Art historian Gertrud Bing was a key figure at the Warburg Institute, a research library focused on the afterlife of antiquity in the art of the Renaissance. Beginning as personal assistant to the Institute’s founder, Aby Warburg, and ultimately becoming its director, Bing helped develop and disseminate iconology, a methodology that investigates the social, historical, and cultural meanings of themes and subjects in artworks and that transformed twentieth-century art history. With her partner, Fritz Saxl, Bing became an intellectual custodian of the Institute after Warburg’s death and worked tirelessly to establish it in London after the National Socialist ascent to power in 1933. Her life was defined by her work as editor of Warburg’s collected writings, Fritz Saxl’s lectures, and the publications of the Warburg Institute, as well as her leadership of the Institute.
Art historian Gertrud Bing was a key figure at the Warburg Institute, a research library focused on the afterlife of antiquity in the art of the Renaissance. Beginning as personal assistant to the Institute’s founder, Aby Warburg, and ultimately rising to become its director, Bing helped develop and disseminate iconology, a methodology that investigates the social, historical, and cultural meanings of themes and subjects in artworks and that transformed twentieth-century art history. As Warburg’s assistant, editor of his collected writings, director of the Warburg Institute, and gatekeeper for future generations of scholars, Bing ensured the lasting influence of iconology and the Institute’s intellectual legacy, from its early days in Hamburg as the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg (Warburg Library for Cultural Studies), or KWB, to its present home in London.
Early Life and Education
Gertrud Bing was born on June 7, 1892, in Hamburg to Moritz Bing (1839–1898) and Emma Jonas (1855–1912). She had two older brothers, Robert Bing (b. 1882) and Franz Solm Bing (b. 1884). The Bings were an influential German Jewish family with a vast import-export business in luxury art objects spanning between Hamburg and Paris. Bing’s uncle Siegfried Bing first introduced Paris to Japanese art and become a major proponent of Art Nouveau, founding the Salon de l’Art Nouveau in 1895.
Bing initially studied to become a secondary school teacher, receiving a teaching degree in 1912 and working as a teacher at a private school from 1913 to 1914. As German universities had recently begun admitting female students, Bing, like many bourgeois Jewish women of her generation, wanted to continue her studies. She obtained her Abitur (high school diploma qualifying for university entry) in 1916 and studied philosophy, literature, and psychology in Munich from 1916 to 1918. In 1919, she interrupted her studies to serve as a substitute teacher during the war at a boys’ secondary school in Hamburg.
Bing’s return to university in 1920 marked the true beginning of her academic career and her path towards the Warburg Institute. She finished her studies at the newly founded University of Hamburg, which had recently expanded from a small college into a large research university and had hired, among others, the philosopher Ernst Cassirer and the art historian Erwin Panofsky to chair their respective departments. Here Bing wrote her 1921 dissertation, “The Concept of Necessity in Lessing,” under the supervision of Cassirer and Robert Petsch, best known today for his scholarship on Goethe’s Faust.
In her dissertation, her only extant lengthy academic work, Bing engaged with the philosophy and aesthetic theory of the Enlightenment by examining the concepts of objectivity and determinism in the philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and the dramas of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Bing argues that Lessing was inspired by Leibniz’s theory of monads in his aesthetics and developed his plays following a monadic model: a harmonious, self-enclosed system with complete causality. In this system, free will cannot be oriented towards action but only towards knowledge of the system itself. Bing demonstrates that this philosophical conclusion forms a key dramatic principle in Lessing’s Emilia Galotti (1772) and Nathan the Wise (1779). Only by accepting an external, incontrovertible law, Bing argues, do the characters in these plays find their way towards freedom. “If humans are not free, they cannot pursue moral action, only perfection of their own being,” she concludes.
