Journal Article

Aby Warburg's Hamburg Comedy: Wilhelmine Culture from the Perspective of a Pioneering Cultural Historian

Mark A. Russell

in German History

Published on behalf of German History Society

Volume 24, issue 2, pages 153-183
Published in print April 2006 | ISSN: 0266-3554
Published online April 2006 | e-ISSN: 1477-089X | DOI:
Aby Warburg's Hamburg Comedy: Wilhelmine Culture from the Perspective of a Pioneering Cultural Historian

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This article examines an unpublished play written by Aby Warburg (1866–1929), entitled Hamburg Conversations on Art: Hamburg Comedy, 1896. The play offers a glimpse into Warburg's views on modern art and into his thinking on the various processes of modernization. It demonstrates how his enthusiasm for innovative art forms emerged, in part, as an expression of his rebellion against the religious, social and professional conventions of the German–Jewish economic élite into which he was born. As with many of his generation, Warburg claimed social and cultural progress under the banner of artistic innovation. The play also provides a focus for a discussion of the ways in which Warburg's interest in modern art was closely allied with pioneering research into the role of symbolism and art in European history. To this end, the article explores Warburg's concern about the prospect of a culture in which symbolic and mythical thinking was replaced by a technology that destroyed humanity's contemplative bond with the world. It also demonstrates that Warburg's perspective on social and cultural modernization combined seemingly different attitudes: it blended the future-orientated optimism of an urban, liberal and cosmopolitan outlook with the nostalgic pessimism of an ardent patriot whose life was shaped by traditional values and who was uneasy about the increasingly rationalized and materialistic society in which he lived. In conclusion, the article suggests that this attitude was not uncommon among the Bürgertum and points to the difficulties of conceiving of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ in Imperial Germany in terms of mutual exclusivity.

Journal Article.  0 words. 

Subjects: European History

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