Alongside The Young Dürer exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery is a one-room show dedicated to the insight shed on Dürer's influences and motivations by one of the great spectres of art history, Aby Warburg. Famed for his library and his Mnemosyne Atlas – a nonlinear revision of art historical symbols – he was a master of iconology, particularly within Renaissance art.
The room focuses on the seminal lecture Warburg delivered in Hamburg's Concert Hall to an audience of 300. Entitled Dürer and Italian Antiquity, the lecture made the connection between classical antiquity and Dürer's drawings of impassioned scenes, tracing the thread from classical art to Andrea Mantegna to Dürer – a vital thread connecting these different moments in time and exploding previous understanding of progressive thought and linear development.
Aby Warburg was part of a wealthy German family, working in the financial sector. Averse to taking on the family tradition, Warburg made a pact with his brother, who would continue the business alone, provided he kept him in books. The result is the hugely respected Research Library, which was established in Hamburg but moved permanently to London during the lead-up to the Second World War. And it can still be viewed now at the Warburg Institute in Bloomsbury, complete with revisionist cataloguing, and its final section dedicated to "fundamental problems".
Whilst the exhibition does sell itself as a sideline, it is still very much entwined with the main Dürer exhibition. Little space is given to Warburg and his own particular brand of art history; perhaps the Courtauld missed a trick here. The room is filled with all the drawings present at Warburg's original lecture, which he used to illustrate his point; but the point seems a little lost without more detail and contextualising of Warburg's wider ideas and occupations. More's the pity, as it isn't often a gallery attempts to engage with a particular moment in history so directly and transparently.
Warburg was primarily concerned with philology but he also opened up the field of art history to new objects and opportunities for discussion and interpretation. His Mnemosyne picture atlas was a visual record of how the language of symbols can be traced in a nonlinear historical development, and proposed the idea that images have an "afterlife'" when symbols emerge in new and unexpected places.
It's a vital moment in art history and one that has informed and transformed how we think about images – so it's great to see a key historical moment brought back to life. If only the Courtauld had engaged with the theory on a deeper level.