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Thursday, 18 February 2016 22:06

the nymph in motion

Aby Warburg, Mnemosyne Atlas, Panel 39: The Nymph In Motion Aby Warburg, Mnemosyne Atlas, Panel 39: The Nymph In Motion Aby Warburg, Mnemosyne Atlas, 1924-1929, map of 2000 photographs against 79 wooden panels covered with black fabric. Warburg Institute, London. Photo Image Courtesy Of: http://www.engramma.it/eOS2/image/1039/T39_HD.jpg
At once startled and intrigued, the woman twists her gaze to the top right, staring wide-eyed into the swollen face of a god, depicted in a separate snapshot. This figure, Apollo, strains his head to the left, his forehead creases as he prepares to blow out the breath which seems to fight for escape against the flesh of the cheeks and mouth which entrap it. Following the imaginary line of wind that is soon to burst from his mouth, the eye moves back towards the startled young woman. She gasps, while a string of flowers tumble from her mouth. The flowers look like a silhouette projected in motion onto the smooth background of her skin. In line with this same rush of movement, is the hair which cascades down and accentuates the spontaneous twist of her neck. The eye sails down this fountain of hair, jumping over the gaping black background, and landing on the head of a girl who dances in the middle of another snapshot. Captured mid-frolic, the girl leans her weight to the right in order to support her leg which curves slightly at the knee and carries the eye leftwards, where her toe points towards one of the two centre images in the panel.

In this image, placed in same line of direction as the pointed toe, is the cherub-like face of a little boy who clings to his mother's hand. Although his torso leans instinctively towards her, he cocks his head to the faded figure of a young girl who seems to be disappearing out of the right edge of the image, into the black abyss against which the image lies. The eye struggles against this tug into the nothingness of the black background and redirects itself towards the stabilising clutch of the mother's hand. Her finger points downwards into the crack of her knee which is swept upwards to the right by gentle waves of fabric which alternately cling to and billow from her figure. Thus, the eye flutters constantly in this diagonal, up-down, left-right movement. Traveling across the space, which threatens to swallow the young girl in the right of the image, a woman's thrown-out arms and slightly curved back confront the viewer. The straight, sharp corner of her elbow contrasts against the soft curve of the bow held firm by a figure on the right, which leaps towards her. The dark shadow of material against this figure's body captures the viewer's attention. Pushed down by this rectangular swathe of blackness is the figure's barely-visible left leg. The leg is cut short by the edge of the image, forcing the viewer to find a new focal point, like the embossed cluster of figures which march out from another image at the bottom right of the panel.

Where the figures in the other images seem ambiguous in terms of their position in either the viewer's space or that of the black background, the commotion of people in this image stride forth towards the viewer, refusing to be pulled back into the timeless black sky behind them. Their outstretched arms and stamping feet command the eye leftwards. In contrast, the light cautious sketch of the man in the image alongside them is hardly attention-grabbing. Thus, the viewer scans the rest of the images in the bottom row of the panel. In this row, there is a whimsical sketch of a nymph-like lady; the twirly-curly outline of another woman and at last something solid on which the eye can rest. This stability is provided by the pitch black hair of a woman who commands the centre of the image in which she stands. Her contraposto pose is rigid compared to the trembling motion in the composition of Botticelli's Minerva who is sketched in the bottom left of the panel (Michaud 2004: 79).

Bored of this right-left, up-down dance, I direct my gaze to the images that I have been saving for last; Botticelli's Primavera, in the middle of the panel, and his Birth of Venus, directly above it. All the other images in the panel seem to have been building me up for this moment. It is as if their gestures all rush in towards these two images, like a vast number of screenshots in a movie, which are depicted at the same time, coming together in what at first seems like a harmony of movement. Yet, after a moment of reflection, their perfectly captured poses react against each other, generating an up-down, left-right, centre-periphery tangle of energy.

After looking at this panel in such a close and focused manner, I take refuge in the centre of the Birth of Venus. The concave shell from which she emerges looks like it can rock me back and forth, following the motion of the carefully outlined swells of the water on which it lies. A cool gust of wind shoots from the gods' mouths on the left and it clears my mind. My eye glides down the gentle contours of Venus' body and stops to stare at the central figure in Primavera– it is Venus once again. By reappearing as the centre of this image, Venus subtly takes control of the whole panel. In a quick re-examination of the panel, it is clear that there is something linking all these images together. It is my sense that "this something" is the reproduction of Venus' figure over and over again, in slightly different forms, but always depicted strolling forward, with what at first seems like a calm, nonchalant air. However, soon after, in dramatic contrast, the viewer realises that this Venus, nymph-like figure is making her way through the panel with a controlled and determined sense of purpose.

For further reading on the Jewish-German Art HIstorian, Aby Warburg, who created the panel of which this ekphrastic poem* is an evocation, refer to the following sources:

  • Dillon, B. 2004. Collected Works: Aby Warburg's Mnemosyne Atlas. Frieze Magazine. Issue 80. Online. URL: http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/collected_works/. Date Accessed: 2014. 02. 20.
  • Ferretti, S. 1984. Cassirer, Panofsky and Warburg: Symbol, Art And History. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Gombrich, E.H. 1986. Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography.boxford: Phaidon.
  • Gombrich, E.H. 1999. "Aby Warburg: His Aims and Methods: An Anniversary Lecture." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 62 (1999): 268-282.
  • Michaud, P-A. 2007. Aby Warburg– and the Image in Motion. New York: Zone Books.
  • Rampley, M. 1997. "From Symbol to Allegory: Aby Warburg's Theory of Art". The Art Bulletin. 79(1):41-55.
  • Willette, J, S.M. 2013. arthistoryunstuffed.comErwin Panofsky: Art History and Philosophy.  Online. URL: http://www.arthistoryunstuffed.com/tag/ernst-cassirer-and-panofsky/. Date Accessed: 2014. 02. 23.

*Ekphrastic Poetry: a vivid evocation of a work of art; exemplified by poems such as Homer's description of the Shiled of Achilles in the Illiad, or Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts".
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