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RESTORING GESTURES: Exploring Aby Warburg’s Method for Theater Studies

Research project

Fellow: Tuypens Esther

Supervisor: Vanhoutte Kurt

Duration: 01/10/2012 - 30/09/2014

This study aims at exploring the work of German art historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929) for theater studies. Warburg sought to uncover the survival of Antiquity in a plethora of images from different origins (examples of ‘high art’, advertisement, astrological drawings etc.), the most striking example of which is the image-atlas Mnemosyne. The body in motion is the central motif in Warburg’s investigations, and the returning pathos formulas, or gestures, the threads that run through his cross-historical image montage. The notion of a survival or Nachleben of the image is anti-historicist in nature and affects the image’s status as historical artifact. Gesture, more specifically, can be understood as an embodiment of historical memory, which grants the image an autonomous presence. This project proposes that Warburg’s pathos formulas exhibit a tension between (pictorial) representation and presence that seems to mark a parallel between the ‘body in the image’ as he investigates it, and the ‘body on stage’.


Inspired by Warburg’s own research method and by recent critical and philosophical readings of his work (Georges Didi-Huberman, Giorgio Agamben, Philippe Alain-Michaud) the project will first investigate and theorize this double status of the pathos formulas and then implement it to connect the historical case study of early modern Italian pageantry, which was of a significant methodological interest for Warburg, to contemporary examples (gesture in postdramatic theater, the sculptural body, slow motion, etc.) where the body externalizes a similar tension. In doing so, the study aims to find a methodological ground for theater studies in Warburg’s work that is not only relevant for theater historiographical purposes, but that opens the possibility for the analysis of contemporary theater practice.

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