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

by E. H. Gombrich

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Gertrud Bing
Gertrud Bing was Fritz Saxl’s assistant and a close associate of Gombrich. She is noted for writing the introduction to the Italian translation of Aby Warburg’s papers.

Karl Bühler
Gombrich recalls in autobiographical writing that the work of Karl Bühler was an important influence on his own thinking, especially in Art and Illusion. Bühler was a professor of psychology in Vienna during the 1920s and 1930s. In addition, he was an early writer on the Gestalt theory of thinking, which worked its way into the theory of art through Rudolf Arnheim. Perhaps most important for Gombrich was Bühler’s model of communication and his theory of language.

John Constable
John Constable, an early nineteenth-century English landscape painter, was one of the first painters to consider science and observation in his understanding of painting. Gombrich devotes a chapter of Art and Illusion to Constable and his experiments with paint and light, noting that Constable remarked, ‘‘Painting is a science and should be pursued as in inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, may not landscape painting be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but the experiments?’’ Constable’s ‘‘experiments’’ were an attempt to render paintings that ever more closely resembled the appearance of the scene in front of him. Gombrich suggests that it is only through experiments like Constable’s that a painter can make his or her ‘‘way out of the prison of style toward a greater truth.’’ Constable’s work provides for Gombrich an easily understood illustration of some of the theories he propounds in Art and Illusion.

Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud, the great Viennese psychologist and the founder of modern psychiatry, attempted to chart in a scientific manner the mysterious regions of the human psyche. Gombrich’s interest in psychology and perception necessarily led him to both intersect and interact with Freud’s theories. Gombrich specifically cites Freud’s study of the work of Leonardo da Vinci.

Roger Fry
Roger Fry was an English art critic and painter whose work became important for Gombrich as he wrote Art and Illusion. According to Gombrich, Fry hailed ‘‘impressionism as the final discovery of appearances.’’ For Fry, the difficulty in painting was in the ‘‘difficulty of finding out what things looked like to an unbiased eye.’’ Furthermore, the only way an artist can represent reality is through, ironically, the ‘‘suppression of conceptual knowledge.’’ An important theorist for the history of art, Fry died in 1939 while delivering a series of lectures on art history.

William Hogarth
Gombrich states that William Hogarth was one of the most interesting of eighteenth-century artists. Hogarth produced a series of prints called Characters and Caricatures. According to Gombrich, Hogarth believed that ‘‘caricature rests on comic comparison’’ while character ‘‘rests on the knowledge of the human frame and heart.’’ Gombrich includes many of Hogarth’s drawings to illustrate his understanding of caricature.

Ernst Kris
Ernst Kris, a close friend of Gombrich, worked as keeper of the Department of Applied Art in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Kris was part of Sigmund Freud’s inner circle, and he taught Gombrich about psychology. Together, Kris and Gombrich worked on a book on caricature, using Freud’s theories. Kris was acutely aware of the rise of the Nazi Party, and he urged Gombrich to leave Austria to find work. Kris recommended Gombrich to Fritz Saxl who was the director of the Warburg Institute in London. Gombrich credits Kris for both his fortuitous move from Austria and his first job.

Karl R. Popper
Karl Popper was a highly influential philosopher. Born in Vienna like Gombrich, Popper also immigrated to London. The...

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two men became close friends, and Gombrich openly acknowledged his indebtedness to Popper’s thinking. Most notably, Popper rejected what he called the ‘‘bucket theory of mind.’’ That theory suggests that the human mind is an empty container, like a bucket, waiting to be filled up with sensory data. This theory defines the mind as a passive recipient. Popper opposed his own ‘‘searchlight theory’’ of mind to the bucket theory. He hypothesized that gathering information about the world is an active proposition, one that requires the mind to match internal schemata with sensory information from the world. Most importantly for Popper and for Gombrich is the notion of ‘‘activity.’’ The beholder is an active participant in meaning making.

John Ruskin
John Ruskin was a prominent Victorian art and literary critic as well as a social reformer. Born in 1819, Ruskin became interested as a child in art and architecture. Ruskin is perhaps most famous for his multi-volume work Modern Painters. This book exerted tremendous influence on nineteenth-century artists, critics, and viewers. Ruskin championed the work of artist J. M. W. Turner as well as the Pre- Raphaelites. Although Gombrich shows Ruskin a great deal of respect throughout Art and Illusion, he also clearly rejects many of Ruskin’s ideas about art, most notably, that an artist should look at nature with an ‘‘innocent eye’’ in order to best represent nature in art.

Fritz Saxl
Fritz Saxl was the director of the Warburg Institute in London. He hired Gombrich in 1936 in order to help him publish the papers and letters of Aby Warburg.

Julius von Schlosser
Julius von Schlosser, Gombrich’s art history teacher at the University of Vienna, was the author of an important text Die Kunstliteratur. Although Gombrich recalls that he was not a good lecturer, Schlosser influenced the young student, particularly in the seminars he held in the Vienna Museum’s Department of Applied Arts. In these seminars, Schlosser would ask his students to talk about artifacts contained in the museum. In addition, he also gave seminars in problems, in which he would ask his students to consider a problem in art history. For example, he asked Gombrich to discuss hand gestures represented in a medieval law manuscript. Gombrich dedicates Art and Illusion in part to Schlosser’s memory as his teacher.

Aby Warburg
Aby Warburg was the founder of the Warburg Institute in London, which housed his books, papers, and letters after he was forced to move from Hamburg with the rise of Nazism. The Institute’s main focus was the study of cultural history, particularly of the Italian Renaissance. Warburg collected everything he could find that would help contemporary scholars understand the social milieu of the Renaissance in Italy. His interest in art was not for art’s sake but rather for what it could reveal of the times in which it was created. Gombrich wrote the definitive biography of Aby Warburg in 1970.

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