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

by E. H. Gombrich

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Throughout his book Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, writer E. H. Gombrich compares painting to language. The comparison offers him a useful metaphor: he is able to speak of an artist’s vocabulary, the grammar of art, and the syntax of painting. Gombrich’s primary argument is that an artist builds his or her representation of reality through the use of schemata, or formulas, which function in much the same way that vocabulary functions in the verbal representation of reality. Furthermore, he suggests that only certain combinations of schemata are available to an artist at any particular time, just as there are only certain combinations of English words that can work together in an intelligible English sentence.

While Gombrich’s argument is persuasive, not all scholars agree with this analysis. For example, Svetlana Alpers in her essay ‘‘No Telling, with Tiepo,’’ published in the collection Sight and Insight, (1994) states bluntly, ‘‘It is a matter of common sense that image is different from a text, that painting is not language.’’ She goes on to discuss the role of narrative in painting and the ways story telling and painting differ.

Alpers’ essay notwithstanding, there are striking similarities between Gombrich’s theory of ‘‘reading’’ a painting and the theory of reading a text developed by reader response theorist Stanley Fish. The starting point for exploring these similarities is to return to Gombrich’s experiences during World War II and to Part Three of Art and Illusion, ‘‘The Beholder’s Share.’’

Gombrich reports that his experience as a radio monitor during World War II, working for military intelligence by listening to and translating German broadcasts, greatly affected his understanding of perception. Often, the broadcasts he listened to were faint and difficult to understand. However, Gombrich and his associates became skilled at ‘‘filling in the gaps.’’ That is, because Gombrich had particular experiences and understood the context of the broadcast and the language, he was able to fill in the spaces where he could not clearly hear the words. There are, he argues, only certain words and ideas that are possible given the contexts.

Likewise, when he discusses the beholder’s role in the reading of an image, he argues that the beholder brings with him or her a certain range of experiences and knowledge that allow him or her to understand a painting. In addition, Gombrich discusses the way that a painter can leave out portions of a painting and merely provide hints at what actually belongs there. The viewer completes the painting by seeing what is not there. An example of this phenomenon occurs when an artist paints part of a tree at the edge of a painting. While only part of the tree actually appears on the canvas, the beholder will see the entire tree because of his or her horizon of expectation and the hints left by the painter.

Likewise, for Stanley Fish and reader response critics, the reader of a text fills in the gaps left by the writer. How the reader fills in these gaps is largely dependent on the reader’s background, experience, horizon of expectation, and context, as well as the hints the writer puts into the text. For reader response critics, readers do not so much interpret texts as create them; making meaning is a collaborative effort between the reader and the writer. An unread text, necessarily, is a meaningless text. Further, just as a beholder of a painting will finish incomplete images in a painting, a reader of a text will finish incomplete thoughts or development in a text.

Second, Gombrich suggests that in...

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order for a beholder to understand a painting, he or she must share some of the traditions and cultural background of the artist. That is, the artist and the viewer must share some common language. Gombrich famously rejects Ruskin’s notion of the ‘‘innocent eye,’’ the notion that one can observe a painting from a completely objective and neutral stance. Rather, Gombrich argues that there is no innocent viewing of a work of art. A reader’s background and learning will largely determine how much meaning the reader derives from the art.

Fish would agree with this position. Reader response critics argue there are many possible readings for a given text, and any reading is dependent on the reader’s background and experience. Consequently, there are some things a text simply cannot mean at a given time or place, simply because the context and vocabulary do not exist to make such a reading possible. For example, prior to World War II, critics could not read Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice with knowledge of the Holocaust. Similarly, critics cannot now read The Merchant of Venice without knowledge of the Holocaust. Another instance might be the common Oedipal reading of Hamlet, a reading that would have been impossible before Sigmund Freud developed the vocabulary necessary to create the reading.

Another point of comparison between Gombrich and reader response theorists is their objection to formalism. A formalist approach to art and literature argues that all meaning inheres in the work of art or text itself, regardless of the artist or the viewer. For the formalist critic, the text is complete unto itself; its meaning, when the ‘‘true’’ meaning is derived, will be true for all people in all times. Gombrich’s notion of ‘‘making and matching’’ is in clear opposition to a formalist approach. He argues that both the artist and the beholder use schemata to help them understand both reality and art. The meaning of a work of art does not begin with the paint on the canvas but rather with an idea in the artist’s mind. Likewise, the beholder of the work of art must draw on categories and expectations within his or her mind to make sense of the art. In a similar manner, a reader of a text will draw on his or her own understanding of literary conventions and cultural backgrounds to make sense of a text.

Reader response theorists and Gombrich would also agree on the pleasure derived in the reading of a text or the viewing of a work of art. Gombrich describes one such pleasure: ‘‘what we enjoy is not so much seeing these works from a distance as the very act of stepping back, as it were, and watching our imagination come into play, transforming the medley of color into a finished image.’’ Likewise, as one reads a text, the individual details, through the imaginative response of the reader, form themselves into a coherent whole. The pleasure for the reader, then, is derived from watching the text come into focus.

Finally, Gombrich and reader response critics would find themselves in agreement with what they imagine happens when a beholder encounters an image or text for a second time. Both would agree that one can never recover the initial encounter with an image or text and that all subsequent encounters will be informed by the first. Thus, a reader who knows that both Romeo and Juliet die at the end of their famous play will read the play differently from a naive reader who has not yet encountered this information. In the same way, once a beholder sees particular details of a painting, he or she cannot go back to the time when he or she did not notice these details. Subsequent readings are always built on earlier ones, and the meaning of the image or text changes with the reading.

For students in the early twenty-first century, such privileging of the reader or the beholder might seem intuitively commonsensical. That this is true suggests the great power that both Gombrich’s and Fish’s ideas have had on meaning making. For both, an encounter with a work of art, whether it is a visual image or a text, requires active participation on the part of the beholder, not passive appreciation. As Gombrich writes, ‘‘What we called the ‘mental set’ may be precisely that state of readiness to start projecting, to thrust out the tentacles of phantom colors and phantom images which always flicker around our perception.’’ Meaning making is hard work, but it is in the work that the art becomes art.

Source: Diane Andrews Henningfeld, Critical Essay on Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003.


Critical Overview