Ernst  Hans Josef Gombrich

(N. 30.3.1909 - F. 3-11-2001)



November 7, 2001

E. H. Gombrich, Author and Theorist Who Redefined Art History, Is Dead at 92


Ernst Gombrich, an author of panoramic erudition and probably the world's best-known art historian thanks to his best-selling "Story of Art," died on Saturday in London, where he had lived since moving from his native Vienna in 1936.

He was 92.

"The Story of Art" sold millions of copies and was translated into 23 languages, including Turkish, Finnish, Chinese and Korean. But Mr. Gombrich wrote about nearly everything that interested him, which was nearly everything, from caricatures to psychology, from Raphael and Poussin to Schubert and Saul Steinberg — even about the behavior of white ants. He was an authority on the Renaissance, a theorist of perception, a writer on the psychology of visual images, a wide-ranging cultural historian, a gadfly of modern art (which he stubbornly declined to understand), a knowledgable lover of classical music and a teacher of generations of British scholars at Oxford, at the University of London and at the Warburg Institute in London, where he was director until his retirement in 1976.

He taught students about the Medici, neo-Platonism and astrology. But mainstream art history — connoisseurship and attribution — he once said, was "very much on the fringe of my formation."

"I was never much concerned with it," he added, "not entirely through a lack of interest, but because my work took me into very different directions."

His writings proved the point. "Art and Illusion," "The Sense of Order" and "Meditations on a Hobby Horse" were among dozens of books he wrote, and, like "The Story of Art," they helped reshape the study of visual culture during the second half of the last century.

Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich, who as an author went by the name E. H. Gombrich, was born in Vienna in 1909. His father was a respected lawyer and former classmate of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the librettist of "Der Rosenkavalier." His mother, born Leonie Hock, was a pianist who knew Freud and Mahler; she was a pupil of Anton Bruckner and at least once she turned pages for Brahms.

Music became the greatest source of pleasure in Mr. Gombrich's life. His mother also played music with Arnold Schoenberg, although she complained that he wasn't very good at keeping time. Webern and Berg were friends of his sister Dea, a violinist who became a member of the Busch Quartet. Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin met at the Gombrich house. Mr. Gombrich said it may have been partly because Busch, a musical great, disliked much modern music that he himself later felt emboldened in his skepticism toward modern art.

The Gombrich family was Jewish, but his parents felt this had no particular relevance. In later years Mr. Gombrich said that whether someone was Jewish or not was a preoccupation for the Gestapo. As a boy, he recalled the headmistress at his school delivering a loyal address on the Emperor Franz Josef's birthday. When starvation in Austria became widespread after World War I, Mr. Gombrich and his sister Lisbeth were sent by Save the Children to live in Sweden. He lived with a coffinmaker and learned Swedish.

Then he returned to Austria to study art history and archeology at the University of Vienna with Julius von Schlosser, a towering figure of that era. Mr. Gombrich's dissertation was on the Italian painter Giulio Romano. Partly because of anti- Semitism, Mr. Gombrich had a hard time finding academic employment after graduation, so he learned Chinese and wrote a short children's history of the world, whose success led his publishers to urge him to write a similar book on art. Years later it became "The Story of Art."

In 1936, at the urging of Ernst Kris, a museum curator and psychoanalyst, he moved to London to teach at the Warburg Institute, a center for the study of cultural history. When war broke out, he was employed by the BBC as a radio monitor of German broadcasts. He did this for six years, perfecting his English. In 1945 it was Mr. Gombrich who dispatched the news of Hitler's death to Churchill. When an impending announcement on German radio was prefaced by a Bruckner symphony, Mr. Gombrich guessed that Hitler was dead because he knew the symphony had been written for the death of Wagner.

The radio broadcasts were often faint transmissions, he recalled, and he realized, as he wrote in "Art and Illusion," that "you had to know what might be said in order to hear what was said." This became a concept he later dubbed "making and matching," which he saw as crucial to how people perceive images.

He explained the idea in the 1970's by citing the pictograph on the Pioneer spacecraft that was launched in 1972: in the unlikely event that beings from outer space intercepted the craft, the pictograph was supposed to tell them what human beings looked like and where Earth was in our solar system. Line drawings showed a man and a woman. The sun and its nine planets were a row of circles; an arrow from the fourth circle, Earth, pointed to a drawing of Pioneer. The pictograph was meant to be, quite literally, universal.

But, Mr. Gombrich asked, what could a directional line mean to creatures who hadn't invented bows and arrows? And if, somehow, they were to grasp that the drawings depicted humans, without a knowledge of foreshortening how could they know that the woman's body was slightly turned, partly obscuring a hand? They would assume that Earth women had a claw.

The pictograph illustrated that illusion in art derives from a system of conventions evolved over centuries of trial and error, a process of "making and matching" whereby our reaction to an image corresponds to the reality of what it represents. "Art and Illusion," in which he elaborated on this idea, was his attempt to describe "what happens when somebody sits down and tries to paint what is in front of him."

Like Meyer Schapiro, the other great art historian of his generation, Mr. Gombrich was a lucid writer. His clarity, dry humor and Johnsonian abhorrence of cant made his books accessible despite the complexity of his ideas, although he wasn't very adept at expressing aesthetic pleasure, to which he never seemed especially attuned. He said he was "not very interested in aesthetics or art criticism, because so much of what people write is just an expression of their own emotions."

Mr. Gombrich's war experience was crucial in another way: having fled the Nazis, he was wary of totalizing explanations of culture. Talk of Renaissance man or Romantic psychology, besides being hopelessly vague, for him smacked of Nazi claims for Aryan man or for German physics as opposed to Jewish physics. "All collectivism has its dangerous side," he said.

He was always deeply hostile to Marxism, which he considered a false ideology, and to any doctrine that embraced cultural relativism. "No doubt it is interesting when studying the arts of Florence to learn about the class structure of that city, about its commerce or its religious movements," he once wrote. "But being art historians we should not go off on a tangent but rather learn as much as we can about the painter's craft."

There was nothing more dubious to Mr. Gombrich than what William Hazlitt in the 19th century called the Spirit of the Age. It is absurd, he said, to account for Botticelli's women by asserting that Renaissance Florence was virginal and springlike.

