In the mid-20th century, London’s Warburg Institute was educating the public about the roots of Western civilization, through an unexpected medium: photography. Michael Berkowitz explained why and how, in a recent talk at Bowdoin sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation as well as the departments of history, German, and art history.
Berkowitz, who has a doctoral degree in European cultural history, teaches modern Jewish history at the University College London. He has two forthcoming works, Jews and Photography in Britain: Connections and Developments, 1850-2007, and a co-edited volume, The Jewish Engagement with Photography.
In his lecture, Berkowitz described the Warburg Institute as a library research center focused on the history of Western and Eastern civilizations, from antiquity to the Renaissance. The Warburg is not, he said, “a Jewish institution.” Rather, it “began and was sustained and developed in large part by people with some kind of Jewish connection.” The institute was relocated to London in 1933 after the rise of the Nazi regime, due in large part to the Warburg’s Jewish connections.
The Warburg Institute was famous for offering services to Jewish refugees. Helmut Gernsheim, a Jewish photographer who had trained in Germany, in 1940 boarded a ship of Jewish refugees, Italian prisoners of war, and German Nazis headed for Britain. But they never reached their destination. Instead, Gernsheim was interned with other passengers for a year in Australia. While the group was trapped together, they began sharing their intellectual passions. Gernsheim learned about the history of photography.
After Gernsheim’s release he began photographing historic buildings for the Warburg Institute, in innovative ways: for example, he photographed a winding staircase inside St. Paul’s Cathedral rather than its majestic exterior. He was instrumental in getting people to see photography as an art form, rather than just a method of documentation.
The Institute shared his philosophy, and held four major photography shows beginning in 1939, including one focused on British art in the Mediterranean in 1941. “It was possibly the largest exposition in Britain,” Berkowitz said, “and the most formidable to appear in the context of a museum.”
The Warburg show “British Art in the Mediterranean” was aimed at the general public, unlike past exhibitions designed for scholarly communities. It displayed a variety of images from antiquity, not just the “greatest hits,” and attempted to make classics “interesting and acceptable to the masses,” Berkowitz said.
The exhibit attempted to expose the connections between British history and the Mediterranean, showing how Britain had appreciated the Mediterranean civilizations through art and how “British culture and the seeds of Englishness” were adapted from earlier Mediterranean civilizations. It furthermore transcended national boundaries at a time when countries such as Britain and Italy were on bad terms due to World War II.