Sir Ernst Gombrich | Books | The Guardian
Sir Ernst Gombrich, who died at the age of 92, was the most eminent art historian of the past half century, both to scholarly scholars and to a wider audience. The History of Art (1950, 16th Edition 1995) has been countless people’s introduction to the visual arts for more than 50 years, while his major theoretical books, Art and Illusion (1960), the collected works on Meditations on a Horse de batalla (1963) and other volumes, have been fundamental to professional art historians. the total range of his reading, the way he coordinated his knowledge, and the precision of his memory were, as another historian described it, “impressive”.
gombrich was born into an extremely sophisticated family in vienna, originally jewish but converted at the beginning of the 20th century to a rather mystical protestantism in an environment close to that of gustav mahler. throughout his life, he was anti-sectarian and non-religious. But it was impossible, in the wake of Austria’s enthusiastic embrace of Nazism, to disassociate himself from Judaism, and he insisted on describing himself as born not an Austrian, but an Austrian Jew.
Educated at the Theresianum High School in Vienna and the University of Vienna, he came to Britain in 1936 and joined the Warburg Institute, which had fled Hamburg two years earlier with most of its library, as an assistant research. his service in the second world war was spent with the bbc watch service at evesham between 1939 and 1945. on his return to warburg in 1946 as a senior research fellow, he held various research and teaching posts until becoming its director, position that he combines with that of professor of history of the classical tradition at the University of London (1959-76); he had previously been a professor of art history at the university (1956-59).
the fact that he became one of the most honored scholars in the country, a knight and member of the order of merit, having held all the most prestigious chairs: at oxford, cambridge, harvard and cornell universities, and at the royal college of art- and the recipient of so many international awards (the goethe, hegel and erasmus awards), can make one forget that his first 15 years in britain were fraught with difficulties: for several years, as a restricted foreigner, he struggled to care for his young family and his parents. The flight from Austria and the war years slowed down his professional career, but the scope and originality of his work in 1945-60 make one aware of his pent-up intellectual energy and sustained thought and reading that must have preceded.
Her family was highly musical: her mother was a pianist whose teacher was only two generations away from Beethoven’s students. Her wife, Ilse, whom he married in 1936, was also a pianist, a student of Rudolf Serkin, and she gave up her concert career when she married, although she continued to teach; they had a son, richard, who has taught sanskrit at oxford since 1976. ernst gombrich’s sister was a student of violinist bronislav huberman, and had been conductor of the palestinian philharmonic orchestra. Gombrich himself was an excellent cellist, and in Vienna the Gombrich and Busch families played chamber music together (the violinist Adolf Busch and his brothers were among the great musicians of the day). The serious understanding of music was a crucial factor in the development of Gombrich’s thought.
The search for a rational study of painting, although different from music, seems one of the objectives of his work in art and illusion. Gombrich -although it was not a vision that he expressed in so many words- sought in the optical and psychological basis of painting some equivalence with the rationality of musical structures. It is not that he believed that the expressive power of music was reduced to principles of harmony, or that of painting to the psychology of illusion, but that these formed the framework for understanding artistic achievement.
in turning to psychology, he was picking up on a late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century enterprise of historians such as heinrich woelfflin and alois riegl, while at the same time distancing himself from them for two reasons. first, because he saw that his notions of visual style were too narrow and formalistic: they had isolated the aesthetic interest of visual properties from their more complex human and historical context; and second, because they had treated changes in that visual style as reflecting changes in the spirit of the times or the people.
gombrich participated for 50 years in a polemic against the invocation of the collective mind, be it of an era, a nation or a class, as an explanation of changes in art or politics. he did so because he saw that such explanations were not only circular, but failed to acknowledge the essentially rational nature of the way artists experimented with and learned from one another.
The work in which he set out to replace turn-of-the-century formalisms was Art and Illusion, first published in 1960 and based on his Mellon Lectures delivered in Washington in 1956. He presented an account of the psychological factors that made possible that we could see a three-dimensional subject in motion, like people in action, on a flat, motionless surface. the painter learned to do this by trial and error, testing whether his markings elicited recognition of his subject.
This led Gombrich to argue that the main factors in changes in pictorial style were the result of rational activities rather than mysterious changes in expressions of the time. he was deeply opposed to any description of artistic creativity that expressed itself in terms of a collective psyche rather than individual invention and discovery that others might adopt.