A Career Begins
Cassirer connected Bing to the KWB, which was at the time being transformed from a private library into a public research institution. The library had begun as the personal project of Aby Warburg, scion of a wealthy Jewish banking family in Hamburg, to study the “afterlife of antiquity” in the art of the Renaissance. According to legend, thirteen-year-old Aby had ceded his portion of the family fortune to his brother Max, on condition that Max would purchase whatever books Aby wanted for the rest of his life. This wager had yielded a sprawling collection of rare books, from books of emblems, Renaissance scholarship, and ancient philosophy to treatises on astronomy and astrology, alchemy, prophecy, and magic. In 1922, at age thirty, Bing was hired as assistant librarian and asked to take on the monumental task of cataloguing the library’s twenty to twenty-five thousand volumes, which were housed in the Warburg family home and accessible only via a bare-bones catalog that gave little information on the books. Bing and the art historian Fritz Saxl, who was then head librarian, invented a system of call numbers to preserve Warburg’s idiosyncratic ordering and render it accessible to others.
Warburg had spent three years away from the library at a neurological clinic to treat recurring bouts of schizophrenia and manic depression. He returned in 1924 and immediately established a strong personal connection to Bing. Bing became Warburg’s personal assistant, taking dictation, preparing notes, and editing his work. Conflict soon loomed between Warburg and Saxl, as Bing and Saxl (who was separated, but not divorced, from his wife) had struck up a romantic relationship. Warburg disapproved of the liaison, forbidding them from continuing their relationship. This conflict, alongside power struggles between Saxl and Warburg as joint directors of the KWB, led to Saxl’s transfer to London in late 1926. In 1927, Bing was named assistant director of the library, while remaining Warburg’s personal assistant.
Despite the conflict over her liaison with Saxl, Bing maintained a close relationship to the sometimes difficult and imperious Warburg. The two took a research trip to Italy from 1928 to 1929. The artworks viewed on these trips would form the basis for the Mnemosyne Atlas, a visual atlas of images that became Warburg’s best-known work. The Mnemosyne Atlas portrayed the evolution of human ideas, rituals, and traditions by linking together motifs shared across artworks from vastly different historical periods. True to the project of iconography, the Mnemosyne Atlas intended to show that certain motifs or visual forms persist throughout human history as powerful symbols for emotions and ideas, creating a grand historical chain linking antiquity to the present. In Italy, Bing and Warburg worked in almost symbiotic fashion: Ernst Gombrich remembered that Bing “shared [Warburg’s] work and his thought at every stage, preparing formulations for his use as a starting-point, and writing to his dictation,” (Warburg Institute 1965, 2) while Warburg likened their collaboration to “a two-forked dowsing rod” (cited in Tack 2019, 10; translation by the author).
The Warburg Institute Moves to London
Developments in the following years forced Bing into more administrative duties: in 1926, the library relocated to a newly built edifice; then, on October 26, 1929, Warburg died suddenly. Bing dedicated herself to managing the library with Saxl and assuming editorship of Warburg’s collected works, which were published in 1932. In 1933, shortly after the National Socialists rose to power, the library had to leave Germany due to its precarious political position. Authorities prevented the Institute’s mainly Jewish staff from lecturing at the University of Hamburg, and students were dissuaded from using its facilities. To avoid further persecution, the KWB moved to London, sponsored by the Courtauld Institute of Art at the University of London. Bing became an anchor for the German-Jewish community in exile, helping acquaintances obtain visas and establish themselves in England.
In London, Saxl and Bing worked hard to establish the KWB in a country that found Warburg’s continental methodology alien. From 1933 to 1944, Bing served as assistant director of the Warburg Institute, working side-by-side with Saxl. So devoted was she to the institute that she only left during the London bombardments after a fellow librarian, Hans Meier, was killed in a bomb strike. In the wake of his death, the staff moved into an empty house in Denham, taking with them ten to fifteen thousand volumes and reference books.
Postwar Years and Personal Trials
In 1944, the KWB was renamed the Warburg Institute, which remains its name today, and began yet another phase of its life housed within and sponsored by the University of London. In 1946, Bing received British citizenship. She continued as assistant director until 1955, becoming the public face of the library, explaining its system and holdings to visiting researchers, and remaining the editorial presence behind the Institute’s publications.
