Books: The saviour of the Warburg Institute

Alongside Warburg, there was no room for Fritz Saxl to be anything other than his most faithful assistant


Writing a biography of the art historian Fritz Saxl inevitably means producing a biography of the private scholar and founder of iconography Aby Warburg at the same time: rarely has there been such a symbiotic relationship between two researchers. Saxl placed himself in Warburg’s service, as a researcher in his areas of specialist interest, as librarian of the Warburg library—by which means he earned his living—and as the de facto custodian who rescued the collections from Germany, transferring them to London where the institution was re-established. Controversy has flared up in recent times about possibly returning the library to Hamburg, but this is entirely without foundation: the Warburg Institute has found a permanent home within its host institution, the University of London.

Yet it was a rocky road to get there. Dorothea McEwan, for many years the archivist at the institute in London, engaged in cataloguing Warburg’s extensive correspondence, has produced a biography of the Viennese-born Friedrich “Fritz” Saxl (1890–1948). It is based “on a single source: the material in the Warburg Institute archive”, as she concedes, supplementing it with an extensive appendix that reproduces documents offering an authentic illustration of the contemporary context. McEwan is naturally able to bring a wealth of details, letter extracts and contemporary comments to light.

Saxl met Warburg, the son of a Jewish banking family, in 1910, through their shared interest in Renaissance astrology, an esoteric subject at the time, and became Warburg’s assistant in Hamburg in 1914. From the start he proved to be an indispensable aide. He described the aims of the Kulturwissenschaft­liche Bibliothek Warburg (the Warburg library for cultural knowledge) as “both library and research institute”, asserting that “the problem is that of how the classical heritage lives on”. Saxl did not possess Warburg’s witty turn of phrase—the latter described his library as “a watchtower overlooking the traffic of cultural exchange” and an “administrative bureau for the intellectual heritage of the Mediterranean region”—but it is worth reading McEwan’s book if only to discover such gems, unearthed from Warburg’s letters.

The brief years of almost perfect research conditions in conjunction with Hamburg university came to an end during the death throes of the Weimar Republic. Warburg died in 1929 after a long period of poor health. Saxl was already shouldering most of the day-to-day work burden and now had to bear it entirely alone.

A few years later, in the summer of 1933, Saxl planned to offer “exercises in art history for advanced students”, in conjunction with the rather younger Erwin Panofsky, on the library premises, but these sessions never materialised. Panofsky was dismissed from the university by the incoming Nazi regime, Saxl terminated his contract with the university of his own accord. In May he wrote bitterly: “The circle around us has been destroyed.” Yet he managed to save the Warburg library. The global economic crisis that took its toll on the Warburg bank—the source of finance for Aby Warburg’s vast book-buying programme—was the catalyst for discussions about moving the library to another country: more so—as McEwan makes clear—than any presentiment of danger from the increasingly powerful Nazi party.

Saxl put out feelers towards London. The industrialist, collector and patron, Samuel Courtauld, along with Lord Lee of Fareham, guaranteed the institute’s financing for three years, the condition laid down by the University of London for issuing a temporary invitation. On 13 December 1933 the collection set out on its journey to London—just before the Nazis could pass more stringent laws to commandeer it.

The first years in London were anything but easy. “The task of putting down roots here, combined with the impossibility of developing and consolidating the academic life we had invested so much effort to establish, the impossibility of making arrangements even for the short term…such a state of uncertainty is bearable only for so long,” wrote Saxl dejectedly in 1935, at a time when Gertrud Bing, his fellow librarian and long-time lover (he was unhappily married), was seriously ill. Yet once again Courtauld came to the rescue, providing financial support for the Warburg Institute for the subsequent years—until 1944, when it was officially incorporated in the University of London on Lord Lee’s recommendation.

During the war years and the post-war period the institute’s programme of events remained as demanding and wide-ranging as it had been in Hamburg. McEwan convincingly demonstrates that the library’s survival and its establishment in London should be seen as Saxl’s personal lifetime achievement. He died of heart failure in 1948, following years of overwork. “Had he died earlier,” says McEwan, “this would probably also have meant the end of the institute.”

Gertrud Bing’s explanation sums up Saxl’s life journey in a single sentence: “Saxl could never have completed Warburg’ biography—this would have raised too many painful ‘father-son’ issues, and Saxl would not have been able to depict his own role…” Alongside Warburg, there was no room to be anything other than his most faithful assistant.

Dorothea McEwan, Fritz Saxl - eine Biografie, Böhlau Verlag, 344pp, €39 (hb), in German only