Visual forms, he thought, were solutions to specific problems that come from specific needs. The forms catch on with a group of people and evolve piecemeal; great artists are separated from the others not as inventors but as discoverers of appropriate forms. Only retrospectively does this piecemeal evolution seem to have had a clear destination.

As the author of a famous standard history, "The Story of Art," Mr. Gombrich was sensitive to criticism that he misunderstood modern art, which he had to write about in the book's last section, and he cited his friendships with artists like Bridget Riley, whose abstract paintings intrigued him as perceptual puzzles. But his discomfort with modernism was undeniable, and it had partly to do with his disdain for novelty for its own sake. The modern era, he said, was unlike previous eras because it was ready to embrace whatever was new. In other words, art is not a race, and even if it were, just remember the story of the tortoise and the hare.

"If anybody needs a champion today," he once said, "it is the artist who shuns rebellious gestures."

He ended the preface to a book of his selected writings, "The Essential Gombrich," by saying, "I would never claim that these activities are as essential to the welfare of mankind as are those of our colleagues in the medical faculty, but if we cannot do much good, at least we do little harm, as long, at least, as we refrain from polluting the intellectual atmosphere by pretending to know more than we do."

Simple in his personal taste, Mr. Gombrich lived with his wife, Ilse Heller, a pianist, whom he married in 1936, in a modest, uncluttered house in Hampstead with a few photographs on the walls by his friend Cartier-Bresson, but with little art, which he said was already available to him at the National Gallery. He is survived by his wife and their son, Richard, a professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University.


Sir Ernst Gombrich OM


Last Updated: 12:49PM GMT 22 Nov 2001



SIR ERNST GOMBRICH, who has died aged 92, became, as E H Gombrich, the best known art historian in Britain, perhaps in the world, through his books The Story of Art and Art and Illusion.

The Story of Art (1950), which Gombrich intended as a book for children, ran to 15 or more editions and sold in excess of two million copies. It opens with the celebrated warning: "There really is no such thing as art. There are only artists." The book was, Gombrich later explained, the story of "making good pictures", and started from the traditional theory that seeing depends on knowledge - or, as he was to re-state the idea, on hypothesis or expectation

Gombrich, who was Director of the Warburg Institute and Professor of the History of Classical Tradition at London University from 1959 to 1976, maintained that there are two approaches to painting and sculpture: that of the connoisseur, who applies labels; and that which seeks to interpret, for example a picture, in the contemporary cultural and historical context, so as to understand the meaning intended by the artist. Gombrich himself, preoccupied with the psychology of perception, adhered to the latter approach.

In 1960 he published Art and Illusion, one of the most challenging modern books about the visual arts. With ruthless logic he used his profound exploration of the deceptive nature of vision as a platform from which to attack the prejudices that many had exalted into principles; and he revealed the limitations of many of those concerned with the practice or study of art.

The central question of Art and Illusion, which provides a kind of commentary on The Story of Art, was, according to the author: "What happens when somebody sits down and tries to paint what is in front of him?" The book's starting point was "the perception of pictures and not the perception of reality".

In the first book he told the story of the progressive development of representation - roughly, from what ancient artists "knew" to what later artists "saw"; in the second he sought to explain and justify what he had written, supporting his thesis by the findings of modern psychology. Art and Illusion, said Noel Annan, made his generation "look at art in a new way".

In his writings Gombrich persistently argued against "abstractions" and the collective niches of ages and periods. He believed in people, not periods; artists, not styles. "All collectivism has its dangerous side," he said. "It leads to talk of Our Nation, Our Age. I very much dislike this sense of isolation and superiority. We are not all that different from our past. It was governed, as our life is, by many accidents, tragedies and luck."

As a young man, Gombrich had stayed for a time at Mantua, to write a doctoral thesis on Giulio Romano, Raphael's favourite pupil. He recalled his thrill on reading the correspondence of the 15th-century Duke of Mantua: "I remember a letter the children of the Duke wrote to him when he was away. For me that was very important, the conviction that they were all real people and not abstractions."

But Gombrich was quick to acknowledge the academic's limitations. "We historians," he confessed, "just cannot raise the dead and put them on our couch."

Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich was born in Vienna on March 30 1909. His father was a lawyer and as a young man had been a friend of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the librettist of Der Rosenkavalier. His mother, a pianist, had studied under Anton Bruckner and played with Arnold Schoenberg; Gustav Mahler's sister was at one time her pupil. As a child she had been taken to hear Johann Strauss play in the Vienna Volksgarten, and the family were friends of Sigmund Freud.

As a boy Ernst was a subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The headmistress of his private school used to deliver a loyal address on the Emperor Franz Joseph's birthday, standing before an Imperial portrait; and Ernst remembered seeing the Emperor passing by in his coach on the way to his palace of Schonbrunn. Aged seven, he watched the Emperor's funeral.

"I don't idealise the Empire," he reflected years afterwards, "but compared to later tyrannies, it was very humane."

When, after the First World War, starvation in Austria became widespread, Ernst and his sister were so undernourished that they were sent by Save the Children to live with families in Sweden. Ernst lodged with the family of a cabinet-maker who specialised in making coffins, and he learned Swedish.

On returning to Vienna he attended the Theresianium, where, aged 14, he wrote an extended essay on changing approaches to art from Winckelmann onwards. He also enjoyed studying German literature (above all Goethe) and Physics. He always remained interested in science, subscribing to Scientific American.

At Vienna University he studied the History of Art under Julius Schlosser, but also attended lectures by Schlosser's arch rival Joseph Strzgowski. He made friends with Otto Kurz, who later became a colleague at the Warburg Institute, and wrote comic sketches for the students' annual party.

The burning art-historical issue in Vienna at that time was Mannerism. On his visit to Mantua, Gombrich visited the Palazzo del Te, built and decorated around 1530 by Giulio Romano; Gombrich's subsequent thesis on the palazzo contributed to the definition of Mannerist architecture. After his five years at Vienna University, Gombrich obtained his doctorate, and then had to find employment. The publisher Walter Neurath commissioned him to write a children's history book. Having never studied history, Gombrich completed the book in six weeks, and 50 years later it was still selling well.

