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by Bamber Gascoigne

Sir Ernst Gombrich (1909-2001)


Austrian/British writer of art, the author of The Story of Art (1950), which has been translated into some 20 languages. Originally the work was intended for teen-agers, but due to its insights and superb style, it was soon accepted by universities as a textbook. Ernst Gombrich also wrote studies in the art of the Renaissance and on the psychology of pictorial representation. His Art and Illusion (1960) was listed by Sir Hugh Trevor-Roper as one of five or six greatest and most influential books published in the late 20th-century.

"Indeed, the true miracle of the language of art is not that it enables the artist to create the illusion of reality. It is that under the hands of a great master the image becomes translucent. In teaching us to see the visible world afresh, he gives us the illusion of looking into the invisible realms of the mind - if only we know, as Philostratus says, how to use our eyes." (Art and Illusion by Ernst Gombrich, fifth ed. 1977, p. 329)

Ernst Gombrich was born in Vienna, the son of Dr. Karl B. Gombrich, a lawyer, and Professor Leonia (née Hock) Gombrich. He grew up in cultured, musical surroundings. His mother was a pianist, who had been taught by Bruckner. Her friends and acquaintances included Freud, who told Jewish anecdotes, the composer Gustav Mahler, Schoenberg, and the violinist Adolf Busch. Gombrich himself played cello. Both of his parents were of Jewish origin, but religion did not play central role in the family.

Due to food shortages after World War I, Gombrich suffered from severe  malnutrition like many other children. Under the scheme arranged by the Save the Children Fund, he was sent  to Sweden, where he lived with his sister Lisbeth with a coffin-maker for nine months.

Upon returning back to Austria, Gombrich entered the Theresianum, a conservative school concentrating on classics. From 1928 to 1935 he studied history of art and archaeology at the University of Vienna, where Alois Riegl's legacy of formalism was reshaped with the insights of Gestalt psychology.  Gombrich also attended lectures on psychology and philosophy. At that time the Vienna Circle of philosophers, led by Moritz Schlick, produced their most important works. The Circle also inspired such thinkers as Michael Polanyi, Friedrich von Hayek, Karl Popper and Gombrich, who came to prominence after the rise of the Nazis caused them to flee to the West. Gombrich's dissertation examined the architecture of the 16th-century artist Giulio Romano. With Ernst Kris, a psychoanalyst and a friend of Freud, he collabotated on a book on the history of caricature – the work was published in an abbreviated version in 1940.

Gombrich married Ilse Heller, pupil of her mother. Their only son, Richard Francis Gombrich, became an Indologist and one of the world's best known scholars on Buddhism. Gombrich's first book, Weltgeschichte von der Urzeit bis zur Gegenwart (1936, A Little History of the World), which he wrote in Vienna under great time pressure, was dedicated to his wife. The history primer for children was a popular success but the Nazis considered it "too pacifist" and stopped the further publication. "But what you must never forget is the importance for our own lives of tolerance, reason and humanity – the three findamental principles of the Enlightenment", Gombrich stressed to his readers. When he revised the book for its 50th anniversary, Gombrich added a new chapter in 1985, entitled 'The Small Part of the History of the World Which I Have Lived Through Myself,'  to the original 39 chapters. This book, his only one written in German, did not appear in English until 2005.

In 1936 Gombrich was employed as a staff member of the Warburg Institute, which had emigrated from Hamburg to London. Most of his family members, who remained in Austria, were killed after "Anschluss," the 1938 Union of Austria with Nazi Germany. Gombrich also wrote an intellectual biography of Aby Warburg (1866-1929), the founder of the Institute, who was cultural historian and especially interested in the survival and transformations of the classical traditions. This line of research marked Gombrich's studies in the art of Renaissance, too. Warburg had build an unique collection of books, and its resources attracted exiled European scholars. However, as innovative as Warburg's anthropological  study of art had been in its time, Gombrich brought to light its racialist overtones: "A convinced evolutionist he saw in the Indians of New Mexico a stage of civilization which corresponded to the phase of paganism ancient Greece left behind with dawn of rationalism."

