Aby Warburg and the Pathos Formula

Pictures rarely come alone. Once they have entered the world, they remain in our collective memory, are carried on and changed. This is how Aby Warburg, one of the greatest art historians, formulated it at the beginning of the 20th century and named the phenomenon a pathos formula. He explained this for the first time in Dürer’s drawing “Death of Orpheus”.

Albrecht Dürer, The Death of Orpheus

Well, what do we see? In the center, Orpheus squats on his knees. With his right hand he rests on the ground. He has raised his left arm and holds his left hand almost protecting his face. Frightened, he looks up at one of the two women who hit him with thick sticks.

His cloak wafts around his tense, naked body. Two women, the maenads, the companions of Dionysus, stand around him. They are arranged diagonally to each other. Both have a firm, wide-legged stand, embrace the stick with both hands and reach out over the shoulder with it. Their airy, multi-layered clothes are in motion and play around their bodies.

In his picture atlas “Mnemosyne” Aby Warburg collected pictures from magazines, leaflets and advertisements. Then he systematically examined the everyday pictures for recurring forms and gestures.

He defines pathos as “the momentarily heightened physical reaction of a shaken soul against ethos as a constant element of character. Put more simply, the state of the soul is reflected in the physical expression.

Pipilotti Rist, Ever is Over All, installation view, 1997

Pipilotti Rists shows “Ever is over all” how the picture, i.e. the gesture and its surroundings like stick and dress, lives on. Dancing, she walks down the street in the video. She wears an airy, light blue dress and holds an oversized flower stem in her hand with which she smashes the windows of the parked cars.

Beyoncé offers a similar picture in her visual album “Lemonade” with a yellow flounce dress and baseball bat.

A gesture that, unlike Dürer’s drawing, can be interpreted as a liberation of the woman. And yet both are quasi contemporary maenads, even if the content and the message of the picture have changed, perhaps even shifted into the positive. We can recognize the gestures of the maenads from Dürer’s “Death of Orpheus”. According to Aby Warburg, this is the pathos formula. The maenads live on.