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

by E. H. Gombrich
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1459

Part 1: The Limits of Likeness In the introduction to Art and Illusion , Gombrich asks the question, ‘‘Why is it that different ages and different nations have represented the visible world in such different ways?’’ This is the question he attempts to answer in his book. First, however, he...

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Part 1: The Limits of Likeness
In the introduction to Art and Illusion, Gombrich asks the question, ‘‘Why is it that different ages and different nations have represented the visible world in such different ways?’’ This is the question he attempts to answer in his book. First, however, he provides the reader with a critical account of the history of style and the psychology of representation. That accomplished, he turns to Chapter One, ‘‘From Light into Paint.’’ In this chapter, Gombrich notes that the English painter, John Constable said, ‘‘Painting is a science.’’ Like Constable, Gombrich believes that science is involved in both the creation and the appreciation of art. He explains the many ways that artists through the years have learned how to represent light in their paintings.

Chapter Two, ‘‘Truth and Stereotype,’’ begins with a discussion of how a picture can be neither true nor false. By contrast, the caption of the picture can be so judged. Further, when artists undertake to paint pictures, they start not with what they see, but rather with an idea or concept, what Gombrich calls a ‘‘schema.’’ The schema, Gombrich argues, is ‘‘the first approximate, loose category which is gradually tightened to fit the form it is to reproduce.’’ Thus, in portraying a person, animal, landscape, or thing in art, the artist must have a starting point, for, as Gombrich states, ‘‘you cannot create a faithful image out of nothing.’’ Furthermore, an artist will tend to look for ‘‘certain aspects in the scene around him that he can render. Painting is an activity and the artist will therefore tend to see what he paints rather than paint what he sees.’’

Part 2: Function and Form
The first chapter, ‘‘Pygmalion’s Power,’’ covers the connection between the artist and creation. It is not, Gombrich argues, the artist’s aim to make a likeness, but rather to create something real. In so doing, the artist particularizes, starting with an idea, say, of chairness, and particularizing this idea until it represents the chair that is the subject being painted.

The section continues with a description of how Greek art moves from a stiff rendering to more ‘‘lifelike’’ rendering. Gombrich asserts that this is a perfect illustration of the theory that making always occurs before matching. That is, an artist (or culture) begins with a schemata, which the artist then adjusts and corrects to make it ever closer to the appearance the artist wants the creation to have. Gombrich then moves to an exploration of ‘‘the basic geometric relationships that the artists must know for the construction to be a plausible figure.’’ In so doing, he considers the Medieval and Renaissance ‘‘drawing books’’ which used geometric shapes as formulas for teaching drawing. These books, according to Gombrich, ‘‘form a reservoir of formulas or schemata which spread throughout Europe.’’ He compares these books with basic vocabularies; in a very real sense, they provided artists with the building blocks of the language of art. For Gombrich, however, ‘‘effective portrayal’’ is only possible when the artist goes beyond the formulas and demonstrates a willingness ‘‘to correct and revise.’’

Part 3: The Beholder’s Share
The chapters of this section focus primarily on the role of the viewer in the reading of an artist’s image. Gombrich relates this tendency to what psychologists call ‘‘projection,’’ wherein a person projects onto another person his own desires and personality. A beholder of art will likewise project his or her catalog of classifications onto the images created by artists. In this case, the artist creates and the beholder projects; both are necessary ingredients in the making of meaning.

In an important section of Part Three, Gombrich turns to ‘‘the perception of symbolic material,’’ using his experience as a British Broadcasting Corporation monitor during World War II. He discusses how our knowledge and expectations contribute to what we actually see or hear. The greater the likelihood a given word will occur, the less likely we are to listen. In Gombrich’s own words, ‘‘Where we can anticipate we need not listen. It is in this context that projection will do for perception.’’ The beholder, in other words, closes the gaps through projection, the act of projecting the image he or she expects into ‘‘an empty or ill-defined area.’’

Likewise, incomplete visual images push the beholder into completing the image: artists provide the hints that the viewer must use to complete the image. Artists cannot represent every detail of reality, no matter how painstakingly they work. It is the creation of an illusion that allows the beholder to fill in the details. Gombrich asserts, ‘‘I believe that this illusion is assisted by what might be called the ‘etc. principle,’ the assumption we tend to make that to see a few members of a series is to see them all.’’ Furthermore, the expectation of the viewer as well as the context of the image affect the meaning the viewer assigns to an image.

In Chapter 8, ‘‘Ambiguities of the Third Dimension,’’ Gombrich tackles perspective and the ‘‘rendering of space in art.’’ The problem, of course, is how one renders the illusion of three dimensions in a two-dimensional medium such as painting. A painting clearly has only two dimensions, height and width. In order for the painting to have depth, however, the painter must engage in the art of perspective. As Gombrich argues, ‘‘One cannot insist enough that the art of perspective aims at a correct equation: it wants the image to appear like the object and the object like the image.’’ He further asserts that perspective depends on certain expectations of the beholder, most notably on the sizedistance ambiguity. That is, a viewer estimates the distance of an object by how large or small it appears. Image makers take advantage of this assumption. In opposition to Gestalt psychologists, Gombrich asserts that interpreting perspective in a flat image is a learned behavior rather than an innate skill. In this, he draws on the work of philosopher Sir Karl R. Popper. Painting, then, that accounts for perspective is illusionist painting, meant to be viewed by a beholder who ‘‘willingly suspends disbelief’’ and sees what he or she expects to see, not what is really in the painting. Gombrich credits the rise of cubism, by contrast, to a ‘‘radical attempt to stamp out ambiguity and to enforce one reading of the picture—that of a man-made construction, a colored canvas.’’

Part 4: Invention and Discovery
After recapitulating his stance on the power of interpretation, Gombrich next offers a brief history of perception, referring to Bishop Berkeley, John Ruskin, and Roger Fry. Gombrich argues that ‘‘all thinking is sorting, classifying.’’ Further, after summarizing Ruskin’s position, he rejects Ruskin’s notion of ‘‘the innocent eye.’’ For Gombrich, this term is impossible, for no human eye can be ‘‘innocent,’’ that is, unaffected by experience and attitude. The eye is connected to the brain and the experience of the viewer, and the perception of any viewer will make meaning using that connection. For the painter, this process is deeply affected by his or her ability to view his or her subject in terms of the traditions of painting. Gombrich writes, ‘‘A painting, as Wölfflin said, owes more to other paintings than they owe to direct observation.’’

In this section, Gombrich also touches on the importance of experimentation. With Constable, who viewed art as natural philosophy (or science), Gombrich agrees that ‘‘only experimentation can show the artist a way out of the prison of style toward a greater truth. Only through trying out new effects never seen before in paint could he learn about nature. Making still comes before matching.’’

Gombrich differentiates himself from nineteenth- century models of both art and science, however, models that believed in the possibility of neutral observations, or what is known as the belief in induction. Gombrich argues that ‘‘pure observation’’ is impossible in either science or art. Rather, all observation is predicated by hypotheses, which in turn, create expectations. Only through testing hypotheses do scientists and artists amend their already perceived picture of reality.

In one of the most interesting chapters of the book, Gombrich turns to a discussion of caricature, drawing on his earlier work with Ernst Kris. He uses the work of Freud and other psychologists in the exploration of the ‘‘minimum clues of expression,’’ those features that allow a viewer to see a face in only a few lines. Finally, Gombrich closes this section and the book with a discussion of the similarities between ‘‘the language of words and visual representation,’’ concluding ‘‘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.’’

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