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

by E. H. Gombrich
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Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 676

Perception One of Gombrich’s most important themes in Art and Illusion is that of perception. Technically, perception is the process through which a human being gains sensory information about the physical world. Twentieth-century scientists and philosophers have been intrigued by perception and by the way the brain takes sensory information...

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Perception
One of Gombrich’s most important themes in Art and Illusion is that of perception. Technically, perception is the process through which a human being gains sensory information about the physical world. Twentieth-century scientists and philosophers have been intrigued by perception and by the way the brain takes sensory information and transforms it into a meaningful picture of the world. For example, how is it that humans have depth perception? How does the brain translate the images on the retina of the eye into a three-dimensional picture of the world? Those who study perception debate whether interpretation of sensory data is innate or learned. In other words, they explore whether people are born with the ability to understand sensory information or must learn how to interpret sensory information through trial and error. Gombrich, with his close attention to science and philosophy, is intrigued by questions of perception. He writes:

The question of what is involved in ‘‘looking at nature’’—what we today call the psychology of perception—first entered into the discussion style as a practical problem in art teaching. The academic teacher bent on accuracy of representation found, as he still will find, that his pupils’ difficulties were due not only to an inability to copy nature but also an inability to see it.

For Gombrich, then, perception is more than merely a physiological response to light and dark or patterns and background. Perception and the ability to ‘‘see’’ nature depend not only on the correctly functioning eyes, retinas, and brains but also on the viewers’ experiences and training. This point is important for both the artists and the beholders, since they all must use their powers of perception to derive meaning from the work of art.

Illusion
Illusion is one of the most puzzling phenomena in the study of perception and by extension, the study of representational art. In the case of an illusion, perception is not dependent on how the receptors in the eye and brain react, nor is it dependent on the object being perceived. That is, a human being is able to make meaning from an image independent of the physiology of either the eye or the image. For example, when children see a picture of a duck in a book and are asked what they see, they will answer, ‘‘A duck.’’ Now, the light receptors in the children’s retinas do not fire in an identical way when the children see a real duck outside in a pond and when they see a picture of a duck. Likewise, the picture does not resemble in any real way the duck in the real world. The picture, therefore, is illusory; it is paint on paper. Yet the human mind is capable of perceiving the paint on paper as a duck. Gombrich uses the following example to illustrate the ways that human beings confront illusions each day and still make sense of the world:

If the reader finds this assertion a little puzzling, there is always an instrument of illusion close at hand to verify it: the bathroom mirror. I specify the bathroom because the experiment I urge the reader to make succeeds best if the mirror is a little clouded by steam. It is a fascinating exercise in illusionist representation to trace one’s own head on the surface of the mirror and to clear the area enclosed by the outline. For when we have actually done this do we realize how small the image is which gives us the illusion of seeing ourselves ‘‘face to face.’’ To be exact, it must be precisely half the size of our head.

Clearly, the perception of representational art requires the use of illusion. It is only through illusion that the viewer recognizes the landscape in the painting to be the landscape out the window. One of Gombrich’s main purposes, then, in Art and Illusion is to investigate how artists, across time, have developed the particular illusions that they have in order to render their paintings ever closer to the perception of ‘‘reality.’’

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