Studies on Aby Warburg, Fritz Saxl, and Gertrud Bing

The Studies1 is a collection of articles I originally published in German, Italian and French as the first Archivist of the Warburg Institute, School of Advanced Study, University of London, turned into chapters. I catalogued the entire correspondence of Aby Warburg (1866–1929) held by the archive, some 37,000 letters and postcards dating from the 1880s to Warburg’s death in 1929.2 As an expert in German palaeography and in intellectual history, I set up a database of the Warburg Institute’s large archival holdings. Having worked on other large collections, notably the Gustav Klimt / Emilie Flöge correspondence, large holdings of records of Jewish sthetls, and Austrian archival material from Egypt, the collection in the Warburg Institute allowed for an in-depth examination and understanding of Aby Warburg, Director of the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg in Hamburg and his two librarians, Fritz Saxl and Gertrud Bing. Saxl and Bing were instrumental in transferring the entire library to London in 1933, and became directors of the newly established Warburg Institute there and developing it into one of the world’s leading centres of intellectual history, Saxl until his death in 1946 and Bing from 1955 to 1959. In this new volume, which comprises seventeen chapters, I have translated and updated my work originally published as articles in various academic journals on the impact of these three extraordinary scholars.

Warburg is known for having researched the survival of classical antiquity, an area of research which encompasses the history of literature, religion, astrology, and art history. In lectures and articles, Warburg investigated the ‘pathways of culture’ which found their most important documentation in Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas.3 Warburg kept everything: business cards, private letters, scholarly requests, and his correspondence with universities, libraries, archives, and publishers in Germany and abroad. The archive, therefore, is a rich source in general for the history of scholarship in Warburg’s time, his own research, and the work of his colleagues.

Fritz Saxl. WIA, Portrait collection, n.d., in the 1920s. Photography copyright of The Warburg Institute.

Aby Warburg’s research and writings centred on images, their intellectual origins and visual metamorphoses, and explanations and interpretations of them. The chapters include discussions of Warburg’s academic work with colleagues such as James Loeb, the American Hellenist, philanthropist, and founder of the Loeb Classical Library, and Josef Strzygowski, the Polish–Austrian art historian of the Vienna School of Art History and famous for his theories on the influence of Near Eastern art on European art. Further chapters include important research on the paintings in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara; notes on Warburg’s anthropological and artistic research culminating in the so-called Serpent Ritual lecture of 1923; his politico-cultural initiative to keep Italy out of the war in 1914–15; his comments on Mandaeism; his work on caricature, in particular, the Struwwelpeter topic; a very personal correspondence from Florence with his parents and in-laws in Hamburg; and discussions on the topic of Judaica, to wit, the exchange of letters between Warburg and his niece Gisela during and after her visit to Palestine.

The Viennese art historian Fritz Saxl became his trusted friend and collaborator, helping to gather Warburg’s large collection of books and photographs together in one academic institution in Hamburg in the 1920s, the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg. Saxl was an expert on Rembrandt as well as on images of the stars, Mithras research, and early Christian art. In Hamburg and London, as an art historian from Vienna, he stayed in touch with his Viennese colleagues and the Vienna School of Art History.

Gertrud Bing. WIA, Portrait collection, n.d., in the 1930s. Photograph copyright of The Warburg Institute.

Gertrud Bing studied philosophy with Ernst Cassirer in Germany and was employed as a librarian by Warburg in Hamburg. After the Institute moved to London, she was, in addition to her work as Deputy Director, crucial in assisting asylum seekers from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. She enabled a large number of scholars to find academic posts in the UK and the USA. She became Director of the Warburg Institute and Professor of the Classical  Tradition in 1955. The chapter on A. A. Barb in this volume, Deputy Director and then Director of the Warburg Institute’s Library after Saxl’s death, provides insights into Bing’s work; Barb’s conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1941, giving his reasons for and Bing’s against; and Barb’s research on charms and incantations, gnostic intaglios, prophets, and martyrs. 

A. A. Barb, Eisenstadt, 1927. Photograph copyright: private.

The chapter ‘“What I can represent as a Jew, I can also represent as a Catholic”: On Alfons Augustinus Barb’s Scholarly Career and his Change of Religion’ is an investigation into Barb’s personal decision to choose whether to be Jewish or not. Bing’s own view was that she had to bear all the distress tied up with being Jewish, and did not consider making a different decision. It goes without saying that Barb’s choice in no way tarnished his relationship with Saxl and Bing, but it was important to Bing to apprise Barb of her views in her reply on 1 January 1943.4

The featured image shows the logo of the Warburg Institute above its entrance in London. Photograph by Wikimedia user Philafrenzy, published under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

Cite this blog post
Dorothea McEwan (2023, March 27). Studies on Aby Warburg, Fritz Saxl, and Gertrud Bing. German Historical Institute London Blog. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from

  1. Dorothea McEwan, Studies on Aby Warburg, Fritz Saxl, and Gertrud Bing (Abingdon, 2023). []
  2. Database of the Aby Warburg Correspondence in the Warburg Institute Archive (WIA), 37,845 English language abstracts, available online. []
  3. Martin Warnke and Claudia Brinck (eds.), Aby Warburg (1866–1929): Gesammelte Schriften. Studienausgabe, 2. Abt., vol. 2.1: Der Bilderatlas MNEMOSYNE (Berlin, 2000); Roberto Ohrt and Axel Heil (eds.), Aby Warburg: Bilderatlas MnemosyNe: Das Original: Begleitheft zur Ausstellung, curated with the Warburg Institute, London, in collaboration with the Bundeskunsthalle of the Federal Republic of Germany, Bonn; Concept Axel Heil, Roberto Ohrt, Eva Kraus, and Katharina Chrubasik; photographs Ian Jones (The Warburg Institute), Paul Taylor (The Warburg Institute), Tobias Wootton (London, Karlsruhe), Dieter Schleicher (Karlsruhe) (Cologne, 2020). []
  4. Warburg Institute Archive, Bing to Barb, 1 Jan. 1943. []

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Dorothea McEwan

She is Honorary Fellow of the University of London, first and long-time archivist at The Warburg Institute, and has been elected member of the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences in recognition of her impressive publication record and outstanding contribution to research in the intersection of religious history and art in Ethiopia in 2017. She was awarded The Austrian Cross of Science and Art and The Grand Decoration for services to the Republic of Austria.

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