During World War II Gombrich served at the Monitoring Service of the BBC,  where he interpreted German radio broadcasts, looking for hidden meanings from propaganda. "Gombrich and I got on very well and sometimes, when we were both on night shift and nothing much was happening, we competed with each other translating Petrarch's sonnets," recalled the Czech-born translator and poet Ewald Osers, who worked for nearly 40 years at the BBC. (Tales from Bush House, collected and edited by Hamid Ismailov, Marie Gillespie and Anna Aslanyan, 2012, p. 52) Gombrich's friend, the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, began broadcasting on BBC radio in 1945. His Saxon accent was light, but Gombrich's accent was so strong that the BBC regarded him for many years as unbroadcastable. (Pevsner: The Early Life: Germany and Art by Stephen Games, 2014, p. 214)

Gombrich witnessed the war, as he said, "not only through the British news media and the realities of life 'somewhere in the country', as the formula was, but also through the distorting mirror in which Goebbels wanted the German people to see it." (Myth and Reality in German War-time Broadcasts by E.H. Gombrich, 1970, p. 2) Gombrich thought that a paranoic pattern of world events was characteristic for Nazi propaganmda. On 1 May 1945, he heard Radio Hamburg play the second movement from Bruckner's 7th symphony, originally written to commemorate the death of Richard Wagner. Sortly afterwards it was announced that the Führer has fallen. Gombrich was the first to carry the news directly to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. To this period he returned in Myth and Reality in German War-time Broadcasts (1970). In 1947, Gombrich became naturalized British citizen.

Ernst Kris, who had moved to in 1940 New York, helped Gombrich to win a Rockefeller fellowship for a three-month visit in the United States, with the purpose of learning about new currents in art and art criticism. From 1956 to 1959 Gombrich was Durning-Lawrence Professor of the History of Art at University College. When he was offered a post at Columbia University, New York City, he declined mostly because he wanted to stay in London.

In 1959 Gombrich did a one-year stint as Visiting Professor at Harvard University. In the same year he was appointed Director of the Warburg Institute and Professor of the History of the Classical Tradition at the University of London, serving there until his retirement in 1976. In 1968-69 he was Lethaby Professor at the Royal College of Art, and in 1970 Andrew D. White professor-at-large at Cornell. Gombrich received a CBE in 1966 and was knighted in 1972.

Ernst Gombrich died on November 3, 2001 in London. Shortly before his death, Gombrich completed The Preference for the Primitive (2002). "Gombrich is always worth reading even if some of his betes noires, like the concept of the "Zeitgeist," have now passed onto the compost heap of history," said Bruce Boucher in the New York Times.(September 1, 2002)

Art and Illusion, with the subtitle "A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation," explored the links between perception and art. Noteworthy, Gombrich never liked the name of his much acclaimed work, but it was Popper, whose opinion counted most: "This is very brief, answers the demand that Art is in it, and is as descriptive as many of your longer titles." ('Letters to and from Ernst Gombrich regarding Art and Illusion, including some comments on his notion of "schema and correction"' by Veronika Kopecky, Journal of Art Historiography, Number 3, December 2010) Art and Illusion was partly based on Gombrich's A.W. Mellon Lectures given in the spring of 1956, entitled 'The Visible World and the Language of Art'. They dealt with such questions as the imitation of nature, the function of tradition, the validity of perspective and the interpretation of expression. Gombrich argued challenging: "The artist cannot copy a sunlit lawn, but he can suggest it." (Ibid., fifth edition 1977, p. 33) To describe reality an artist needs a medium and a schema, a vocabulary, which can be modified. A painter doesn't examine the nature of the physical world but the nature of our reactions to it. Foreshortening produces the impression of depth, other keys to the mind of a beholder are for example the tonal system of modelling and highlights for texture.

Gombrich supposes that Leonardo da Vinci's dissatisfaction with his art was due to his realization that all the artist's knowledge and inanimation are of no avail, it is only a picture that he has been painting, and it will lock flat. Like Heinrich Wölfflin, he believed that all pictures owe more to other pictures than they do to the nature. Throughout history artists have learned more from tradition, studying other paintings, making discoveries of appearances, than making direct and careful observations of the world around them. Thus the history of representational art follows piecemeal inventions of pictorial effects.

