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

by E. H. Gombrich

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Historical Context

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Gombrich and World War II
Although Gombrich did not publish Art and Illusion until 1960, many of the ideas contained in the book had root in Gombrich’s experiences in London during World War II. Critics and biographers alike note this fact, as does Gombrich himself in Part Three of the book. Gombrich developed many of his ideas about perception while working for the British Broadcasting Corporation in their Monitoring Services division. His job was to listen to and translate all radio transmissions coming out of Germany for the six years of the war. Through this surveillance, the British government hoped to gain information about what the Germans had planned. However, often the transmissions were faint or garbled. As a result, Gombrich became skilled at ‘‘filling in the gaps,’’ so to speak. As he notes in Art and Illusion,

Some of the transmissions which interested us most were often barely audible, and it became quite an art, or even a sport, to interpret the few whiffs of speech sounds. . . . It was then we learned to what an extent our knowledge and expectations influence our hearing. You had to know what might be said in order to hear what was said.

For Gombrich, making sense of what he heard required that he match what he heard to his internal catalogue of possible German word combinations. The difficult part of this process, of course, was that he could not let his expectations lead him to fabricate illusions about what he heard. He needed to use both his knowledge of possibilities and his critical faculties. As the receiver of auditory information, Gombrich needed to consider both the words and their contexts while keeping in mind his own expectations.

Without this wartime experience of listening and translating, Gombrich may not have considered how expectations affect recipients of sensory input and he may not have considered the importance of the psychology of perception for the understanding of art. Viewers of art fill the gaps of what they see based on their internal catalogues of what is possible. Moreover, according to Gombrich, ‘‘the context of action creates conditions of illusions.’’ Context and expectation shape the meaning viewers impart to works of art, just as Gombrich and his colleagues used context and expectation to interpret German messages.

The Significance of Art and Illusion
Critics are nearly unanimous in their assessment of Art and Illusion: they consider it to be the most influential work of Gombrich’s life, and they consider Gombrich to be the most influential art historian of the twentieth century. Indeed, it is difficult to overestimate the significance of this work. Perhaps most important is its attempt to connect the appreciation of artistic creation with the scientific study of perception. Gombrich carefully builds a case that the meaning of a work of art resides in a collaborative communication between individual artists and viewers. He rejects the notion of a transcendent zeitgeist, or spirit of the times, that creates artistic representation. Furthermore, he destroys Ruskin’s nineteenth-century notion that one could view a piece of art with ‘‘an innocent eye.’’ For Gombrich, the innocent eye was an impossible abstraction. What the artist sees and what the beholder sees are both inextricably shaped by cultural and historical contexts. That this notion seems so patently obvious in the early twenty-first century is an indication of how thoroughly Gombrich’s work has been assimilated by all studies of art history.

Literary Style

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Narration
Narration is the telling of a series of events, often in chronological order, and generally in a way that creates a story. Certainly, in his Story of Art ,...

(This entire section contains 283 words.)

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Gombrich creates a narrative that gives a sense of unity to the history of art. Likewise, inArt and Illusion, Gombrich’s stated purpose is to ‘‘explain why art has a history.’’ Although he begins with the nineteenth-century painter John Constable, Gombrich soon jumps back to early Greek art to begin his story of ‘‘making and matching.’’ Gombrich’s narration is one that traces the way artists attempting to represent reality employ tradition and experimentation in their art. Furthermore, Gombrich includes in his narration both the changes artists make and the changes viewers must make as they are confronted with new ways in which art represents reality. Because Gombrich chooses to use a narrative style, the book itself, while long and at times technical in vocabulary, is nonetheless accessible to a general audience.

Metaphor
A metaphor is a figure of speech that expresses an idea through a comparison between two objects or ideas. In Art and Illusion, Gombrich uses language as a metaphor for art. That is, he suggests that artists develop a ‘‘vocabulary’’ of artistic schemata that allow them to build their images. But the schemata available in any historic period can constitute a limitation within which artists tend to work. He likens the schemata to a writer’s vocabulary that both builds and limits the work the writer creates. Indeed, through his use of the words ‘‘language of representation,’’ ‘‘reading,’’ ‘‘grammar,’’ and ‘‘articulation,’’ for example, Gombrich further builds the metaphor that art and language are comparable forms of human communication and representation.

