< Back to previous page


Unchaining Classicism: Aby Warburg (1866-1929) and Classical Reception Studies

Why would someone use forms and ideas from Greco-Roman antiquity? For a long time, the answer was obvious: because ancient art and literature represented an ideal of balanced beauty and wisdom. This project explores an early alternative to this ‘Classicist’ answer and traces its implications for today’s classical reception studies, or the study of post-antique engagements with antiquity. Instead of paying lip service to Classicism, the art historian Aby Warburg (d. 1929) showed how artists – from Botticelli to Manet – had also used ancient materials to unsettle the present rather than to glorify an ancient ideal. He also asked what such reuses told about their times. One example shows something of his innovation. When Percy Gardner discussed the ‘influence of Greek art’ (1921), he confronted classical Caryatids with Rodin’s sculpture of a fallen Caryatid carrying her stone (1905). He did so to illustrate Rodin’s inferiority in ‘ideality’. But when Warburg explored ancient sources for the reclining figures in Manet’s disturbing 'Déjeuner' (1863), he analyzed the painter’s reuse of antiquity as revealing modern views of nature. For him, the ways artists had used ancient models went beyond Classicism and implied wider cultural issues. In multiple ways, Warburg anticipated modern reception studies, although this field of study largely ignores his work today. By placing his ‘survival theory’ in its cultural contexts, this project shows Warburg’s relevance for current scholarship.

Date:1 Oct 2015 →  1 Jan 2018
Keywords:Unchaining Classicism, Aby Warburg, Classical Reception Studies
Disciplines:Art studies and sciences