Warburg's Mask: A Study in Idolatry

Freedberg, David A.

Art historians have long studied Aby Warburg's 1923 lecture about his visit to the Pueblos of northern New Mexico between December 1895 and May 1896. Indeed, it has become rather too much studied, not only by historians of art, but also by other intellectual historians, especially in the last decade. Much of the literature on it is repetitious; almost all of it is uncritical. It has been idolatrized as a pioneering example of the crossover between art history and anthropology. But anthropologists know it much less well, if at all. At least some of the lecture's contemporary intellectual cachet lies in the high irony of its central psychodrama.

Warburg delivered it in order to prove to his doctors that he was of sound enough mind to be release from Ludwig Binswanger's sanatorium in Kreuzlingen, and it shows him wrestling with his own inner demons as he seeks to account for the demonic yet salvific status of the snake in Hope culture. It was the final, belated summation of the continuities he had always sought (but had long suppressed) between the culture of the Pueblo peoples and that of the Italian Renaissance.

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Anthropologies of Art
Yale University Press

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Art History and Archaeology
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April 7, 2010