Through Schlosser, Gombrich had got to know Ernst Kris, who was both a Vienna museum curator and a psychoanalyst. From Kris, Gombrich learned to combine his interest in art history with more general questions, and the two men collaborated on a book about caricature (Kris saw satirical drawing as an outlet for aggressive impulses).

The work was never published, but when Gombrich later wrote a short book on caricature for Penguin he wrote on the title page "by Ernst Kris and Ernst Gombrich". Thinking that there were too many "Ernsts", he decided to call himself "E H Gombrich" instead - and thereafter stuck to the appellation.

In Vienna, Kris introduced Gombrich to Fritz Saxl, the director of the Warburg Institute in London (where it had moved from Hamburg in 1933). Gombrich joined the Warburg on a two-year fellowship in 1936, and assisted Gertrud Bing in the preparation of Aby Warburg's papers for publication.

When the Warburg lost its temporary premises and the papers were crated up, Gombrich began to teach at the newly-founded Courtauld Institute; for two years, 1938 and 1939, he gave a weekly class on Vasari.

He also began to write a book on iconography with Otto Kurz, working in the Reading Room of the British Museum. The book was almost finished when the Second World War broke out, and consequently was never published.

During the war, Gombrich worked for the BBC, listening to and reporting on foreign broadcasts. The experience ignited his interest in the problems of the perception of speech and of translation. When he was awarded the Wittgenstein Prize in 1988, he spoke on the subject in his speech of thanks.

In 1945 it was Gombrich who dispatched the news of Hitler's death to Churchill. He had been monitoring German radio broadcasts when an impending announcement was prefaced by a Bruckner symphony, which Gombrich knew had been written for the death of Wagner; he guessed what was to follow.

While working for the wartime BBC, Gombrich published an essay on Poussin's painting Orion, in The Burlington Magazine, and he kept in touch with the Warburg Institute, which had been taken over by London University. After the war he was given a permanent post by Fritz Saxl's successor Henri Frankfort.

He resumed his work on Aby Warburg's papers, and on a history of art for young people, which, during the war, he had been commissioned to write for the Phaidon Press. He dictated the whole text from memory, using illustrations from books in his library as prompts.

The result was The Story of Art, which was published to great acclaim in 1950. "Writing The Story of Art," Gombrich said, "changed my whole life." Having been "a poor foreign scholar" with no contacts, he was appointed Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, partly on the strength of the book.

He held the Slade Chair for three years, and was Professor of the History of Art at University College, London, from 1956 to 1959. That year he was appointed director of the Warburg and London University Professor of the History of Classical Tradition, a post he held until 1976.

At the Warburg, he reorganised the teaching programme, encouraging the institute's resident scholars - Rudolf Wittkower, Hugo Buchtal and Otto Kurz among them - to play a more active role in teaching. He organised lecture series, and invited colleagues to come from abroad.

He was Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge from 1961 to 1963, and in 1967 became Lethaby Professor at the Royal College of Art.

Meditations on a Hobby Horse and other essays on the Theories of Art (1968) was a further exploration of the relation of art to life, and how a lack of understanding of the psychology of the period in which art is created results in the imposition of unfortunate historical labels.

In Symbolic Images: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance (1972), Gombrich drew on esoteric lore to discuss the importance once accorded to all forms of symbolism. He drew attention to the ambivalence of symbolism, and how it could be misinterpreted, citing the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus.

Erected to the memory of the philanthropic Lord Shaftesbury, Alfred Gilbert's statue had become associated with the flesh trade of the area, rather than with Christian charity; the arrow in the statue's hand had acquired connotations other than hastening benificence, and it was erroneously claimed that the architect had intended a pun on "Shaftes-bury".

In 1975, Gombrich gave the Oxford University Romanes Lecture, taking as his subject "Art History and the Social Sciences". Delivering the lecture in the Sheldonian Theatre, with its ceiling painted by Streeter, he discussed how it was possible to refute the claim made, when Streeter was alive, that "future ages must confess that they owe more to Streeter than to Michelangelo".

Among Gombrich's numerous other published works are Norm and Form: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance (1967), Aby Warburg, an intellectual biography (1970), The Sense of Order (1979), Ideals and Idols (1979), The Image and the Eye (1982), New Light on Old Masters (1986), Topics of Our Time (1991), Shadows (1996) and The Use of Images (1999).

Honours, fellowships and honorary degrees were showered on him by academic institutions and governments. He won the Erasmus Prize (1975), the Hegel Prize (1976), the International Balzan Prize (1985), the Ludwig Wittgenstein Prize (Austria, 1988), the Goethe Prize (1994) and many others.

He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1960, was appointed CBE in 1966 and knighted in 1972.

He was appointed a member of the Order of Merit in 1988.

To the end, Ernst Gombrich was a warm-hearted sceptic of the "20th-century art madness". He posited the idea that the rapid shift in artistic fashion had commercial origins in those artists who sought to draw attention to themselves, and dismissed much of contemporary abstract art as a "fad".

He speculated that the public, once antagonistic towards change in art, had been transformed into an audience which passively accepted change and novelty. "If anybody needs a champion today," he said, "it is the artist who shuns rebellious gestures. It is the interest in change that has accelerated change to its giddy pace."

Gombrich himself did not own paintings, and he never learned to paint. Aside from painting, his great love was music, particularly Schubert's - "There is very little that quite reaches this kind of refinement," he said.

Ernst Gombrich married, in 1936, Ilse Hiller, a professional pianist. Their son Richard is Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University.


