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Art
Between Tradition and Modernity:   Aby Warburg and the Public Purposes of Art in Hamburg, 1896-1918
Mark A. Russell
Illustrated. 272 pp.
Berghahn Books. US$90.00
ISBN-10: 1845453697 / ISBN-13: 978-1845453695

Scholars who study the early twentieth century, modernism, art theory or Germany will relish Mark A. Russell’s meticulous book, Between Tradition and Modernity: Aby Warburg and the Public Purposes of Art in Hamburg, 1896-1918. The nineteenth volume in the series “Monographs in German History,” it seeks to rectify Aby Warburg’s neglect by art historians. Author Mark A. Russell studies Warburg’s interest in iconography and his interdisciplinary look at Florentine and modernist art through the lens of economics. Russell reveals Warburg’s importance to early twentieth-century society and its parallels to the study of paintings and public monuments.

Warburg once described himself as a “Hamburger at heart, Jew by birth, Florentine by spirit.” His doctoral dissertation analyzed two Botticelli paintings and introduced the study of iconography to art theorists when it was published as a book. It claimed that the study of gestures of subjects in paintings as well as their symbolic “accessories” made an important contribution to civic life.

One of the foundations of Warburg’s ideology was the connection many Germans made between their society and the Classical era, which they admired for its energy and ability to vitalize contemporary art. Like most members of the art establishment in Germany at the turn of the century, Warburg struggled with new archeological finds that suggested significant parallels of Egyptian wall art to that of his own time. This theory also suggested a similarity between the Classical era and the passions in fifteenth-century Florentine paintings. Walburg’s book conceptualized Botticelli as a representative of this passion, and he supported his theories by looking at the art of both eras and placing them in a context of economic events.

Once Warburg moved from Florence to Hamburg, he used his family’s resources to found the art library, Wissenschatflicher. During the Weimar Republic, he also studied outdoor monuments as statements of the shift from imperial art to the more democratic modernist movement. The author discusses Warburg’s involvement in constructing a monument to Bismarck and the artistic decorations of Hamburg’s city hall. Warburg believed that these monuments demonstrated dualism in public life because they exposed the intellectual conflict between traditional forms and modernism to public view.

This scholarly and highly nuanced book will be an invaluable source for art historians as well as those studying twentieth-century Germany and its political, cultural, intellectual and emotional history. The author’s prose is a bit heavy at times, but Russell compensates nicely by explaining each idea from several different angles; at the end readers will realize just how much they have learned.

Mark A. Russell is a professor at the Liberal Arts College of Concordia University, Montreal. His writings on culture in Imperial Germany have appeared in The Historical Journal, The Canadian Journal of History, and German History.

Elizabeth Breau, for Notable Book Reviews
Notable Book Reviews received one or more copies of this book in exchange for this review.
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