Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 15, 2015
Paul Taylor, ed. Meditations on a Heritage: Papers on the Work and Legacy of Sir Ernst Gombrich London: Paul Holberton Publishing, 2014. 144 pp.; 20 ills. Paper £20.00 (9781907372544)

This book originated in a colloquium held at the Warburg Institute in London in June 2009, and the contributors have had ample time to finesse their papers. The editor is to be congratulated for his work in ensuring an improved and coherent collection of essays. He notes at the outset that the authors are “enthusiastic amateurs in the world of Gombrich studies, rather than scholars with the learning to assign him a fixed place in the historiography of art” (4). Given the sheer volume of Ernst Gombrich’s publications, let alone the material available in the Warburg’s archive of his work, it is not likely that fixity will ever be achieved. However, a warning is in order: the reader should beware any author’s claim that Gombrich did not address any specific issue. There is not the space in this review to pick faults in detail, and so it will be confined to broad issues of interpretation.

Charles Hope opens the collection with a brave attempt to outline the problems of Gombrich’s oeuvre both in terms of its coherence and overall ambitions. He is right to argue that Gombrich created problems for himself by seeking to address a specialist audience at the same time as a more general readership: his clarity and brilliance came at a price. Gombrich’s memorable expression can sometimes undermine the logic of his argument; apparent contradictions and uncertainties can multiply. It is striking that different readers could have arrived at antithetical conclusions from reading the same text: Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1960) has been used to defend both realism and conventionalism. Few readers have taken the trouble to follow refinements to its arguments published in subsequent texts and noted in the prefaces to each new edition. As for Gombrich’s ambitions, it is important to understand just how much he was preoccupied with the problems he encountered when he was a student in Vienna. He saw himself as a commentator on art-historical practice in the tradition of Franz Wickhoff’s Kunstgeschichtliche Anzeigen (1904–13) and its successor Kritische Berichte (1927–37). As Hope observes, Gombrich never regarded himself as a conventional art historian whose task was simply to write art history. At the Warburg Institute, he insisted to his students that he was not an art historian, though to the general public he would use expressions like “we art historians.” He had no interest in establishing an all-purpose historical method, as had been done by Heinrich Wölfflin and Erwin Panofsky. The red thread that runs through his work was a concern with art historians’ assumptions and, in particular, Julius von Schlosser’s notion of Kunstsprache. The success of Gombrich’s The Story of Art (London: Phaidon, 1950) was such that he could set his own agenda when responding to invitations to lecture, and there is no reason to suppose that an invitation to speak caused him to address a particular topic, as Hope would seem to imply. His ideal audience would have been his Viennese peers, and there is a very real sense to his declaration toward the end of his life that “I don’t feel I am English; I feel precisely what I am—a Central European working in England. Thanks to my work with the BBC I learned English thoroughly.” Yes, he had an engaging prose style, but he was Viennese to the core, the last member of Schlosser’s “Vienna School of Art History.”

Next, Peter Burke offers an evaluation of Gombrich’s views on cultural history. Burke argues that Gombrich’s analysis is weakened by his adoption of a polarity between “individualists and holists” (15). While it is well known that Gombrich, following Karl Popper, described himself as a methodological individualist, he also had things to say about subcultures and individuals’ adoption of roles within those groups. He talked about it in a radio interview with Burke himself and argued for the existence of group “mentalities” that can have a feedback effect on individuals’ behavior. Burke also neglects to mention that Gombrich subscribed to Jacob Burckhardt’s notion of the work of art’s tasks (Aufgaben) as a function of social demands. His last collection of essays is titled The Uses of Images: Studies in the Social Function of Art and Visual Communication (London: Phaidon, 1999), and his first project, on caricature, was a study of the social psychology of visual imagery.

Harry Mount’s paper “Gombrich and the Fathers of Art History” has interesting things to say about Gombrich’s reception by “the Left” and his distrust of grand theories, but Mount fails to take seriously his invention of “cupology,” which argues against the very notion of a discipline of art history. His attempt to locate Gombrich within the traditional empiricism of English art history makes greater claims for its theoretical sophistication than can be justified by the literature it actually produced. Gombrich’s “empirical scepticism” was fine tuned by Viennese debates in the Anzeigen and Kritische Berichte that were alien to English soil.

Elizabeth McGrath offers valuable reflections on “Gombrich and ‘Warburgian’ Iconography,” including a fascinating transcript of Fritz Saxl’s critique of Gombrich’s paper on Botticelli’s mythologies. She focuses on the early project of a manual on iconography and the later publication Symbolic Images: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance (London: Phaidon, 1972), which could have been a much more influential volume than it turned out to be. McGrath demonstrates how the revised version of “Icones Symbolicae: The Visual Image in Neo-Platonic Thought” (Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 11 (1948): 163–92) undermines the effectiveness of Gombrich’s “important and richly suggestive essay on allegory” (46). In this volume in particular Gombrich’s habit of simply republishing old papers and articles did not stand him in good stead. He should have re-thought the volume from scratch.