Other Obituaries:




The Gombrich archive

Gombrich bibliography

Sinnbild, Abbild

Zur Neuauflage von Ernst H. Gombrichs "Kunst und Illusion"

von Martin Warnke

DIE ZEIT   26/2002   

Im Jahre 1950 erschien Ernst H. Gombrichs Geschichte der Kunst, die sein erfolgreichstes Buch werden sollte, ein Welterfolg ohnegleichen, der sich noch jüngst in erweiterter und modernisierter Form wiederholte. Hätte er es bei diesem Buch belassen, wäre Gombrich als genialer Geschichtserzähler in Kunsthistoriografie eingegangen, der mit einfachen Worten die wenigen relevanten Beispiele aus der Masse der Weltkunstgeschichte herauszugreifen und so zu besprechen vermag, dass der Leser das Gefühl hat, mit dem Einzelfall schon das Ganze der historischen Entwicklung vor Augen zu haben. Schon vor dem Krieg ist seiner Weltgeschichte für Kinder, die aus der gleichen Begabung zur vereinfachenden Erzählung hervorgegangen ist, ein großer Erfolg beschieden gewesen.

Kein Auge ist unschuldig

So als habe ihn die Aussicht, als Autor, der einem die Geschichte leicht macht, in die Annalen der Kunstwissenschaft einzugehen, geschreckt, hat Gombrich zehn Jahre später eine Vortragsserie zu einem kunsttheoretischen Grundlagenwerk zusammengestellt. Das Buch hat auf der akademischen Ebene den populären Erfolg der Story of Art wiederholt. Es war in allen Kunstakademien der Welt Pflichtlektüre. Jetzt liegt die sechste Auflage vor, die der 2001 verstorbene Verfasser noch mit einem letzten Vorwort versehen hat.

Die grundsätzlichen Prämissen des Buches sind nicht aus einer kunstwissenschaftlichen Theorie entwickelt, sondern der Psychologie und Philosophie entnommen. Es ist ein Buch, das sich ausdrücklich als ein Übertragungsmodell versteht: "Ich würde stolz darauf sein, wenn Professor Karl R. Poppers Einfluß auf jeder Seite dieses Buches zu spüren wäre."

Mit dem Philosophen Popper war Gombrich schon aus Wiener Jahren befreundet, bevor beide nach London emigrierten. Während die wahrnehmungspsychologischen Begriffe und Verfahren nicht immer klar definiert werden, sind die wissenschaftstheoretischen Kategorien Poppers klar entfaltet. Es wird in jedem der vier Teile aus dem Gesamtgebiet der Kunstgeschichte ein reiches und aussagekräftiges Bild- und Quellenmaterial dargeboten, um von allen Seiten her zu belegen, dass die künstlerische Nachahmung der Wirklichkeit nicht mit einem "unschuldigen Auge" rechnen kann, sondern die Wahrnehmung gesteuert wird von konventionellen "Schemata", von Denk-, Empfindungs- und technischen Voraussetzungen, die sich an der objektiven Wirklichkeit abarbeiten: "Es gibt keinen unmittelbaren ,neutralen' Naturalismus. Wie der Schriftsteller, so bedarf auch der bildende Künstler eines bestimmten Vokabulars, eines Formenschatzes, bevor er darangehen kann, die Wirklichkeit nachzuahmen."

Das Auge funktioniert wie die wissenschaftliche Ratio als ein ständig überprüfendes, korrigierendes Organ, das der künstlerischen Fantasie immer wieder neue Problemsituationen oder Hypothesen zur Bearbeitung vorlegt. Die Wahrnehmung erbringt hypothetische Setzungen, die gesellschaftliche Bedürfnisse zeitweise befriedigen, die aber jederzeit von neuen Erwartungen infrage gestellt, "falsifiziert" werden können. Der Betrachter wiederholt in der Rezeption des Kunstwerks dessen Entstehung aus Erkundungen, Vermutungen und Irrtümern bis zu vorübergehend gültigen Lösungen, die jederzeit durch neue Forderungen unter Druck geraten können.

Der von Gombrich gelegentlich für die deutsche Ausgabe erwogene Titel Sinnbild und Abbild hätte das Anliegen des Buches vielleicht deutlicher zum Ausdruck gebracht. Was "Illusion" ist, bleibt in dem Buch etwas undeutlich. Doch wird im jetzigen Vorwort angegeben, dass nicht mehr die Künste, sondern "die so genannte ,Unterhaltungsindustrie' zum Vermittler von Illusionen" geworden ist. Das neue Vorwort setzt sich nicht auseinander mit jüngeren Kritikern, etwa mit Norman Bryson, sondern trägt einige Fakten nach und wehrt den Erklärungsanspruch einer neuen Methode, der Semiotik, ab. Auch bleibt die Frage von John White unbeantwortet, wie flexibel eine Theorie angelegt sein muss, die alle Systeme und Theoreme für falsifizierbar hält, nur sich selbst nicht.

Ernst H. Gombrich: Kunst und Illusion
Zur Psychologie der bildlichen Darstellung; 6. Auflage mit neuem Vorwort; Phaidon Verlag, Berlin 2002; 412 S., Abb., 24,95 €


the yale review of books


Vol. 5 Number 4        Fall 2002

The Philosopher in the Storm

Cultural Historian E.H. Gombrich's Troubled Achievement

by Susannah Rutherglen


Sir Ernst Gombrich, the venerable humanist and scholar of art who died last year at the age of ninety-two, was not a great believer in historical epochs, but his passing marked nothing less than the end of one. Gombrich was the last member of a formidable dynasty of philosophers and historians who, beginning in central Europe during the nineteenth century, devoted themselves to discovering the deep structures of human culture. Their scholarship—Jacob Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, Max Dvořák's Art History as the History of the Spirit—deployed the tactics of science to uncover the vital origins of literature, philosophy, music, art, theology, and history since the time of Plato. They believed that a common set of principles underlay the whole edifice of Western achievement, and that those principles could be discerned by rigorous, historically informed study of its great monuments—from Greek vases to medieval epics, from Roman oratory to the paintings of Botticelli. Scholarship of this kind, they argued, was the Western tradition's last bulwark against the mechanized oblivion of modern life, its final hope for holding on to kinds of knowledge and feeling that were ineffably slipping away.