Despite a period of respite after the war, Bing soon faced a new, personal, trial with the death of Saxl in 1948 from a heart attack. They had made a life together in a house in Dulwich, a social center for the community of intellectuals around the Warburg Institute with a large English garden to which Saxl had passionately dedicated himself. In characteristic understatement, Bing noted her loss only in passing, writing to a friend, “I know life will be senseless for me from now on but what does it matter? I am the last person who has any right to complain” (Ladwig 2013, 115). She immediately threw herself into work, editing a collection of Saxl’s lectures.
Director of the Warburg Institute and Later Years
Bing’s work at the Institute continued unabated; after the death of Saxl’s successor, Henri Frankfort, in 1954, she assumed directorship herself. From 1955 to 1959, she led the Warburg Institute and took on the professorship attached to the position at the University of London, in the History of the Classical Tradition. She felt that her direct connection to Warburg was important for the institution’s legacy, noting in a letter to Aby’s nephew, Eric M. Warburg, “It is a tribute to your uncle that I should have been chosen to carry on his work into another phase and to see the Institute into its new, bigger home on the main University site, because I am still in the direct line of descent from him” (Ladwig 2013, 116).
Beginning in September 1949, Bing made several trips back to the continent. In 1957, she returned to Hamburg for the first time since the war, to give a speech for the inauguration of Warburg’s bust in the Kunsthalle Hamburg. Rather than feeling alienated from her birthplace, as many exiles who returned after the war did, she was impressed by Hamburg’s renewed vitality and the city’s ability to reinvent itself. Indeed, Bing proved remarkably capable of reestablishing a relationship to the Europe that had rejected her. She understood the complexity of her German and Jewish identities, and pragmatically took it in stride.
In a 1933 letter to the art historian Hanns Swarzenski, Bing wrote, “I am a thousand times more a German than a Jew.” Yet she acknowledged that her sense of Germanness was always bound to her identity as a Jew, and that both were inextricably linked: “it is only the overlapping of the first [Jewish] existence by this second [German] one that has shaped me in the way I am, and which therefore can just as little be dissociated from my totality as the first—but not absolutely unchangeable.” This historical connection to German literature, art, and culture was a foundation for her values: “What I represent as a Jew I can also be in England or France; what I have become through my German milieu will not be lost there for I pass on my character and my ideals in so far as they have been formed within me by the German” (Vorholt 2015, 35-46). It was in accepting her place as “a patient of world history” (Warburg’s description of Jewishness, according to Bing) and in her love of German culture that Bing established her own connection to the world, committed to Bildung, the humanistic project of self-fashioning.
Final Projects and Legacy
In 1959, at age sixty-seven, Bing retired from her role as director of the Institute. She became Professor Emerita and in the same year was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Reading. She planned to use her retirement to write a biography of Warburg. In her notes and drafts for the biography, Bing drew on her intimate knowledge of Warburg’s intellectual world, as well as her training as a scholar of literature and aesthetics, focusing on an analysis of Warburg’s terminology and idiosyncratic lexical usage. Though she received long-awaited funding from the Bollingen Foundation for the project in 1963, the project was cut short by her hospitalization from an illness on June 2, 1964. She died shortly thereafter on July 3, 1964, at age seventy-two.
From today’s perspective, it is easy to conclude that Bing was kept in the shadows by her male colleagues. Indeed, Warburg was largely dismissive towards women and often ignored Bing’s gender to “equalize” her, referring to her as “Kollege Bing,” the male form of colleague in German. Bing’s work, in turn, largely involved “feminized” research activities: cataloguing, filing, indexing, note-taking, while many male colleagues who became well-known art historians profited enormously from her self-effacing work. But through her intelligence and indefatigable work, Bing ultimately reached the helm of the institution and became a figurehead nearly as inseparable from it as its namesake. Ernst Gombrich once wrote that Bing’s life’s motto could have been “I serve.” Yet her dedication was not just to an institution or a man, but to the values the Warburg Institute upheld: the quest for knowledge, humanism, and cosmopolitanism, which formed the center of Bing’s own life and identity, as a German and a Jew.