A third line of argument (explaining his close intellectual relationship with his Viennese friend, the philosopher Karl Popper) was that the history of Western painting shared with science a self-critical urge to overcome its own earlier formulas in order to become more coherent and compendium in the representation of natural appearances.
The book has remained, for 40 years, at the center of discussion of the visual arts by philosophers, art historians, and critics. he maintained this position despite radical criticism of parts of his argument because in essence he focused, as no art historian had before, on the role of illusion, on the fact that in representation, without being fooled , we are trapped by the represented subject that we recognize in it – the expression of a face, the gesture of a figure, the spaces of a landscape.
rather than take the fact for granted, he made it a focus of investigation. earlier writers had treated the fact in three ways: as a mere unproblematic extension of ordinary perception, in opposition to our interest in aesthetic or expressive properties, or as something modern painting had to overcome.
gombrich changed all that. he challenged the aesthetic exclusivity and snobbery of it while being a great defender of high culture. In one of his best essays, on Raphael’s Madonna della Sedia, he traced the implications of the painting’s circular format for the intricacies of its drawing and its expressive composure. but along the way, he used an advertisement for a rotary electric shaver that also played with circular shapes to illuminate the visually inventive nature of the painting.
Her writing was always vivid and accessible. when she was a research student in mantua writing a thesis on giulio romano at the palazzo del tè, a 10-year-old daughter of family friends wrote to ask what she was doing. in her correspondence with her he described how, once upon a time, there was a prince, and at her court he had an artist who delighted in surprising people with her paintings. a little later, he wrote a world history for children (weltgeschichte für kinder, 1936, revised and enlarged in 1985, although not translated into English) and, as is well known, at the behest of his editor bela horovitz of the phaidon press, he wrote art history. (1950).
Among his most accessible and seminal works dating from the same decade as Art and Illusion are those in the volume Meditations on a Warhorse. here fundamental questions of aesthetics are explored: how imagination works in painting, how it arouses or transforms our psychological urges, and how aesthetic consciousness and moral consciousness are related to each other.
These essays combine a conversational ease with a depth of thought that makes them perhaps the best introduction to the subject. Several volumes followed, mostly on Renaissance art, the most important being Norma y Forma (1966), which includes the article on Rafael’s Circular Madonna.
Gombrich was legendary as a recipient of honors: it often seemed as if the ceremonies provoked a certain melancholy, as if they distracted him from his own deeper purposes, or as if the ceremonies could be compromising or absurd, despite his belief. in the importance and dignity of public institutions. he would turn an acceptance speech, always beautifully crafted, witty and courteous, into a serious discussion.
A masterful speaker, he captivated the audience with visual demonstrations to make his arguments seem inescapable. in a public debate he chafed at objections to his account of an optical effect, and with the slide on the screen he invited the audience to walk around the room to see that the ingenious object on display seemed to point to them wherever they were. the chairman, stuart hampshire, was trying to bring the meeting to a proper conclusion and had to graciously admit that gombrich had brought it to a close for him.
has been depicted as the conservative opponent of modernism for his interest in illusion and his ironic treatment – in the 1958 Atlantic monthly – of the fashion for abstract art (his title, which was changed by the publisher to the tyranny of abstract art; the piece was reprinted in meditations on a toy horse).
Although he had written eloquently about Picasso and other artists of the first half of the century, they were not central to his sensibilities. he was critical of various modernisms: he was, for example, skeptical of schoenberg’s 12-tone system as musically disabling – I remember him saying once that you couldn’t hear whether you had done something right or not – and he was not impressed by the art that it seemed to depend on making a rhetorical gesture (as opposed to art where there was visible internal structure), however interesting the psychology of such a gesture might be.
Those of us lucky enough to have been his students were always aware of his enormous inner energy, which could manifest not only in his thinking, his recollection of obscure references, or his suggestion of historical analogies, but also in his warmth cozy. – like when one met him in the library of the warburg institute. however, his energy could also manifest itself in his formidable irritation at what he saw as travesties of scholarship.
He will be remembered most vividly by many at home with Ilse in Hampstead’s Briardale Gardens: Ilse’s wry humor when they disagreed over the translation of a musical term or fair assessment of someone’s behavior, her relentless caring for him even when she herself was in grave discomfort. Due to the illness of her last years, she never stopped working, and both maintained their social life with humor and stoicism. she is survived by her and hers son richard.
ernst hans josef gombrich, art historian, born March 30, 1909; died on November 3, 2001