At the heart of this effort of cultural preservation lay a new discipline, invented at the University of Vienna in the late nineteenth century: Kunstwissenschaft, the “science of art.” The scholars who invented and practiced Kunstwissenschaft situated the work of art at the nexus of all forms of cultural activity, and sought to understand and preserve it as a concentrate of its creator's entire civilization. Gombrich, who was born in Vienna in 1909 and attended its university, embraced this new “science” with fervor. Although nominally an art historian, he began his most successful book with the words, “There is no such thing as Art”. He often told his audiences that the Renaissance painter was more like a molecular biologist or a weapons engineer than a tattered poetic soul, and liked to recount that, in his boyhood, he had preferred the bones in the Museum of Natural History to the pictures in Vienna's famous art museum. Gombrich's favorite quotation came from Hippocrates: “Art is long and life is short”—art in this case being that of the life-saving doctor, not of the melancholy painter. Cultural history, he felt, ought to aspire to the condition of disciplines like medicine, biology, and physics—to devote itself to sturdy empirical inquiry into fundamental and enduring causes.

All the same, though, Gombrich was never a through-and-through scientist. He occupied a dramatic historical moment, and his experience of contemporary culture and art was tinctured by the kind of tragedy that tends to elude scientific explanations. He grew up during twilight days: a few years after Vienna's fin-de-siècle intellectual glories had faded, a few years before the city was ripped to shreds by war. His mother was a gifted musician who had known many of the great figures of the nineteenth century (she had, the story went, refused to play with Arnold Schoenberg because he couldn't keep time). But Gombrich knew this world only through stories; the Vienna of his acquaintance was destroyed by the First World War, and he himself was forced to flee the Nazis. He arrived in London in 1936 to take a scrappy job at the Warburg Institute—itself a refugee institution, built around the library of the reclusive Hamburg scholar Aby Warburg. In the years following World War II, the Institute became a mecca for erudite, mysterious teachers devoted to rigorous study of humanistic subjects in the Continental tradition. Gombrich eventually rose to its directorship and, consequently, to a position of great prominence in the galaxy of postwar European cultural studies.

During his decades at the Warburg, Gombrich wrote effortlessly, prodigiously, and for many audiences. In 1950, he penned The Story of Art, still the best-selling art history text in the world, in a few months, without looking at any books. Although it is essentially an introductory art-history survey aimed at teenagers, this book offers a gloss on Gombrich's whole scholarly program. “My ambition - and it was rather a lofty ambition - was to be a kind of commentator on the history of art,” he said later in life. “I wanted to write a commentary on what actually happened in the development of art.” While a traditional art historian might hold up two objects—say, a bust of Aristotle and an African tribal mask—and then proceed to talk about how they were different, Gombrich set out to explain why they were different. What had the sculptor of Aristotle seen? How had he transposed his vision into stone? How were his acts of seeing and transposing different from those of the African artist?

To discover these deeper explanations for the way art looks, Gombrich, following the example of Karl Popper, turned to empirical science. His scholarly books, beginning with Art and Illusion in 1960, sought to explain the vagaries of style in the basic, irreducible terms of optics and psychology. Gombrich was anathema to the idea that the artistic styles of different periods arose from the “spirit of the age”, the Zeitgeist, or from a mesh of particular historical and cultural circumstances. Rather, he believed, people have always seen and put together images in the same fundamental ways, and the “story of art” is merely an accretion of illusionistic techniques and insights overlying these basic habits.

Gombrich's narrative in The Story of Art—and in all his books—thus describes the progress of art as a slow, successful conquest of the difficulties of perception. Giotto built on ancient Roman sculpture, Michelangelo built on Giotto, Rubens built on Michelangelo, Cézanne built on Rubens. Artistic change over time was something like the progress of an enormous tumbleweed, which, always retaining the same core of perceptions and visual patterns, rolled on through the ages, collecting new layers of illusionistic tricks.

The problem with this view is that the tide of taste runs in absolutely the opposite direction. For thousands of years, patrons of art have resolutely preferred the older, simpler, and less illusionistic forms of “primitive” art to the kinds that mark the apotheosis of Gombrich's story. They have consistently foregone the art of their own time—polished, fresh-off-the-shelf works executed according to the latest technical advances—in favor of the cruder forms of the past. The ancient architectural theorist Vitruvius liked rustic Doric columns; Goethe liked Andrea Mantegna; Herder liked simple folk tales; Walter Pater liked Botticelli. The pre-Raphaelites, the Nazarenes, the Primitifs, Edmund Burke, French caricaturists, Picasso—even Gombrich himself at times—are all guilty parties.

The tendency persists equally today: given the choice between a forthright Giotto and a luscious Bouguereau, we pick the Giotto. We prefer the Byzantine icon to the slick Academy painting; the humble saints of Chartres to Bernini's twisting bodies; Fra Angelico's simple Madonna to Tiepolo's voluptuous one. (The same is true of taste in music: Plato preferred the old, austere Lydian mode to the soft Ionic mode of his age, just as we prefer the Beatles to the Backstreet Boys.) As surely as the tendency cannot be described with any precision, it has existed in more or less consistent form since Antiquity. In fact, it was indignantly remarked upon by Cicero: “How much more brilliant, as a rule, in beauty and variety of colouring are new pictures compared to the old ones,” he said, “but the very roughness and crudity of the old paintings maintains its hold on us.” Why?

Gombrich spent the last decades of his life coming to grips with this problem, and his answer finally arrived posthumously, in April of this year, in the form of The Preference for the Primitive: Episodes in the History of Western Taste and Art. It is an unfinished book: a long, diffuse, and difficult collection of essays and lectures, studded with awkward interludes and verbal tics (most prominently among them, meretricious use of the word “meretricious”). The whole thing could have used a few more months in the shop. But enough of it is there to convey Gombrich's answer to the great puzzle of taste; and this answer poses many questions of its own. It is a troubled and troubling coda, an indictment of the very principles underlying a lifetime of scholarly achievement.

From the beginning of his career, Gombrich predicated his studies in art on the idea of progress—each age building on and surpassing the illusionistic achievements of the previous one. A version of this notion goes all the way back to Aristotle, who described the evolution of tragedy with a biological metaphor: the forms of tragedy grew and developed like an animal, eventually arriving at their ultimate shape, their natural form. The same idea was taken up by Vasari, in his Lives of the artists, to describe the development of art from infancy in Giotto to adulthood in Michelangelo. This is the matrix of concepts from which the word “primitive” arises: we could not speak of primitive art if there were no adult art with which to compare it.

