Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 798
While Art and Illusion as published is divided into eleven chapters and four parts, the lectures on which the work is based were symmetrical; the introduction is a full segment, similar in length to the chapters, and flows directly into a first part which has but two chapters of its own. The reader is informed that one could go directly from the introduction, titled “Psychology and the Riddle of Style,” to chapter 9, “The Analysis of Vision in Art,” which begins part 4 (the final part). Nevertheless, the intervening portions were integral to the whole when Ernst Hans Gombrich delivered the fifth annual A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., in 1956.
The book, which is volume 35 in the Bollingen series, has retained the lectures’ sequential progression, and the 320 illustrations of works of art or details from them that are included appear at appropriate points, as the lecturer would have employed them. In a fundamental sense, the book could be read (or the lectures have been heard) as an extended commentary upon a major painting in the collection of the National Gallery of Art: John Constable’s landscape Wivenhoe Park, Essex, painted in 1816. The enormous wealth of the context Gombrich provides for his commentary, however, moves one beyond the understanding of a particular painter and a particular painting to one important approach to the historical context of works of art.
Behind these lectures is history—of philosophy, of science, of psychology, of aesthetics, of materials, of techniques—so much so that it is appropriate to recall Art and Illusion’s subtitle: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, which on examination proves to encapsulate the book’s focal theme. The reader is reminded in the very brief “Retrospect,” by explicit references and generous quotations, that Gombrich had already published The Story of Art (1950).
In part 1, “The Limits of Likeness,” Gombrich makes it clear that neither observation nor representation actually imitates the real; light cannot be reduced to paint, anymore than it can be fixed on a retina. The complication is that what one sees is not what is out there, but what one had already learned to expect—the “adapted stereotype.”
These limitations, the concept of which derives from the interface between psychology and philosophy, take Gombrich as historian in part 2, “Function and Form,” to reconsider basic Western traditions as derived from the Greeks and to reflect upon the Greeks’ own departure from earlier Egyptian styles of painting. The process included stages that Gombrich calls “schema and correction”—a kind of “something is there” statement, but with the necessity of adjustment by trial and error until the image not only makes one see the world better but also elicits admiration for its own beauty. In that sense, the Greeks invented art and at the same time its criticism.
What Gombrich calls “schema” he relates to the Greek canon and medieval “universals.” Examining the history of early copybooks for artists in relation to vocabulary developments, Gombrich considers the psychological response of the human perceptive apparatus. By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, this response had led artists to struggle against the inherited, traditionally taught schema, using a method that to psychologist-Gombrich is suspect: As he created, the artist would “try to forget” pictures already seen.
Following his look at these artists’ dilemma and effort at correction, Gombrich comes in part 3 to “the beholder’s share” in the success or failure of imaging. The artist does not really have to finish a work, if enough is done to suggest to the beholder what is to be seen. Still, the problem of illusion, which is another aspect of the level of preparation, must be faced: How much does one already know, and therefore see? “We can train ourselves to switch more rapidly,” according to Gombrich, “indeed to oscillate between readings, but we cannot hold conflicting interpretations.” Thus, he must move on to the ambiguities which the third dimension (space) places upon flat-surface representation.
Part 4, “Invention and Discovery,” considers artists’ tricks with space, time, light, texture, but most especially with “physiognomic expression”—the mysteries of the human face and its capacities to show levels of emotion, which, because they are fleeting, are particularly difficult for the artist to capture. There is a “splashing over of impressions from one sense modality to another” (synesthesia).
Such a sequence of thought brings Gombrich full circle to his introductory purpose (“why art has a history”) and the concept of style. In the interim, he has inverted Aristotle so that “nature imitates art,” at least through the intermediary of the human individual’s perception—the artist’s or the beholder’s. It was to preserve this particularity over against the claims of universality that Gombrich so eloquently lectured.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 124
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