Aby Warburg’s famous lecture on the Hopi snake ritual in Arizona is one of the most commented art history transcripts of the 20th century. But while Warburg’s snake ritual essay is firmly anchored in the canon of art history, to a wider public –especially in Europe – little is known about its source, the Hopi snake ritual and its history. A Kind of World War is dedicated to what Aby Warburg largely ignored himself: that not only the ritual, but also the images of the ritual – to whose global distribution Warburg contributed – have a political history.
The film traces the parallels and divergencies between the ritual acts of image-making and the historical events of Hopi snake rituals and Warburg’s slide lecture about these rituals at Bellevue Sanatorium in Kreuzlingen. At the time of the lecture, on April 21, 1923, Aby Warburg had been a patient in the psychiatric clinic for two years. For him, the lecture in front of patients and physicians – the publication of which he subsequently prohibited – was a performative picture act to free himself from his internment, a means of escape. For the Hopi, the snake ritual and its media popularization were a means of avoiding the immediate threat of the destruction of their own social structure by the US settler society. Once this threat was averted, the Hopi prohibited the production and distribution of images of the ritual.
A Kind of World War seeks to demonstrate that Warburg’s art history, insofar it outlines an internal history of the European psyche, must be read in conjunction with its external counterpart, the history of colonization, war and cultural entanglement. Once these omitted histories are taken into account, Warburg’s text with its image transfers from Oraibi to Kreuzlingen can act as material and template for an intercontinental art history yet to come.
Anselm Franke and Erhard Schüttpelz