Gombrich's notion of “progress” is slightly different from Aristotle's and Vasari's, in that it involves a value judgment about primitive forms. In his view, the development of art is predicated on technical improvements in the creation of illusions; the newer, more realistic forms are thus superior to the older ones. “Gingerbread figures should not be regarded as great works of art,” he quotes Ernst von Garger, “even when they happen to be of stone.” A preference for archaic, less naturalistic forms amounts to perversion: it is like eating with a stick when forks are available, or crawling instead of walking, or, as Cicero said, living on acorns after grain has been discovered. In Gombrich's view, the artists of the twentieth century, with their deliberate turn away from illusionistic techniques, inexplicably rejected “progress”: it is as if they underwent surgical operations to make their thumbs unopposable.

This is, to say the least, a constricted view of artistic change. It has an alarming tendency to equate developments in art with developments in nuclear weapons and toasters; and its drive is teleological, its judgments severely restricted by the assumption that all art tends toward the singular goal of creating illusions. Moreover, it cannot account for the art of the twentieth century except by rejecting it. Yet again and again, Gombrich twists the historical and interpretative record to support his model.

The most egregious of Gombrich's distortions involves Vasari's Lives, which he deploys as a kind of shorthand, a dependable supply of judgments about the value of illusion. “The revival of the arts as chronicled by Vasari in the sixteenth century,” Gombrich says, “deliberately mirrored the progress towards mimesis witnessed in the ancient world.” According to this view, Vasari didn't appreciate the arts before Michelangelo; he merely took a quirky, antiquarian interest in them. As Gombrich must know, however, the Lives are far from a straightforward narrative of the conquest of natural appearances, and their author's interest in older forms involves no such “distinction between antiquarian interest and aesthetic appreciation.” Vasari in fact praises many a picture that fails to offer an illusion of reality: he describes Giotto's virtuosity in drawing a perfect O, an abstract shape; he marvels at non-mimetic works by Michelangelo, Donatello, and Masaccio; he praises Titian's late paintings (they failed to imitate life, he says, and thus magically became alive themselves). Vasari's story about the development of art is various and organic, permitting space both for unillusionistic painting and for appreciation of the older forms; Gombrich's is rigid and mechanistic, describing a steady march in which each innovation absorbs and negates the last.

The same is true of other strands in Gombrich's book. Techniques such as perspective, he declares, were invented in order to further the aim of depicting the world illusionistically: “such devices `caught on' among painters because they constituted a move towards illusion, relegating earlier procedures nearer to the primitive.” Yet, as Gombrich's countryman Otto Pächt has shown with great force, perspective has always worked according to a “double rule” in which illusion and abstract design coexist. In the fifteenth century, Netherlandish painters used the technique specifically to draw attention to the abstract patterns covering the two-dimensional picture surface. Of course, outside the confines of a mechanistic historical scheme, this fact is self-evident. Anyone who has looked at a picture by Paolo Uccello, or at the Mérode altarpiece, or at the Stanza della Segnatura is aware that perspective serves many purposes apart from—or even conflicting with—that of illusion.

The same principle applies to every other device used by artists. Chiaroscuro, sfumato, optical tools, atmospheric perspective, color patches, disegno, the constructive stroke—almost everything in the artist's bag of tricks can be and is deployed for myriad purposes, including but not limited to the imitation of reality. The Western tradition has prized illusion, of course, but only as one of art's many ends. And when artists have created or appreciated less illusionistic forms, they have not always done so out of a malicious refusal to describe the world as well as they might have. As Paul Cézanne explained of his own painterly distortions and disjunctions, “To paint from nature is to set free the essence of the model…painting does not mean slavishly copying an object.”

Given the restrictiveness of his view, Gombrich might have written a kind of outraged history, a chronicle of all the ways in which artists and connoisseurs have wasted the years scrounging after acorns. Instead, he embarks on a sincere search for causes. The quest takes on a special urgency during his forays into the twentieth century: why, he wants to know, did Picasso enjoy African masks, and why did the exalted formalist critic Roger Fry swoon over the art of children and cavemen? Why might regression constitute a kind of refinement?

The answer, Gombrich decides, is that appreciation of primitive forms arises as a moral gesture. Faced with the slick, gilded, and tacky excesses of their own times, artists and connoisseurs have consistently embarked on a nostalgic search for the simpler and purer visions of the past. This was why Plato rejected all forms of artistic innovation, believing them to be nothing more than a poisonous indulgence of the senses. Many centuries later, Protestant reformers took up the same idea, arguing that naturalistic art is irreligious—that the beautiful, illusionistic naked bodies of Greek sculpture are forms of sacrilege, that they elevate the human body to the status of a god. As Peter von Cornelius said, the art of the academy “has drunk too deeply from the chalice of the Babylonian whore”. Our only escape from godlessness is the chaste frescoes of Fra Angelico, who, Vasari wrote, never took up a brush without praying.

In Gombrich's final estimation, however, these pious and moralizing beliefs conceal the same old tendency: pusillanimous rejection of the possibilities of art. “The increase of artistic resources also increases the risk of failure,” he says. “Base line art is safer and all the more lovable for that.” If we say that depicting the naked human body is shameful, we are excused from the challenges of describing it; if we reject the art of the Academy as kitschy, we no longer have to attend school or learn the techniques of our predecessors. Both the “avoidance reaction” against artistic surfeit and the “pious mode” consist, at heart, of a knee-jerk reaction against the challenges of making art. These tendencies, according to Gombrich, culminate in the hundred-year-long disaster that is the art of the twentieth century.

Where Gombrich sees constriction, cowardice, and failure, however, others see dilation and progress. There exists, not surprisingly, a very different response to the question of why we prefer the primitive; it lies buried in the history of taste—in the slow, continuous expansion of our definition of what art is. We can sense the beginnings of it in Cicero, who, while firmly rejecting the older and cruder forms, saw in them a certain space for appreciation: “Zeuxis, Aglaphon and Apelles differ from each other: but none of them appears to lack anything in his art,” he said. It appears again in Vitruvius, who believed that Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns were each suitable in their own way, and fit the characters of different buildings.

