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

E. H. Gombrich

Historical Context

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...

(The entire section is 570 words.)