Compare and Contrast

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1950s: Post–World War II Europe is still recovering from the uncertainties and devastation of the war years. The growth of the Soviet Union and ongoing hostilities between Eastern Bloc countries and NATO lead to the Cold War.

1990s: Although the Cold War ends with the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, fear and uncertainty continue to dominate the international political scene.

1950s: Growth of technology as well as the ‘‘miracles’’ of science lead to a general belief in the application of the scientific method to all fields of endeavor, including art criticism and history.

1990s: While technology continues to grow at unprecedented rates, there is evidence of some distrust of science, most notable in the critiques of science offered by scholars such as Bruno Latour.

1950s: Gombrich’s theories are set forth in the 1956 Mellon lectures, appearing in 1960 as the book Art and Illusion. Its influence on the field of aesthetics is formidable, according to Dieter Peetz.

1990s: Dieter Peetz identifies Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Works and Worlds of Arts (1980) as having ‘‘innovative power and imaginative sweep’’ for those involved in philosophical aesthetics at the close of the twentieth century.

1950s: Literary critics known as the ‘‘New Critics’’ identify the quality of a text by its ‘‘universal significance.’’ That is, this theoretical school posits that meaning and value of a text is contained within the text, is true across cultures and eras, and thus does not depend on context.

1990s: Reader response critics, basing their analysis on the seminal work of the 1970s and 1980s of theorist Stanley Fish, among others, argue that there is no innocent reader and that the meaning of a text is created by a collaborative effort between writer and reader.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Alpers, Svetlana, ‘‘No Telling, with Tiepolo,’’ in Sight and Insight, edited by John Onians, Phaidon, 1994.

Bull, Malcolm, ‘‘Scheming Schemata: Pictorial Representation in Theories of E. H. Gombrich and Nelson Goodman,’’ in the British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 34, No. 3, July 1994, pp. 207–18.

Cash, Stephanie, and David Ebony, Obituary for E. H. Gombrich, in Art in America, Vol. 90, No. 1, January 2002, p. 134.

Cunliffe, Leslie, ‘‘Gombrich on Art: A Social-Constructivist Interpretation of His Work and Its Relevance to Education,’’ in Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 32, No. 4, Winter 1998, pp. 61–77.

Fish, Stanley, Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities, Harvard University Press, 1980.

Gombrich, E. H., Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, Vol. 5, 2d ed., Princeton University Press, 2000.

———, ‘‘The Mask and the Face: The Perception of Physiognomic Likeness in Life and Art,’’ in Art, Perception, and Reality, by Julian Hochberg, Max Black, and E. H.

Gombrich, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972.

Goodman, Nelson, Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols, Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1968, p. 10.

Turner, Norman, ‘‘Some Questions about E. H. Gombrich on Perspective,’’ in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 50, No. 2, Spring 1992, pp. 139–50.

Woodfield, Richard, ed., The Essential Gombrich, Phaidon Press, 1996, pp. 28–36.

———, Gombrich on Art and Psychology, Manchester University Press, 1996, p. 19.

Further Reading
Gombrich, E. H., The Image and the Eye: Further Studies in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, Cornell University Press, 1982. In a companion volume to Art and Illusion, Gombrich takes as his subject ‘‘the perceptual basis of art, psychology, and visual phenomena.’’ In this book, he further refines his theories.

———, Meditations on a Hobby Horse, 4th ed., Phaidon, 1985. In this collection, Gombrich considers how the activity to which an image or object is put informs the meaning a person derives from the image or object. Thus, a broom in a corner is just a broom until a child chooses to use it as a horse.

Preziosi, Donald, ed., The Art of Art History, Oxford University Press, 1998. Preziosi has collected the essential theoretical texts of art history as a discipline. In addition, he has included helpful introductory chapters for each section of his text.

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