In the eighteenth century, with the rise of connoisseurship, this expansion in taste became even more pronounced. Patrons and critics suddenly found themselves capable of appreciating the art of many different eras and places. Herder could now praise “the pure dignity and beauty” of ancient local legends; Goethe could speak of Andrea Mantegna as a “robust, clean, bright, detailed, conscientious, delicate and circumscribed presence that also partakes of the strict, industrious and laborious.” It is as if the eighteenth century made aesthetic pleasure into an art form unto itself, and, in searching for objects on which to project its new powers of creative appreciation, evolved a newly broad concept of how art might be made and understood. The pressure of these new forms of enjoyment even led to the revival of a lost aesthetic category, the Sublime—awesome, forceful images which made human beings aware of the infinitudes of their own imaginations. In its Kantian association with “crude nature”, the Sublime naturally gave rise to appreciation of primitive forms; so indeed did all the new forms and manifestations of taste.

This change signified a rejection of the very narrative which underlies Gombrich's book. The story of artistic change was not one of progress, like the development of tools, alphabets, or air conditioners; rather, it embodied the unique expressions of individual souls situated in their own ages, responding to and emerging from the mesh of experiences and cultural habits unique to them. At the same time, it could employ a full range of expressive tactics and habits, gleaned from observation of newly incorporated forms of art. “The savage shapes his coconuts, his feathers and his body with weird designs, horrifying figures, loud colours,” wrote Goethe, “and yet, however arbitrary the shapes composing this creation, it will harmonize…for one emotion fused it into a characteristic whole.” That unique emotion, the expressive genius of the individual, speaking out from his own place in the world and in history, was what constituted art—not a checklist of mimetic requirements.

Why is Gombrich finally unable to accept this multiplex, expansive account of artistic change, buried as it is in his own text? Perhaps because he realizes that such a history—in its complexity and plurality, its intersecting streams of historical interest, nationalistic pride, and individual feeling—can never come under the rein of empirical models. Gombrich's science can explain bits and pieces of how we see and create illusions; it can establish simple polarities between decorative and representative arts, between “making” and “matching”; it cannot describe the vagaries of cultural experience or the welling-up of artistic souls.

But Gombrich's inclination for what he called “more general types of explanation”—his need to distill artistic style to a key set of activities and premises—has its own history, and this history emerges with eerie clarity in the pages of this final book. It is the notion of cultural pluralism: the idea, nourished by Vico and Herder, that there is no single answer to the question of what is good, right, and worth pursuing in history and art, and that a necessary tension arises from the many mutually exclusive and tangled ends of human enterprise. These differences, indeed, are what give the study of the humanities its spark and mystery, its inherent interest. As Herder said of the Egyptians, they “must not be judged by Greek standards but by their own…we must ask what they considered art, how they invented it at so early a period, and what they intended with it…one must not press both their works into the same system, but let each of them serve its own place and its own time.” This is an act of aesthetic generosity which Gombrich cannot bring himself to commit. He remains, to the end, an enemy of the Zeitgeist.

With good reason, of course, for it was the notion of individual and nationalistic pride, of the spirits of peoples and ages, which led to Nazism and to the terrible events of Gombrich's own lifetime. Throughout his last book, Gombrich keeps offering hints that this is the real danger presented by pluralistic notions of beauty. He denigrates Goethe's praise of Albrecht Dürer, for “we cannot help remembering with hindsight what consequences the injured pride of the Germans was to have in later years.” The Gothic Revival and the Nazarenes were likewise dangerous because they sought to express German nationalistic spirit. In the same vein, Burke's vision of the Sublime was suspect, because it asserted the value of wild, messy British landscapes against the over-cultivation of French gardens. Even more generally, “we must beware of the conventional concept of national schools that still dominates our art books and our museums.” And so on and so forth. According to Gombrich, if a scheme of art history posits alternatives to some absolute set of values, then it must also endorse the moral systems and beliefs that led to National Socialism.

Gombrich's teachers at the University of Vienna believed fervently in cultural pluralism, indeed nourished their scholarship on it. Alois Riegl thought that historians should never make value judgments about art; rather, they should simply describe changing artistic intentions, Kunstwollen, as they emerge through time. Julius von Schlosser, Gombrich's dissertation advisor, and Hans Sedlmayr, the art historian who turned with great fervor to Nazism, held similarly broad views of history and artistic expression. When Gombrich fled to London in 1936—denouncing Sedlmayr's followers as “enemies of reason”—he was well aware of the dangers to which pluralistic concepts of culture could succumb. He knew that expansiveness and generosity of interpretation have their flipsides, and that cultural appreciation on its own cloudy and ambiguous terms can give rise to a fallacious and destructive form of certainty. That his own interpretations were so strictured—that they militated against the various and indistinct categories of which culture itself consists—is understandable. But these interpretations describe the fears of a certain moment, and must, in our times, be understood as insufficient.

“The only strange and astonishing fact about my long life,” Gombrich once said, “is that in a period which was so full of dangers, of horrors which were grim indeed, I managed by and large to lead what is known as the life of a cloistered scholar.” In this recollection, Gombrich echoed Plato's Republic, which describes the philosopher as a man caught in a heavy storm. While dust and rain are blown about by the wind, the philosopher stands aside under a little wall, safe within himself, gazing at the spectacle from the remove of the contemplative life; he has sought shelter from the world about him, its violence and ill-considered politics. The price he pays for seeking the truth is withdrawal: the affairs of the world are not only remote from, but also destructive of, his wisdom.

As Gombrich himself must have known, though, complete refuge of this sort is impossible; sometimes the very structures of our thoughts are conditioned by the times. His scholarly oeuvre is in certain ways a transcript of the great struggles of the twentieth century—between empiricism and doubt, history and science, plural and singular accounts of culture and its development. His was a war against uncertainty—against the infinite, mysterious, and admittedly dangerous vicissitudes of civilization—and The Preference for the Primitive is its final, futile battle. The epoch to which Gombrich belonged, and to which he so prodigiously contributed, has come to its own equivocal end.

