A Review of ‘A Heritage of Images’ by Fritz Saxl

When one thinks of the books section of a paper, the literature you imagine to be discussed is probably fiction. However we all attend an academic institution dealing with works of non-fiction so, for this article, we shall concern ourselves with a brilliant yet seemingly forgotten book by a brilliant and seemingly forgotten Art Historian: Fritz Saxl.

Saxl, as one can tell from the book, was obviously a vociferously intelligent man. He trained under Dvorak, who had been Riegl’s favourite pupil, and later finished his studies under the acclaimed Formalist Heinrich Wolfflin. He worked as an intellectual aide to Warburg and, later, Panofsky and was close friends with Gombrich. Saxl is most associated with Aby Warburg, the brilliant yet personally troubled man who gave his inheritance of a Hamburg bank to his younger brother at the age of fourteen in return for whatever books he desired. Warburg was, as Caroline Cernia Slovin put it; ‘obsessed by Art’ an obsession which would take him from the deserts of the Sierra Nevada to Florence and Rome to sate his appetite for knowledge. Saxl accompanied Warburg on most of his trips and even filled in the role as general administrator of Warburg’s affairs when the older academic had his frequent turns of manic depression. The last bout of which left him in the Kreuzlingen Sanitorium for three years from 1921-1924. Warburg’s work on the nature of civilisation, its evolution over time and the place of images at the heart of that history, all feeds into Saxl’s work. After Warburg’s death in 1929, Saxl worked tirelessly to take his colleague’s library, his life’s work, out of Nazi Germany and over to Britain. Once installed in Bloomsbury Saxl turned the library into a research institute, a stroke of brilliance which even Warburg hadn’t considered.