“The Migration of Images, Objects, Commodities, and Texts” – Interview with Andreas Beyer
On May 11-12, 2018, the international research group “‘Bilderfahrzeuge’ – Aby Warburg’s Legacy and the Future of Iconology” will host a conference entitled “Images on the Move: Depots | Routes | Borders | Spaces”, to be held at the Warburg Institute in London.
On the occasion of the conference, we talked with Andreas Beyer, professor of art history at Basel University and speaker of the Bilderfahrzeuge project about the general aims of the project, the objective of the upcoming conference and how the research on Aby Warburg’s legacy might develop in the future.
To anyone who did not yet come in touch with the Bilderfahrzeuge project, could you briefly explain what the project is, how it came into life and what its main research agenda includes?
The project was established in 2013, initiated by the four founding directors (Horst Bredekamp, Uwe Fleckner, Gerhard Wolf and myself) in collaboration with Peter Mack, who was at the time director of the Warburg Institute. It was an initiative that was encouraged by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research to considerably support the Warburg Institute in London, an institution that was founded at the beginning of the 20th century by Aby Warburg in Hamburg (named then the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg). Since its founder (who died in 1929) had been Jewish and its collaborators were mostly Jewish too, his Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek was forced into exile in 1933. It found a new home in London, where today, it is part of the School of Advanced Study of the University of London. Over the last eighty years, Germany had never officially been engaged in this institute – a shame, given the circumstances of its expulsion. The Bilderfahrzeuge project was launched at a crucial moment, since there was the danger that the Warburg Institute’s library, unique in its disposition and in its holdings, might be dissolved and integrated into the British Library. That however would have meant the end of an institute that for decades and for many generations of art and cultural historians had become a central point of reference for the international “Kulturwissenschaft”. So our project was both a “reparation”, in a certain way, and a contribution to its future. The Ministry granted circa 6 million Euros for the duration of five years in order to establish a research project hosted at the Warburg Institute, but also in collaboration with the Humboldt University in Berlin, the Warburg Haus of the University of Hamburg and the German Centre for the History of Art in Paris, whose director I was at the time. The topic was identified immediately: “Bilderfahrzeuge” – literally meaning “image vehicles”, a term coined by Warburg. It refers to a concept that was of the utmost importance to him, since his work sought to trace lines of continuity linking Antiquity with the Renaissance – lines that he felt materialised out of Bildwanderung, the migration of images. Our project starts from there, but it sets out to explore the migration of images, objects, commodities, and texts, in short: the migration of ideas in a broader historical and geographical context.
Given that Warburg’s concept “Bilderfahrzeuge” can be understood quite broadly, what would you identify as the main connections between the individual research projects assembled within the Bilderfahrzeuge project? What are methodological approaches detectable in all research projects?
What links our common work is the conviction that images do not know boundaries. They cross borders, they ignore national identities, they are appropriated but also adapted, transformed. They create trajectories. So what we scrutinize are these tracks. And the objects (or ideas, forms) themselves, of course. Their alterations, when they move from one place to the other. Their interpretation. But also their tenacity which is the proper “logic” of the image that escapes appropriation. When we use the term “iconology”, we refer to a notion that Warburg himself created – even though he did not define or even use it very often. The word combines “icon” and “logos”: image and word. It seemed appropriate to us, because it describes the two poles of our approach. And we didn’t want to adopt the fashionable term “Bildwissenschaft”.
In a global context, in which we inevitably have to understand and research “images”, this impetus helps to compare and to distinguish, to respect singularities, but also to draft commonalities. Methodologically speaking, I’d say we actually combine the basic accesses of our discipline: questions of style and form, iconography, political iconology, questions of patronage or materiality. And, of course, the history of ideas.
The upcoming conference is structured in four sections: Depots, Routes, Borders and Spaces. Why did you choose these as the framework of the conference and how are these maybe crucial when working on/with “Bilderfahrzeuge”?
Well, all these terms point directly to the essential issues of our project. They comprise storage and custody, trajectories and movement, constraints and thresholds, zones and spatiality. When we work on byzantine coins that appear in India (and start a proper iconic life there), on Arabic forms translated to Europe, or Italian patterns that become foundations of French cultural identity, or Babylonian relics that interested German collectors and scholars at the end of the 19th century alike – to name just a few areas we are working on – then these concepts or notions help to systemize, to identify, to compare, to organize, to understand. These sections were defined by our research associates who will all respond to the papers given by our guests. Every research research associate was free to invite guests: It is our way to interact, to communicate and to work in a dialogue form, similar to the Bilderfahrzeuge lecture series that we regularly organize at the Warburg Institute. Albeit we operate in a “Forschungsverbund” – a close circle, so to speak – we continuously seek the external impact and are eager to share and to learn.
The conference both concludes the first phase of the Bilderfahrzeuge project and set the course for the next phase: if you risked a look into the future, how do you think the project will develop, what will change in the second phase, and what are your main goals for this second funding period?
The second funding period, which was just granted by the Federal Ministry, will start this summer and will last another five years, again endowed with the generous sum of 6 million Euros. The recruiting process of the new team is currently under way. We will continue to pursue our main research lines, but we defined the research areas in a more political sense, I’d say. “Political iconology” was developed in tight collaboration with the Index of Political Iconography established by Martin Warnke at the Warburg Haus in Hamburg, which is the former home of Warburg’s library. It will focus on the use (and abuse) of images in politics, wars, and terrorism.
“The migration of images in the pacific and Asian area” will not and cannot ignore the economic and political conditions of such trajectories. “Art and nationhood” will focus on the shaping of a British canon in art or on the definition what the unique “Englishness” of English art might be. So there is a more socio-political aspect that guides us in this second turn. But we will also concentrate a little more on Warburg himself, on the evolution of his language, for example, or on his interest in psychology. With the core of our group working in London and the other collaborators based in Hamburg and at the Humboldt University in Berlin, a main goal remains to contribute to the strengthening of the Warburg Institute. Bill Sherman, its new director, is also part of the board of directors of our group. With him we have the best and most promising colleague to do so.
Citation: “The migration of images, objects, commodities, and texts” – Interview with Andreas Beyer, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 04.05.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/9976.