Having a Darwinist mindset, Gombrich compares the long history of visual discoveries to learning by trial and error. "Reading" an image also needs training, it is not automatic. Gombrich quotes Ruskin who said in Modern Painters (5 vol., 1843–60), that "the truth of nature is not to be discerned by the uneducated senses." When the painter's skill in suggesting is matched by the public's skill in taking hints, a two-dimensional colored canvas turns into a landscape, and the enormous gulf between picture and the visible three-dimensional world is crossed. Gombrich considers cubism the most radical attempt to reveal the mechanisms of an illusionist reading by introducing contrary clues which resist all attempts to see in a painting three-dimensional objects.

"Images apparently occupy a curious position somewhere between the statements of language, which are intended to convey a meaning, and the things of nature, to which we only can give a meaning. At the unveiling of the Piccadilly fountain one of the speakers called it 'a remarkably suitable memorial to Lord Shafterbury, for it is always giving water to rich and poor alike...'. It was an easy, indeed a somewhat trite comparison to make; nobody would infer from it that fountains mean philanthropy - quite apart from the fact that giving to the rich would not fall under this concept." (Symbolic Images by Ernst Gomberich, 1972, p. 2)

Meditations on a Hobby Horse (1963) was a volume of Gombrich's lectures and essays on a wide range of subjects, from the writings of André Malraux to the art of the cartoonist. With Karl Popper, he shared a hostility to Hegel ("peopled the past with the 'spirits' of nations and races"), Marxism, "vague thinking" and imprecise concepts. Gombrich refers to Popper several times in this book, which contains his surprisingly one-eyed, ideologically motivated critic of Arnold Hauser's Social History of Art. Originally it was written for The Art Bulletin and published in March 1953. "To be sure, it would not be fair to blame Mr. Hauser for adopting a type of reasoning which has deep roots in the tradition of art historical writing. Specious arguments about expression are not, alas, Mr. Hauser's monopoly." (Art and Illusion, fourth edition 1985, p. 90) For Gombrich, dialectical materialism, Hauser's methodology, is an unforgivable mistake.

Norm and Form (1966), devoted to problems of style, patronage and taste in the Italian Renaissance, was not intended for the general reader. Gombrich's Wrightsman Lectures were published as A Sense of Order (1979), a study of decorative art.

Symbolic Images (1972) brought together essays on Botticelli, Mantegna, Raphael, Giulio Romano, and Nicolas Poussin. The interest was in mythological, astrological, allegorical and theological themes in Renaissance art. Gombrich suggests that it was Apuleius' tale in the Golden Ass – not Poliziano's poem in the Giostra – which served as a source for Botticelli's allegorical 'Primavera' (Spring). The painting has puzzled generations of art lovers. This hypothesis was rejected by Erwin Panofsky, a member of the circle around Aby Warburg. Warburg himself had tried in his doctoral thesis to establish a connection between Poliziano's stanze and the 'Primavera'. When the essay was reprinted nearly 25 years after it appearance in Symbolic Images, Gombrich expressed some reservations about it: "However much I stressed the hypothetical character of this connection with Apuleius, I did not help matters by suggesting the possibility that the programme may have rested on a misunderstanding of the text." (Symbolic Images, p. 34)

Also Wolfgang Köhler's studies in perceptual psychology left traces in Gombrich's thinking. In Art and Illusion he gives the full credit to Popper in his rejection of the "bucket theory of the mind"' and emphasizing the activity of the living organism that never ceases probing and testing its environment. "There is no rigid distinction, therefore, between perception and illusion", Gombrich writes. Popper himself said that Gombrich had made "a more imaginative and better-informed application of his ideas to art than anything he could have done himself." (Confession of a Philosopher by Bryan Magee, 1997, p. 251)

