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Aby Warburg's Wildest Dreams Come True?

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Abstract:

In the midst of the “digital revolution,” should we be pleased or disappointed about its effects in the field of art history? How does one answer this question, which is most likely premature and lacking in analytical acuity given what we know about art historical preferences and practices? But even if we accept the digital revolution as a broad concept to mean simply that image researchers have an unprecedented flood of reproductions at their fingertips, there is no question that we can still detect real feelings of unease about what this flood has brought us so far.

This article takes a simple visual motif—one person carrying another—as a starting point for an iconographic exploration. In demonstrating and imagining how source material could be collected, arranged, and rearranged, it recalls in a general way the panels with photographs that Aby Warburg (1866–1929) set up to help him develop ideas and relationships in the process of his art historical research.

If we could design easily accessible corpora of sources so that continuous rearrangement by visual motif and meaning were easy, and if we could seduce researchers and catalogers to cooperate in enriching them with more and better descriptions, tags, and links, the study of iconography could make a significant leap forward.
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