debate, as a result of the proposed restructuring of the University of London and its School of Advanced Study. At a time of increased financial pressure, even institutions of higher learning that have played for decades a central role in the unification of the European consciousness find themselves under threat. It is sobering but also encouraging to be reminded of how such an eminently continental institution was able to take roots in the English soil through the sheer will and foresight of figures such as Saxl and patrons of the arts such as Lord Lee and Samuel Courtauld and, ultimately, the support of "that most generous of all patrons, [...] the British taxpayer," as Gombrich flatteringly concluded his Warburg biography. One can draw some measure of comfort from the suspenseful narrative of all the obstacles the Warburg Institute had to overcome under Saxl's stewardship and one may not despair that these roots are strong enough to withstand any future storm. It is now more than ever the task of scholars working in Warburg's tradition to make sure that his name be not forgotten nor turned into the mere inscription over the door of a building. Not in vain, Warburg had chosen as the motto of his library another name than his own: that of the Greek goddess of memory, Mnemosyne.