Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation

by E. H. Gombrich

Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation Analysis

Historical Context

Gombrich and World War II
Although Gombrich did not publish Art and Illusion until 1960, many of the ideas contained in the book had root in Gombrich’s experiences in London during World War II. Critics and biographers alike note this fact, as does Gombrich himself in Part Three of the book. Gombrich developed many of his ideas about perception while working for the British Broadcasting Corporation in their Monitoring Services division. His job was to listen to and translate all radio transmissions coming out of Germany for the six years of the war. Through this surveillance, the British government hoped to gain information about what the Germans had planned. However, often the transmissions were faint or garbled. As a result, Gombrich became skilled at ‘‘filling in the gaps,’’ so to speak. As he notes in Art and Illusion,

Some of the transmissions which interested us most were often barely audible, and it became quite an art, or even a sport, to interpret the few whiffs of speech sounds. . . . It was then we learned to what an extent our knowledge and expectations influence our hearing. You had to know what might be said in order to hear what was said.

For Gombrich, making sense of what he heard required that he match what he heard to his internal catalogue of possible German word combinations. The difficult part of this process, of course, was that he could not let his...

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Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation Literary Style

Narration
Narration is the telling of a series of events, often in chronological order, and generally in a way that creates a story. Certainly, in his Story of Art, Gombrich creates a narrative that gives a sense of unity to the history of art. Likewise, in Art and Illusion, Gombrich’s stated purpose is to ‘‘explain why art has a history.’’ Although he begins with the nineteenth-century painter John Constable, Gombrich soon jumps back to early Greek art to begin his story of ‘‘making and matching.’’ Gombrich’s narration is one that traces the way artists attempting to represent reality employ tradition and experimentation in their art. Furthermore, Gombrich includes in his narration both the changes artists make and the changes viewers must make as they are confronted with new ways in which art represents reality. Because Gombrich chooses to use a narrative style, the book itself, while long and at times technical in vocabulary, is nonetheless accessible to a general audience.

Metaphor
A metaphor is a figure of speech that expresses an idea through a comparison between two objects or ideas. In Art and Illusion, Gombrich uses language as a metaphor for art. That is, he suggests that artists develop a ‘‘vocabulary’’ of artistic schemata that allow them to build their images. But the schemata available in any historic period can constitute a limitation within which artists tend to...

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Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation Compare and Contrast

1950s: Post–World War II Europe is still recovering from the uncertainties and devastation of the war years. The growth of the Soviet Union and ongoing hostilities between Eastern Bloc countries and NATO lead to the Cold War.

1990s: Although the Cold War ends with the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, fear and uncertainty continue to dominate the international political scene.

1950s: Growth of technology as well as the ‘‘miracles’’ of science lead to a general belief in the application of the scientific method to all fields of endeavor, including art criticism and history.

1990s: While technology continues to grow at unprecedented rates, there is evidence of some distrust of science, most notable in the critiques of science offered by scholars such as Bruno Latour.

1950s: Gombrich’s theories are set forth in the 1956 Mellon lectures, appearing in 1960 as the book Art and Illusion. Its influence on the field of aesthetics is formidable, according to Dieter Peetz.

1990s: Dieter Peetz identifies Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Works and Worlds of Arts (1980) as having ‘‘innovative power and imaginative sweep’’ for those involved in philosophical aesthetics at the close of the twentieth century.

1950s: Literary critics known as the ‘‘New Critics’’ identify the quality of a text by its ‘‘universal...

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Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation Topics for Further Study

Find several of John Constable’s paintings. Demonstrate your understanding of Gombrich’s analysis by applying his theories to the paintings you find. Write a short paper detailing what you note.

Research Sir Karl R. Popper’s ‘‘searchlight theory.’’ How does this theory coincide with Gombrich’s approach to art?

Find examples of several optical illusions. Using Gombrich’s theories, explain why the illusions deceive the eye. What accounts for our ‘‘reading’’ of the image in the way we do?

Read ‘‘Illusion and Reality,’’ the first chapter of Leonard Shlain’s Art and Physics (1991). Compare and contrast the ideas you find in this chapter with the ideas you find in Art and Illusion.

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Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation What Do I Read Next?

Gombrich’s The Story of Art, published in 1950, remains the best selling work of art history ever written, with over six million copies sold by 2002. Gombrich masterfully shapes the history of art into a clear, chronological narrative.

The Essential Gombrich (1996), edited by Richard Woodfield, is a treasure trove of Gombrich’s best writing. It includes excerpts from Gombrich’s major works, interviews, journal articles, and musings. Woodfield provides cogent introductions as well as a valuable list of books of interest for each selection. This compilation is a mustread collection for every student interested in Gombrich’s work.

French intellectual Didier Eribon and Ernst Gombrich collaborated on the book Looking for Answers: Conversations on Art and Science (1991). The book includes extended interviews and conversations between the two men.

Leonard Shlain’s Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light (1991) is a highly readable alternate vision of art. Shlain, a surgeon, pairs breakthroughs in art with breakthroughs in physics.

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Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Alpers, Svetlana, ‘‘No Telling, with Tiepolo,’’ in Sight and Insight, edited by John Onians, Phaidon, 1994.

Bull, Malcolm, ‘‘Scheming Schemata: Pictorial Representation in Theories of E. H. Gombrich and Nelson Goodman,’’ in the British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 34, No. 3, July 1994, pp. 207–18.

Cash, Stephanie, and David Ebony, Obituary for E. H. Gombrich, in Art in America, Vol. 90, No. 1, January 2002, p. 134.

Cunliffe, Leslie, ‘‘Gombrich on Art: A Social-Constructivist Interpretation of His Work and Its Relevance to Education,’’ in Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 32, No. 4, Winter 1998, pp. 61–77.

Fish, Stanley, Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities, Harvard University Press, 1980.

Gombrich, E. H., Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, Vol. 5, 2d ed., Princeton University Press, 2000.

———, ‘‘The Mask and the Face: The Perception of Physiognomic Likeness in Life and Art,’’ in Art, Perception, and Reality, by Julian Hochberg, Max Black, and E. H.

Gombrich, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972.

Goodman, Nelson, Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols, Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1968, p. 10.

Turner, Norman, ‘‘Some...

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