Aby Warburg and Washing Up Liquid Angels

25 June 2012

One of my cherished knitting-related blogs, Hoxton Handmade, is a constant source of fascination. I am in envy of the Electric Sheep's knitting speed, astounded by her needle competence and always charmed by her podcasts. Whilst perusing her list of favourites I found, in the bottom right hand corner, an intriguing hyperlink:

How could I not click?

So I did. And I think you should too. I shall post up here a couple of particular stunners (and leave out the X-rated ones), for example poodle shampoo covers and the Taliban-esque beards for babies.

The one that really got me thinking though, was this:

There is a famous art historian called Aby Warburg. Born in the 19th Century, he went on to establish one of the most amazing research centres in the world; the Warburg Institute. He collected books and photographic images on all things Visual and Cultural, with a date range from Classical Antiquity to the Early Modern period. It’s the sort of place that makes an academic go quite breathless and pink-cheeked at the thought.

But why did he do it? Aby had spotted what I call “cultural echoes” through history. Particular images, gestures, figures that pop up in sculpture, painting, frescoes, manuscript illustrations, printed material and onwards into modern media such as film as music videos. Sometimes these were conscious manifestations, sometimes not.

The big question is; how did different audiences at different periods respond to these images and ideas? Warburg's triumph was the visual presentation of this concept in the Mnemosyne Atlas. To give a rather rough and ready example, just think of the Greek Gods. From Antiquity through the Medieval Period to the Renaissance and up until the recent production of Clash of the Titans, (*shudder* Awful film) Zeus et al still have resonance and reflect the mores of any particular society at any given time.

So what has this got to do with headless, angel washing up liquid covers?

Think about it.  A couple of thousand years ago, western civilisation started with winged zephyrs and bacchanalian helpers, progressed to ivory angels in Byzantium, Medieval Annunciations in Christendom, Renaissance cherubim and elegant, watchful witnesses of the 17th and 18th Centuries. For a quick glance, type “angels” as your key word into the Warburg’s Iconographic Database.

And now compare that visual selection with the headless, angel washing up liquid covers.

If ever one needed a sign –albeit an unconscious one, a horribly, horribly distorted cultural echo - that civilisation is possibly coming to a tragic end, I think these may be it.

They also raise another, more pressing question (one which I shall return to with some frequency):

Will crochet ever become cool?

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