Coined by the psychologist Richard Semon in the early 20th century, the “engram” was translated into the art context by the German cultural historian Aby Warburg. Semon was interested in how memories form in the brain, and engrams were essentially his explanation for the way in which traces of memory become physically encoded. Warburg, best known for his massive, unfinished image atlas project called Mnemosyne, as well as the library and art institute that bear his name in London, expanded Semon’s concept of individual memory to collective memory.
Engrams thus became a type of visual repository for the psychology of a time, like a visual symbol or work of art. Though Warburg’s ideas remain inscrutable in many ways, in part because he never finished his project, he is often considered the first practitioner of “visual studies”—a field founded on the idea that all aspects of visual culture, not only “high” art, contain important insights into a place and time.