Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Ernst Gombrich

Inadvertently, a section on Sir Ernst Gombrich got left out of the printed version of my History of Art History. While this omission is unfortunate, the role of Gombrich as the world’s leading art historian has faded in recent years. Above all, his attempt to reorient the field in terms of perception proved a dead end. 
Here is the missing section. 
Sir Ernst Gombrich is mainly identified with London and the Warburg Institute in that city. While the precincts of the Institute are somewhat austere and generally attract only scholars, so that one could easily cloister oneself there, Gombrich made it a point to reach out to audiences at many levels. His avuncular, witty, and articulate manner became widely known.
Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich was born in Vienna in 1909 to a middle-class Jewish family. His father was a lawyer and his mother a piano teacher. Gombrich’s parents adhered to a humanistic culture centered on the writings of Goethe. In art this meant, above all, a reverence for the great masters of the Italian Renaissance and for classical antiquity. These attachments the schoolboy readily absorbed. At the same time he was aware that the increasing popularity of expressionism was calling older verities into question. This sense of an immanent, perhaps epochal change in art-historical orientation was, he has recorded, what most drew him to major in the field at the University of Vienna. 
In his studies in art history at the University he was confronted with a choice between two teachers, Josef Strzygowski and Julius von Schlosser. Strzygowski, who today would gain points as a multiculturalist, rejected classical art and Eurocentrism, emphasizing the creative influence of inner Asia. Gombrich attended his lectures and rejected him as a demagogue, so that he gravitated to Schlosser instead, a choice that proved decisive. As for Schlosser, his retiring personality restricted his pupils to a small number, but so solid was the formation he received that the young Gombrich felt that he had made the right choice. The older scholar emphasized the critical study of sources, the direct examination of objects in the museum, and specific historical problems, such as the history of ornament. 
For one semester in 1932 Gombrich traveled to Berlin to attend a special series of lectures by Heinrich Wölfflin, which he found disappointingly simplistic. Much more gripping were the rather technical presentations of the Gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Köhler. This encounter stimulated Gombrich’s interest in psychology. A little later he learned much from the tutelage of the psychoanalyst-cum-art historian Ernst Kris at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. 15 Interestingly, he was not so much impressed by Kris’s devotion to Sigmund Freud (about whom Gombrich has remained critical) as in his interest in academic psychology, and the way it can cast light on physiognomics, caricature, and perception. Here, as he has acknowledged, the key influence was Kurt Bühler, holder of the chair in psychology at the University of Vienna and author of monographs on speech and what would now be termed semiotics. 
Somewhat in this vein Gombrich chose to write his dissertation on Giulio Romano, whose mannerist effects in architecture and painting at the Palazzo del Te at Mantua he found disturbing but oddly captivating. This choice is perhaps partly rooted in his puzzlement with regard to certain developments in modern art, which he analogized with the Italian master’s work. Like many of the Transatlantic Migrators, Gombrich remained cool to the more advanced aspects of modern art, seeing them as somehow entangled with the spirit of irrationalism that had ravaged Central Europe in his youth. At any event he rejected the then-fashionable interpretation of mannerism as a tortured by-product of tension and angst. Similarly (though much interested in classical music), he felt no attraction to the twelve-tone precepts of Arnold Schönberg. A positive influence, subsequently reinforced in London, was the philosopher of science, Karl Popper. According to Gombrich, Popper’s 1935 book Die Logik der Forschung “established the priority of the scientific hypothesis over the recording of sense data.” 
As conditions in Austria deteriorated, Gombrich was fortunate in the fact that Kris found him a job (in 1936) at the Warburg Institute, which had just moved to London from its original home in Hamburg. (Since Aby Warburg had died in 1929, Gombrich, who was later to write a fine book on him, never met him.) This move decisively altered his destiny through two encounters: first, with the Warburg Institute under its gifted director, Fritz Saxl; and secondly, with the English language, of which he became a master. Most of the émigrés managed to write at least passable English, but two, Gombrich and Panofsky, excelled in their adopted tongue. Their linguistic feats were very different. Panofsky had a gift for acrobatic displays of irony and wordplay, salted with prodigious amounts of erudition. These verbal pyrotechnics were so brilliant that they sometimes distracted from the point that the scholar was making.