Veronika Kopecky treats us to a study of “‘Style’ in the Archive of E. H. Gombrich,” considering Millard Meiss’s reaction to Gombrich’s review of his Black Death book. She rightly observes that the “issue he raised in the review distorted the intention of the book” (60). Gombrich did use reviews to pursue his own agenda and must have caused a fair amount of irritation in the process. On this occasion, he employs Leonardo’s argument on the decline of painting to fuse judgments on naturalistic images with judgments about art. In so doing, he highlights a central problem with the reception of his own oeuvre. At the same time as arguing that success in producing a naturalistic image was not a measure of its artistic value, he would measure artistic progress in precisely those terms. Next Kopecky turns to Gombrich’s views on Meyer Schapiro’s famous paper on style. By focusing on the archive, however, she fails to notice that, in The Story of Art, Gombrich conspicuously refrains from treating the history of art as the history of styles. Gombrich took more from Schlosser than the statement that “There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.” He shared his aversion to Stilgeschichte and his attachment to Sprachgeschichte der bildenden Kunst, though not his attachment to Benedetto Croce’s views on the subject. Gombrich and Schapiro were simply not sitting in the same boat, and Gombrich’s treatment of Schapiro’s views was more a matter of political tact than deep engagement: he was simply being polite.

Paul Crossley offers a thoughtful essay on “Gombrich and the Middle Ages,” which encompasses the broad sweep of his work up to his last book, on primitivism (The Preference for the Primitive: Episodes in the History of Western Taste and Art, London: Phaidon, 2002). He quite correctly argues that Gombrich saw medieval art as a foil to define Renaissance naturalism. However, it would have made the logic of Gombrich’s position clearer if he had used the expression “figurative image” in lieu of the word “art,” which the general reader might take to mean “Art” in the full-blown post-Renaissance signification of the word.

Paul Taylor has some very useful observations to make on “Gombrich and the Idea of Primitive Art” that takes as its starting point Gombrich’s mischaracterization of an observation by Emanuel Löwy that “as a general rule the figures are shown to the spectator with each of their parts in its broadest aspect, as we shall express it for the present” (91). With a wealth of examples, Taylor shows that Gombrich’s construction of “primitive art” may be refuted by many counter-examples. In The Preference for the Primitive, Gombrich did admit that he was wrong to assimilate two- and three-dimensional imagery. He had simply not bothered to think it through, and here again was a case of a vivid formulation delivered at the expense of a more complicated truth. He once quoted Kenneth Clark on the problem of giving lectures: “Historical truth is usually complex and frequently dull, and anyone with a sense of style or a love of language is tempted to take short-cuts and omit the qualifications that would make a statement less telling.” For Clark, the lecture form “encouraged all the evasions and half-truths” that he had learned to practice in his “weekly essays at Oxford.” It is a pity that Gombrich did not take Clark’s comments more seriously, as readability in this lighthearted sense pays the price of accuracy.

Jeroen Stumple contributes a thoughtful critique of Gombrich’s formula of making and matching in “Pattern and Portrayal: Remarks on the Concept of ‘Schema’ in Gombrich.” Again it can be argued that Gombrich created problems for himself by proffering rhetorically effective but analytically imprecise arguments and examples. Although one may see schemata at work in Peter Paul Rubens’s portrayal of children, it is, Stumple maintains, hard to see them at work in paintings by Jan van Eyck or Hans Holbein. Nevertheless paintings by Van Eyck and Holbein are recognizable as such and not to be confused with each other. However, I would agree with Stumple that the model of schema and correction is not enough in itself to account for the extraordinary inventiveness of Van Eyck or the transmutations of Western naturalism from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Gombrich would have said that it was as much down to the poetics as to the linguistics of the image—that is, changes in Kunstsprache.

Gombrich probably would have disliked John Kulvicki’s contribution on “Beholders’ Shares and Languages on Art,” which looks at Gombrich’s work through the lens of Nelson Goodman. As a result, Kulvicki concludes that Gombrich’s “work is more directly related to the recognition view of depiction than has been acknowledged” (136). Funnily enough, Gombrich himself made this observation in “Visual Discovery through Art,” the first essay in The Image and the Eye: Further Studies in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1982), which Kulvicki does not mention. Instead of dwelling on Goodman he might have done a greater service to the philosophical world if he had focused on Karl Bühler’s Sprachtheorie (1934), translated into English by Donald Fraser Goodwin as Theory of Language (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1990). Kulvicki should not be faulted too much, though, as Gombrich did not mention Bühler’s contribution to the argument of Art and Illusion until later in his life.

Robert Casati, another philosopher, discusses the “logic” of shadows in “Looking at Images and Reasoning about Their Content: The Case of Shadow Depiction,” an interesting amplification of Gombrich’s own book on the subject. He could have expanded his treatment by considering what Gombrich had to say about the relationships between attention and representation.

Martin Kemp concludes with a generally persuasive paper on “Gombrich and Leonardo: A Natural Affinity,” arguing that the three categories of “schemata and universals,” “making and matching,” and “the power of art” serve to “illustrate the role that Leonardo played in Gombrich’s theory of the way that images work” (163). He also argues on the same page that “Leonardo occupied a very special position in the moral and political foundations of Gombrich’s theory of knowledge.”

Altogether this is an invaluable collection of essays on Gombrich’s work and a fitting tribute to it. The book is beautifully designed and produced and worth every penny of its remarkably low price. It should sit next to Gombrich’s own books, wherever they are collected.

Richard Woodfield
Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham; Editor of The Essential Gombrich