Selected Works by Gertrud Bing
The Concept of Necessity in Lessing. A Contribution to the Philosophical Debate on Leibniz and Lessing. PhD Diss., Hamburg University, 1923. (German)
“Introduction.“ In Aby Warburg. Collected Works, Vol. 1. Leipzig/Berlin: Teubner, 1932. (German)
“The Warburg Institute.” Library Association Record IV.1: 1934.
“Comenius in England.” Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Nr. 1216, July 12, 1935.
“Nugae circa veritatem. Notes on Anton Francesco Doni.”’ Journal of the Warburg Institute 1 (1937): 304–312.
“The Apocalypse Book-Blocks and their Manuscript Models.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 5 (1942): 143–158.
“Fritz Saxl (1890-1948): A Memoir.” In Fritz Saxl, 1890-1948; a volume of memorial essays from his friends in England, edited by D.J. Gordon, 1-47. London, New York: T. Nelson, 1957.
“Foreword.” In Saxl, Fritz. Lectures. London: Warburg Institute, 1957.
Aby M. Warburg. Speech given to Commemorate the Installation of Aby Warburg’s Bust in the Kunsthalle Hamburg on October 31, 1958. Hamburg: Kulturbehörde der Freien und Hansestadt Hamburg, 1958. 9-32. (German)
“Aby M. Warburg.”’ Rivista storia italiana, vol. LXXII.1 (1960): 100–113.
“Foreword.” In: “‘Picatrix.’ The Goal of the Wise Man by Pseudo-Mağrīțī.“ Trans. Hellmut Ritter and Martin Plessner, Studies of the Warburg Institute 27 (1962). (German/English)
“A. M. Warburg.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 28 (1965): 299–313.
“Recollections of Fritz Saxl (1890–1948).” In Saxl, Fritz. The History of Images, trans. G. Veneziani and intr. Eugenio Garin. Bari: Laterza, 1965. (Italian)
“Introduction.” In Warburg, Aby. The Renewel of Pagan Antiquity. Essays on the History of Culture. Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1966. (Italian)
Bing, Gertrud and Aby Warburg. Diario romano, edited by Mauricia Ghelardi and trans. Helena Aguilà Ruzol. Madrid: Siruela, 2016.
Gertrud Bing, Philippe Despoix and Martin Treml, eds., Carlo Ginzburg, intr. Fragments on Aby Warburg. Paris: Éditions de l’Institut national d'histoire de l'art (INHA), 2020. (French)
Frankfort, Henri. “The Archetype in Analytical Psychology and the History of Religion.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 11, vols. 3/4 (1958): 166–178.
Warburg, Aby. Collected Works. Leipzig/Berlin: 1932. (German)
Saxl, Fritz. Lectures. London: 1957
Studies of the Warburg Institute, Vols. 21–25 (1957-1960), 27–28 (1962-1963).
Oxford-Warburg-Studies, Vols. 1-4 (1963-1966).
Del Prete, Elisa. “Gertrud Bing e l’Italia. L’aggiornamento italiano durante gli anni della sua direzione al Warburg Institute (1954–1959).” In Aby Warburg e la cultura italiana. Fra sopravvivenze e prospettive di ricerca, edited by Claudia Cieri Via and Micol Forti, 203-235 Milan/Rome: Mondadori/Università Sapienza, 2009.
Goetz, Bettina. “Gertrud Bing Verein zur Förderung von Frauenforschung in Kunst- und Kulturwissenschaften e.V. ” In Aby Warburg: Akten Des Internationalen Symposions, Hamburg 1990, edited by Andreas Beyer, Charlotte Schoell-Glass, Michael Diers, and Horst Bredekamp, 299-304. Weinheim: VCH, 1991.