By contrast Gombrich’s talent lay in clarity of exposition - so that the reader is carried along almost effortlessly by the perfect choice of words, and the mellifluous sequence of ideas. Yet let me make a personal observation. This agreeable effect sometimes lulls one into accepting a conclusion that on reflection one does not share. Gombrich’s expository powers realize his commitment to the ideals of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment with its focus on the Common Reader. His seeking of the center in this way means that the reader often does concur, but perhaps not as often as the writer might have hoped.
Gombrich’s skills were honed by his accepting several jobs in England that involved teaching at a rather basic level. These successes (and an earlier children’s book on world history that he had written in Vienna) induced the Phaidon Press to commission The Story of Art. First published in 1950 and many times reprinted and enlarged, this book offered a genial text that served to introduce many on both sides of the Atlantic to the subject.
At the same time he continued to frequent the Warburg Institute, where his closest associates were the learned Otto Kurz, his old friend from Vienna, and Frances Yates, who almost single-handedly revived knowledge of the hermetic tradition. In 1959 Gombrich became the Institute’s director, serving also as Professor of the History of the Classical Tradition. At the same time he used his position to enlarge his interdisciplinary interests in the natural sciences. In the field of perception he avidly absorbed new discoveries in the physiology and functioning of the eye. He also cemented his alliance with his philosophical mentor, Sir Karl Popper, then teaching at the London School of Economics. In addition to their commitment to scientific method, Popper and Gombrich shared an aversion to Hegel, whom they blamed for laying the foundations for totalitarianism, in both its Nazi and Marxist versions. Later, however, Gombrich’s attitude to the philosopher was to mellow, leading him to accept the Hegel Prize of the city of Stuttgart in 1977. 
The pivotal event in Gombrich’s scholarly life occurred in his forty-sixth year. In 1956 he traveled to Washington, D.C., to give the Mellon Lectures, the most prestigious in the field. The result was the 1960 book Art and Illusion, which combined grace and accessibility, with erudition and innovation, making him for a time the hottest art historian going. This period was one in which art history had considerable appeal for the general public - witness the tremendous success of The Voices of Silence by André Malraux - that seems to have faded. Of course Gombrich has retained the esteem of art history professionals in a way that Malraux has not. If the research program that seems implicit in Art and Illusion, namely visual perception as the key to progress, failed completely to convince, Gombrich’s reputation as the “thinking art historian” has held. A revealing tribute came from a critic, Norman Bryson, who remarked in 1983, “The gap between philosophy and art history is now so wide that in practical terms it is filled almost by a single work; Gombrich’s Art and Illusion.” While this claim of uniqueness is overstated, Art and Illusion remains a milestone in the development of art history.
Ranging with great panache over wide provinces of the ancient Mediterranean and Western Europe, these lectures seek to explain the changing appearance of works of art. Indeed, perhaps the most challenging question Gombrich poses is “Why does art have a history?” That is to say, why is it that different periods have represented nature differently? Though simple to pose, this problem’s solution is by no means ready to hand. In order to address the issue more closely, Gombrich adopts the psychological concept of the “mental set” as a way of addressing the distinction between nature as an object of perception and nature as an object of representation. Of course, vision as such is a biological given, a physiological substrate which must always be factored in as the parameter-giving force - hence Gombrich’s interest in laboratory experiments concerning human perception. On this biological foundation are imposed ways of seeing. But here a dilemma appears. Are these ways of seeing simply modes of inflecting a basically unitary process (universalism) or are they something that differs fundamentally from culture to culture (culturism)? Strong arguments ca be marshaled for either assumption. Without solving this problem, Gombrich helpfully suggests that our expectations of what we will see play an important role; we see what we have been conditioned to see. In keeping with this premise Gombrich strongly denies that there can be such a thing as the “innocent eye,” a straightforward way of seeing, uncontaminated by preconceptions. Rather, “(a)ll culture and all communication depend on the interplay between expectation and observation.” In addition to perceiving products of our own culture with the mental set that has been given us, we are capable of adjusting our mental set so as to perceive a highly stylized medieval work, such as the Bayeux Tapestry, in terms of the mental set of the era that produced it.