Susannah Rutherglen is a senior in Trumbull College.                                       
She is associate editor-in-chief of the Yale Review of Books.                                      



Sir Ernst Gombrich

Hailed in the later years of his life as the world’s greatest art historian, E H Gombrich has been described in a number of obituaries following his death at the age of 92 on 3 November 2001, as the most important writer on art from any period. It is easy to see why. Following The Story of Art (1950) – now in its 16th edition and translated into more languages than most of us could list – he published the seminal Art and Illusion (1960) which totally rewrote the psychology of representation, and a series of unfailingly lucid studies of subjects ranging from Renaissance symbolism to the visual language of contemporary cartoons.


But he was more than a great writer in his ‘field’. Indeed, he abhorred the concept of ‘fields’, which he thought appropriate for donkeys but not human beings. His territory was the great traditional area of the humanities; that is to say the study of those human products that represented the highest aspirations of humane culture in literature, the arts, and not least in music. His mother, sister and wife, Ilse, were professionally trained musicians, and he was himself an accomplished exponent of the cello.

His commitment to the humanities as an ideal, now often scorned in the era of postmodernism, was not merely a genteel adherence to abstract notions of the civilising effects of culture. As an Austrian Jew he saw, in a way to which few living Europeans can attest, what happened when culture is manipulated and abused by totalitarian ideologies. Leaving Vienna in 1936, he joined the Warburg Institute in London, itself recently exiled from Hamburg in the face of Nazi oppression. The Warburg was henceforth to be his place of employment and spiritual home, and he served as its Director between 1959 and 1976.

This background gave especial force to his implacable rejection of all overarching ideologies that purport to fit human society into ideal frameworks. This was as true of the philosophical tyranny of ideas (of which he thought Hegel was a prime perpetrator) as it was of such political dogmas as Fascism and Communism. Like Aby Warburg himself, whose psychology in other respects Gombrich found troubling, the mission to illuminate culture in the face of darkness mattered too much to be a literally academic matter.

For someone committed to communication in words and to how things are represented in images, it was both appropriate and deeply informative for him to have spent the war with the BBC Monitoring Service at Evesham. His experiences both cemented his sense that every portion of communication is dependent on its context in a system, and fortified his instinct that the student of representation needs to look beyond the field of high art. It was the former conviction that persuaded him that the claims for absolute communication in abstract art were humbug, while the latter encouraged such tours de force as setting Raphael’s ‘Madonna della Sedia’ beside an advertisement from a rotary shaver.

The two public peaks of his career as an author manifest different but related facets of his vision. The Story of Art remains the best doorway into the history of art, widely recognised as such even by those who share little or nothing of Gombrich’s particular attitudes. It retains its supremacy as a coherent adventure journey in ways of looking within cultural contexts. The vision is huge but open; the voice is deeply learned yet easy to understand. The reader becomes naturalised in acts of intelligent seeing in such a way that alternative modes of looking become subsequently more accessible.

Art and Illusion, in which the relatively youthful discipline of perceptual psychology was brought into play in the long-standing quest to define why styles evolved, set enduring terms for the debate about seeing and artistic representation. What he sought, at heart, was a rational explanation of why an Egyptian did not paint like a Constable. He wished to understand the collective enterprise of representation to which artists contributed over the centuries without appealing to the great forces of the zeitgeist or collective psychology. This understanding was to be framed in terms of both the cultural imperatives that determined the roles of images, and the business of seeing and knowing.

His key contribution was to formulate a process of ‘making and matching’ in which the need for the remaking of ‘schemata’ (or formulas of representation) to achieve better matches was fuelled by the growing sense in the Western tradition that images should place the spectator in the role of an ‘eye-witness’. The achieving of a more refined optical match was not to result from the cultivation of an ‘innocent eye’, but by persistent historical testing of the ways that images can achieve high levels of verisimilitude. The step-by-step progress of naturalistic representation was cast in terms akin to the notion of hypothesis and falsification, developed in the philosophy of science by his friend and fellow exile, Sir Karl Popper.

In this quest, he stood resolutely behind the idea that the illusionistic picture, made according to the rules of perspective, did its job as an optically convincing surrogate in a superior way to any other system. Perspective, for him, was not merely another convention. Cubism, for instance, could not sustain claims that it was truer to how we see things than a Constable landscape or a photograph. In his arguments with doughty opponents, such as the philosopher Nelson Goodman, he resorted increasingly to the evidence of ‘occlusion’ as the irrefutable common fact of perspective and seeing. That is to say, the extent to which foreground objects (even small ones) systematically overlap and conceal background features according to inviolable rules, testified to the essential congruence between what our visual apparatus does, the rules of the perspective picture and what is ‘out there’.

Even if there was some rapprochement between Gombrich and Goodman as their ideas evolved, Gombrich remained vulnerable to the charge that he defined artistic worth in terms of the gold standard of Western naturalism. In fact, he was saying that the naturalistic skills hard won by Western artists were superior at doing the job of eye-witness presentation – not that this job was itself to be taken as defining artistic or aesthetic superiority. He pointed with a certain impatience to his writings on the glories and fascination of other modes of image making, most particularly in his Sense of Order (1979) which he fairly believed to be a neglected book.

It is true, however, that he entertained limited sympathy with much of the art of his own era, not only extreme forms of abstraction but also, perhaps more surprisingly, with those movements like Pop Art that re-introduced figuration and the interplay of word and image. He confessed to me that he did not begin to understand Rauschenberg, and conceded that he was perhaps asking for a kind of shared validity between artistic theory and artistic product that he did not require of art from other eras. He did not, for instance, reject Renaissance art because it was founded on a notion of proportional beauty to which we no longer adhere. On the other hand, he was be ill-disposed towards the Abstract Expressionists because he did not countenance claims that their art was achieving some autonomous level of direct communion with the spectator.

Such prejudices and oversights as Gombrich might have perpetrated are, however, a small price to pay for the greatness of his vision, and his rejection of absolute systems, intellectual or political. Unlike the younger generation, he could hear in his mind’s ear the jack-boots marching when intolerance resulted from blind confidence in beliefs that trample human liberties. His death has occurred at a time when his humane values are more than ever in need of sustenance.

Martin Kemp

Published in Italian in Il Sole 24 Ore