Art and Illusion Critical Essays

E. H. Gombrich


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Throughout the sequence of lectures/chapters in Art and Illusion, Gombrich reiterates that his is the stance of the historian, but it becomes very clear that his historiography is neither simplistic nor neutral. He is at odds with those philosophers (most notably Plato) who have derided the reality of the image and with those (most notably Aristotle) who have affirmed that art imitates nature. Of special worth to him from late classical antiquity is the often-neglected Philostratus, who within his life of Apollonius of Tyana provided a critique of mimesis (imitation) that gives an account of what Gombrich calls “the beholder’s share in the reading of the artist’s image.” Gombrich follows the history of thought through the centuries and divergent cultures against whose background and in whose context specific artistic creations are to be placed.

It is no surprise that Gombrich’s In Searth of Cultural History (1969), like Art and Illusion, is neither an outline of history nor a program for history. The former is a history of the failure to achieve a cultural history. After the matter of setting out “the term and the thing,” though avoiding “further ’notes toward the definition of culture,”’ Gombrich came to a denunciation of “the Hegelian system,” “Burckhardt’s Hegelianism,” and “Hegelianism without metaphysics,” phrases which he applied to Heinrich Wolfflin, Karl Lamprecht, Wilhelm Dilthey, Alois Riegl, Max Dvorak, and Johan Huizinga. Most of these had come under criticism in the introduction to Art and Illusion, but without this explicit association. Gombrich’s denunciation has both positive and negative dimensions.

Gombrich either rejects outright or at least perceives that Hegelian “cause” is but the surrogate for a dismissed “providence” or “destiny,” neither one of which belongs in the historian’s explanatory vocabulary. Not only is Gombrich anti-Hegelian, but he also appears antievolutionary. Art and Illusion makes that explicit: “Evolutionism is dead.” Gombrich adds, however, “But the facts which gave rise to its myth are still stubbornly there to be accounted for.” There is another notion of Gombrich’s, not without its merit. He says, with apparent intensity of conviction, at both the outset and the conclusion of his very popular The Story of Art that “there really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.” What Gombrich was really seeking was an operational mode which preserved not merely the role but indeed the reality of the individual human being.

Some larger perspective is gained by observing the “in-betweenness” of Gombrich’s bilingualism. This oscillation between German and English, on the one hand, gave him his base as a historian of art, in a broad historical sense vis-a-vis the war-torn twentieth century and in the specifically contextual sense vis-a-vis the Warburg Institute. On the other hand, it suggests that his mind remained shaped by its original influences with all their philosophical nuances. His own bibliography bears this out. He may have read David Hume and added Francis Bacon, but aside from a stray quote of Alfred North Whitehead or of John Dewey, he seldom seems to come into philosophical discussion of that twentieth century Franco-American empiricism to which any modern consideration of the philosophy and psychology of sensation would be required to refer. Gombrich had been advised—and he seemed to appreciate the suggestion—that he treat the subject of art “like mathematics.” Yet he remained bound by the tradition of German Idealism, including the positions of its Anglo-American disciples. This is best seen in his consideration of G. W. F. Hegel and Immanuel Kant.

Gombrich came close to fundamentals with respect to criticism of Hegel when in a review (published originally in 1953) related to a divergent history of art, he paused for “a brief methodological digression”:Hegelians believe they have discovered the secret that Socrates, being both mortal and not mortal, “harbours contradictions” and that this, indeed is true of all reality. For Hegel . . . believed that reality was “identical” with the process of reasoning, and that history was nothing but the unfolding of the Absolute Idea in time.

Gombrich would proceed from this analysis to taunt, “Materialists who do not believe that reality is only the thinking process of the Absolute have no such excuse for retaining such ’dialectics,’ ” in his fundamental critique of Arnold Hauser’s Social History of Art (1951); thus he defined, as he put it, his “attitude toward the ’Hegelian left.’ ” Yet he also criticized the...

(The entire section is 1935 words.)