Gombrich, Ernst. “Gertrud Bing zum Gedenken.” Jahrbuch der Hamburger Kunstsammlungen, Vol. 10 (1965): 7–12.
“In Memoriam Gertrud Bing 1892-1964.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 27: (1964).
Gertrud Bing. 1892–1964. London: The Warburg Institute, 1965.
Gordon, D. J., ed. Fritz Saxl, 1890-1948; a volume of memorial essays from his friends in England. London, New York: T. Nelson, 1957.
Gramberg, Werner. “Gertrud Bing.” Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz 11 (1963-65): 293–295.
Heise, Carl Georg. “Gertrud Bing, 3. Juli 1964.” Kunstchronik 17, Vol. 9 (1964): 258.
Ladwig, Perdita. “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, muss man (auch nicht) schreiben. Die Korrespondenz von Gertrud Bing mit Freunden und Kollegen.” In Auf unsicherem Terrain: Briefeschreiben im Exil, edited by Sylvia Asmus, Germaine Goetzinger, Inge Hansen-Schaberg, and Hiltrud Häntzschel, 110-120. Munich: Edition Text + Kritik, 2013.
Levine, Emily J. “PanDora, or Erwin and Dora Panofsky and the Private History of Ideas.” The Journal of Modern History 83, no. 4 (2011): 753–87.
Maigné, Carole, “Kollege Bing.” In La Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg Comme Laboratoire, edited by Carol Maigné, Audrey Rieber, and Céline Trautmann-Waller, 125-141. Paris: CNRS éditions, 2018.
Meyer, Thomas, and Martin Treml. “Gertrud Bing an die Cassirers: Florenz, 1. Juni 1929.” Trajekte: Zeitschrift des Zentrums für Literaturforschung Berlin 10 (2005): 16–17.
Michels, Karen and Charlotte Schoell-Glass, “Die Literatur und Kulturwissenschaftlerin: Gertrud Bing (Hamburg 1892–1964).” In Frauen im Hamburger Kulturleben, edited by Elsbeth Weichmann Gesellschaft, 27-29. Hamburg: Christians, 2002.
Michels, Karen. “Kunstgeschichte, paarweise.” Kritische Berichte 2 (2002): 32–42.
Michels, Karen. Aby Warburg mit Bing in Rom, Neapel, Capri und Italien. Hamburg: Corso, 2010.
Sears, Elizabeth. “Kenneth Clark and Gertrud Bing: Letters on ‘The Nude.’” The Burlington Magazine 1301 (2011): 530–531.
Sears, Elizabeth “Warburg Institute Archive, General Correspondence.” Common Knowledge 18.1 (2012): 22–31.
Sears, Elizabeth “Keepers of the Flame: Bing, Solmitz, Klibansky and the Continuity of the Warburgian Tradition.” In Raymond Klibansky and the Warburg Library Network. Intellectual Peregrinations from Hamburg to London and Montreal, edited by Philippe Despoix and Jilliam Tomm, 29-57. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018.
Tack, Laura. The Fortune of Gertrud Bing (1892-1964): A Fragmented Memoir of a Phantomlike Muse. Leuven: Peeters, 2020.
Vorholt, Hanna. “’Das was ich als Jude vertrete, kann ich auch in England oder Frankreich sein', A Letter by Gertrud Bing to Hanns Swarzenski of May 1933.” In The afterlife of the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg: the emigration and the early years of the Warburg Institute in London, edited by Uwe Fleckner and Peter Mack, 23-37. London: de Gruyter, 2015.
Wendland, Ulrike. Biographisches Handbuch deutschsprachiger Kunsthistoriker im Exil: Leben und Werk der unter dem Nationalsozialismus verfolgten und vertriebenen Wissenschaftler. Munich: Saur, 1999, vol. 1, pp. 56-9.
Warburg, Aby. Gesammelte Schriften: Studienausgabe, Band VII. Tagebuch der Kulturwissenschaftlichen Bibliothek Warburg, ed. Karen Michels and Charlotte Schoell-Glass. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2001.