For further reading: 'Gombrich, Sir E(rnest) H(ans) J(osef),' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman (1975); Looking for Answers: Conversations on Art and Science by Ernst Gombrich and Didier Eribon (1993); Sight & Insight: Essays on Art and Culture in Honour of E.H. Gombrich at 85, edited by E. H. Gombrich, John Onians (1994); Aesthetic Criteria: Gombrich and the Philosophies of Science of Popper and Polanyi by Sheldon Richmond (1994); The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, edited by Donald Preziosi (1998); E. H. Gombrich: A Bibliography by J. B. Trapp (2000); Art History: A Critical Introduction to Its Methodsby Michael Hatt and Charlotte Klonk (2006); 'Form of Thought and Presentational Gesture in Karl Popper and E. H. Gombrich' by Norbert Schneider, Human Affairs 19(3), (September 2009); Psychology, Art, and Antifascism: Ernst Kris, E. H. Gombrich, and the Politics of Caricature by Louis Rose (2016); A History of Art History by Christopher S. Wood (2019); Meditations on a Heritage: Papers on the Work and Legacy of Sir Ernst Gombrich by Paul Taylor (2020) - Note: In the introduction of Art and Illusion Gombrich deals with visually ambiguous figures familiar from psychology textbooks. His own example is the duck-rabbit figure – the Necker cube and reversible staircase are similar much used examples. We see the figure sometimes as a rabbit, sometimes as a duck, but never both ways simultaneously. Gombrich concludes that to see the shape apart from its interpretation is not possible. Philosophically, as G.L. Hagberg points out in Art as Language (1995), this can generate the idea of radically incommensurable world views, each carrying its own internally generated criteria for verification and certainty. Richard Wollheim criticizes in Art and Its Object (1980) Gombrich's central thesis – that in looking at representational pictures, we are incapable of seeing the medium and the object at the same time – in Gombrich "seeing canvas" / "seeing nature" disjunction. Wollheim defends his "twofold" thesis with several arguments, stating among others that "in Titian, in Vermeer, in Manet we are led to marvel endlessly at the way in which line or brushstroke or expanse of color is exploited to render effects or establish analogies that can only be identified representationally, and the argument is that this virtue could not have received recognition if, in looking at pictures, we had to alternate visual attention between the material features and the object of the representation."

Selected works:

  • Weltgeschichte von der Urzeit bis zur Gegenwart, 1936 (published as Eine kurze Weltgeschichte für junge Leser: Von der Urzeit bis zur Gegenwart, 1985)
    - A Little History of the World (translated by Caroline Mustill, 2005)
  • Caricature, 1940 (with E. Kris)
  • The Story of Art, 1949
    - Maailman taiteen historia (suom. Sakari Saarikivi, 1955, rev. ed. 1980)
  • Art and Scholarship, 1957 (an inaugural lecture delivered at University College London, 14 February 1957)
  • Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, 1960
  • Meditations on a Hobby Horse, and Other Essays on the Theory of Art, 1963
  • Norm and Form: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance, 1966
  • In Search of Cultural History, 1969
  • Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography, 1970
  • Myth and Reality in German War-time Broadcasts, 1970
  • Symbolic Images: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance 2, 1972
  • Art, Perception and Reality, 1973 (with others)
  • Illusion In Nature And Art, 1973 (with others)
  • Art History and the Social Sciences, 1975
  • The Heritage of Apelles: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance 3, 1976
  • Ideals and Idols: Essays on Values in History and in Art, 1979
  • The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art, 1979
  • Nature and Art as Needs of the Mind, 1981
  • The Image and the Eye: Further Studies in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, 1982
  • Tributes: Interpreters of Our Cultural Tradition, 1984
  • New Light on Old Masters: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance 4, 1986
  • Kokoschka in His Time: Lecture Given at the Tate Gallery on 2 July 1986, 1986
  • Reflections on the History of Art: Views and Reviews, 1987 (edited by Richard Woodfield)
  • Topics of Our Time: Twentieth-Century Issues in Learning and in Art, 1991
  • Ce que l'image nous dit, 1992 (with Didier Eribon)
  • Shadows: the Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art, 1995
  • The Essential Gombrich, 1996 (edited by Richard Woodfield)
  • Gombrich on Art and Psychology, 1996 (edited by Richard Woodfield)
  • The Uses of Images: Studies in the Social Function of Art and Visual Communication, 1998
  • The Preference for the Primitive: Episodes in the History of Western Taste and Art, 2002
  • Shadows: the Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art, 2016 (new edition)

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