In any event once we realize the need to adjust our mental set to accommodate works with different strategies of representation the need for periodization in art history becomes evident. A madonna by Cimabue requires one approach, a madonna by Raphael another, and a madonna by Tiepolo yet a third. We normally call the ruling conventions that characterize these works period style - in these instances Italo-Byzantine, Renaissance, and Baroque.
Many who have approached this problem have done so from the point of view of the observer, the “consumer” as it were of the art work. Gombrich of course does this as well, in his concept of the “beholder’s share.” However, he also addresses the question in terms of the producer - as did Wölfflin - bringing in the idea of a constant interplay between making and matching. Thus the artist makes marks on the surface, then he or she checks the marks - or “matches” them against the motif. This leads to a modification of the marks, a new making, and this in turn requires a new matching - and so forth. Put differently, there is a close relation between schema and correction. Successful negotiation of this process requires attention to the nature of the medium, so that in Constable’s landscapes, for example, the ability of oil paint to hold colors is crucial. 
It is evident that Gombrich has tackled a task of enormous proportions. It is the invitation to the artist extended, so to speak, by Renaissance illusionism “to paint everything.” Grandiose as this ambition of embracing the perceived world is, one must ask: is it all? What about symbolic contents that are not clearly coded in what we see? And what about the inherent interest of patterns, whether they are found in nature or not? The focus of Gombrich’s investigation accords well - some would say all too well - with his positive valorization of the Renaissance and of Greek art and his dismissal of medieval art (“pictographs”) and much modern art.
Historians of science speak of internalist and externalist accounts. The former treats a discipline as problems which are solved, leading to new problems and so forth. The externalist approach emphasizes societal and personal factors. 
With his dislike of holistic, Hegelian interpretations, Gombrich approaches the problem of why art has a history in terms of a unilinear internalism. This means that in his narrative the only significant factor is the variable of illusion. This monism contrasts, for example, with Vasari’s “market basket” of qualities, including disegno, invenzione, and grazia. Gombrich’s internalist singlemindedness leaves out effects that reflect the demands of society as seen through such content-driven elements as iconography, symbolic portraiture, and the like. Although elsewhere Gombrich tackles the symbolism of the Renaissance, in Art and Illusion he does not treat this fundamental theme. Another way of approaching the matter would be to say that medieval “pictographs” are poor in details but rich in intensive significance (the play of analogies through symbolic association). 
Recognizing the need for a complementary approach, Gombrich sought to deal massively with the “rest of art history” in his 1979 book on ornament, The Sense of Order, but these observations remain a foreign body with respect to the theory that made him famous. One is compelled to say that after his great breakthrough at the end of the fifties and its concretization in Art and Illusion in 1960,  he largely consolidated his observations, but without carrying the underlying theory further. 
Many scholars have taken exception to this or that aspect of Gombrich’s theory. The semiotician Norman Bryson has attempted a comprehensive critique. In Vision and Painting Bryson posits that Gombrich’s concept of the painting as a notation of perception recorded and dialectically modified is inadequate: it does not sufficiently recognize that perception is a complex undertaking, involving many factors and creating a dialogue between beholder and painting. Moreover, strategies of the gaze (as Bryson terms it) have changed over time. This criticism is cogent, for it acknowledges once more the paradox that the history of art is an amalgam of histories of art: the history not only of illusion, but of the gaze, subject matter, uses of works of art, and many other factors.


Post a Comment

<< Home