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Why we should all still be reading our Gombrich

April 19, 2019


Or, more specifically, the story of art, that seminal work of popular art history that continues to be the best introduction to the field of old-fashioned art history. I say ‘old fashioned’, because the methods and approaches of art history have changed radically since Gombrich was writing. I do mean ‘radically’. This book is what it says on the tin- the story of art.

These days, we would be instantly suspicious of the ‘story of art’. It invokes teleology, the act of turning history into a story, and grand narratives, aggrandised accounts of history that present that story as reaching into the future and in some sense justifying the present. I’ve heard Gombrich described as an ‘arch modernist’. I suppose there’s some truth in that. What I’m arguing is that the baby is being thrown out with the bathwater- of course he was a modernist, he lived through the modernist period. In reality, he’s probably among the more broad-minded of twentieth century art historians.

There’s a certain amount of self-defeating argument in all of this. To state that there is no canon, paradoxically, involves recognising that the canon exists. I’m not arguing against the trend of art history, exactly, I’m just throwing the question out there. We’re living in the age of multiculturalism, cross-pollination and multiplicity. There is certainly room for more than one approach to art history.

The most vital thing about Gombrich’s writing is its approachability. Of course, there seem to be two Gombrichs at times- the highly technical writer of such works as ‘art and illusion’ and a host of academic essays, and the much more readable works such as ‘the story of art’ and even ‘a little history of the world’. The story of Art, though, is eminently readable and it’s become a classic in its own right. An art student watches ‘metropolis’ by Fritz Lang and reads his Gombrich.

One of the best features of this book is the way that it includes colourful anecdotes and pieces of art historical lore that are sometimes dubious. The story of Gainsborough and the blue boy, painted partially to annoy Joshua Reynolds and his theories about ‘colour perspective’, for example, is rather lovely.

One major reproach one could certainly make against Gombrich is the fact that he takes a eurocentric view of art history, indeed of history as a whole. He seems, in particular, not to make distinctions between This, I suppose, reflects the intellectual climate of the time more than anything else. I find it hard to think how it could have been otherwise. It would have taken a rare degree of foresight to predict the reaction against what are called canons- bodies of work and groups of artists who are seen as seminal and privileged.

There are other criticisms. One needn’t take too seriously his later pontifications about what he thought was wrong with postmodern and late modernist art. I think the truth is that art moved on and left him behind in his later life, and the same goes for his eurocentrism. Gombrich,  like anybody, is a product of his time. Every critic is eventually outpaced by art itself. Ruskin, Greenberg and Brian Sewell should suffice as examples. Gombrich is much more open-minded than either of these three, so it took longer and didn’t happen to the same extent. I suppose in some ways these problems are the price we have to pay for the opinionated, human viewpoint that makes his work so fascinating and readable. One has to admire the courage he has in his convictions- he stands against what Johnathan Jones calls “The cant that reduces everything to one razed field of banality”.

Gombrich’s concern with how images are actually made and viewed makes him stand alone in the field of art history. He’s not like Kenneth Clarke, who devoted reams of text towards works of art that today are largely nonexistent (He’s important for other reasons of course). In the contemporary period, most critics and analysts are more concerned about the messages carried by the objects depicted than by the actual visual means by which an artist delivers his work. This, far from being a matter for reproach, is one of Gombrich’s great strengths. There are few other writers of his stature in the twentieth or twenty-first century who deals with such problems, and even if some of his ideas didn’t bear the scrutiny of today, he would be worth reading for that reason.

The ‘why’ of Gombrich is also important. From the very start, he’s interested in relating how pictures and other objects are perceived, and how they emerged from the cultural ferment that surrounded them, from back in the stone age right up till his old age, when Art was changing in ways that he sometimes found difficult to accept.

Now he’s dead of course, one is deprived of an accessible yet learned introduction to the art that has happened since his death. It’s a shame. Accounts of Art after about 1989, necessarily tend to be less clear cut. Of course, the closer you are to art history, the more of it there is.

So yes, we should still be reading Gombrich. For his prose style, if nothing else. As a naturalised British citizen, born in Austria, who left Germany in 1936 and worked for the BBC world service monitoring German radio broadcasts, Gombrich knew something about intransigent, reactionary opinions, and I don’t think he ever knowingly possessed them.


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