With his Bilderatlas dedicated to Mnemosyne, Aby Warburg anticipated a number of issues that would have arisen in art history only in the second half of the 20th century, such as: giving primacy to visual communication; choosing an anthropological approach that gives value to all images; using a method by which to offer an overview as well as a diachronic look on things well before the advent of the internet. This method, which can be referred to as “atlas-form”, is characterized by certain constant features, e.g. the montage of visual fragments, the grid arrangement, the simultaneous view of the singular and plural, the non-hierarchical relationship among the elements, heterogeneity, the open structure, intertextuality, the desire for wholeness, anachronism. It is therefore an important aesthetic and epistemic apparatus, not just in theory but also in artistic practice, because it allows, as Georges Didi-Huberman has highlighted, a continuous review of history, knowledge, and the world through images. This paper aims to trace the evolution of the atlas form as a way to rethink the organization of contemporary knowledge through some significant case-studies.
Keywords: Maps, Atlas, Contemporary Art, Geography, Warburg
Traditionally, an atlas is a systematic collection of maps with which humans have redefined the world. We also know that, even before designating maps and their representations, Atlas was the mythological Titan who, for the ancients, held up the sky. The Flemish geographer Gerhard Kremer (1512-1594) chose Atlas for the cover of his Renaissance compendium, the first geographical atlas in the modern sense of the term, along with the one by the Flemish Abraham Ortelius (1528-1598).
The geographical atlas as a collection of maps is literally at the fingertips of users as a “handy and consultable” book, as an ordered succession of plates (or images) striving towards completeness (Castro 2011, 165). For, as far as it may be detailed, exhaustive, and updated, an atlas cannot truly be considered complete. As Georges Didi-Huberman observes, the “multiple”, the “diverse”, the “hybrid”, define any type of montage, and therefore a map representation or combination of images. The inclusion of these characteristics leads to the deconstruction of “the ideals of uniqueness, of specificity, of purity, of total knowledge” (Didi-Huberman 2011, 13).