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The Humanities Conference 2003

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Reconsidering Aby Warburg: Image, Text and the Spaces In Between

Andrea S. Bubenik.

This paper posits the work of Aby Warburg (1866-1929) as a starting point for exploring relationships between images and text, as well as relationships between art and science. Historians have long been convinced of the primacy of words as conveyors of ideas, but what about images? Although the formal incorporation of art history into university curricula was concurrent with the establishment of history as a university discipline in Germany in the 1840s, the extent (or limits) to which images can purvey ideas has been debated ever since Pliny the Elder declared in his Natural History that "pictures are apt to mislead." The need for setting images on equal footing with words was recognized by Warburg, whose resolutely interdisciplinary endeavors found expression in his seminal writings, the organization of his famous library in Hamburg, and his unfinished Bilderatlas (also referred to as his "Picture Book of Pure Unreason"). Warburg remains a somewhat elusive figure, even amongst art historians, who readily acknowledge that a "Warburg tradition" of research exists, yet seldom read his works. If we allow for the possibility, as Michel Serres does, of scholarly truth as "haunting the intersections between disciplines," a reconsideration of the work of Warburg has much to offer. In this context, the following questions arise: do works of art provide us with knowledge that is significantly different from textual based sources? Is it possible to "read" an image? What is the nature of the relationship between images and text? What possibilities exist for a dialogue between disciplines? In this paper, an exploration of some natural history illustrations that remain unclaimed by the histories of both art and science will characterize not only how images afford the possibility of an interdisciplinary approach, but rather necessitate it.


Andrea S. Bubenik  (Canada)
Doctoral Candidate
Department of Art
Queen's University

  • Images & Text
  • Historiography
  • Interdisciplinary
Person as Subject
  • Aby Warburg

(30 min Conference Paper, English)