Thinking of Gombrich

IS THERE AN ARTIST ANYWHERE who does not have Ernst Gombrich on the shelf? Art and Illusion, Meditations on a Hobby Horse, or—my favorite—The Sense of Order are perennial staples in the studio. If there is room for only one book, The Essential Gombrich fills the bill. His The Story of Art is a stock item in libraries across the country.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across this footnote in Norman F. Cantor’s riveting Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century:

I have to admit that I must be almost alone in not learning anything of importance from the writings of (Aby) Warburg’s other famed student, Ernst H. Gombrich, who strikes me as largely a retailer of superficial psychological and aesthetic bromides.

Ouch! I winced when I read that. Drawing learned distinctions between Erwin Panofsy—whom Cantor admires—and Gombrich is above my pay grade. I can only say how much pleasure I have taken in such comments by Gombrich as this:

The notorious tag ‘I don’t know anything about art but I know what I like’ is habitually held up to ridicule in books on art appreciation. It may yet become the cornerstone on which a new art can be built.

That appeared in his essay “The Vogue of Abstract Art,” which was originally published under the title “The Tyranny of Abstract Art” in 1956. [The later title is his own. The original one was written by his editor.] It appeals to me because it leaves a door open to individual sensibility, personal taste. It avoids—no, discards—the effort to locate the aesthetic worth of an artwork in some determining theory of what art is. Or ought to be. Theories come and go. Intellectual fashions raise their skirts and let them down again across the generations.

Certain of Gombrich’s anecdotes—the ones that refer specifically to the decade of his writing—are necessarily dated but readers can substitute their own more timely models. When he comments on the nature of cartooning, for example, he mentions Bill Maudlin, a name known today only to the elderly or buffs of cartoon history. But a contemporary reader can easily substitute other names: Michael Ramirez, Gary Trudeau, Gary Larson, Robert Crumb, Dana Summers, and a list too long to cite. Without getting mired in content, Gombrich was a lively advocate for the cartoonist’s arsenal.


Dana Summers © 2010 Orlando Sentinel

One passage worth repeating in full is from Art and Illusion (1963). His use of the word practice here, is close to the word craft. It is far from the politicized usage current in academia today:

I do think the study of the metaphysics of art should always be supplemented by an analysis of its practice, notably the practice of teaching.

There are few aspects of the past that are more difficult for us to grasp and recapture than the old experience of schooling. . . . Just as the young singer lived in the house of his master and learned and practices scales for many years under his constant supervision, so the painter’s apprentice was delivered into the power of his taskmaster, who saw to it that he spent hours in the exercise of copying the works of the great. “Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time,” wrote the aged Michelangelo on a sheet of paper to urge a flagging apprentice on. And these words must have echoed all over Europe.

The aim of these exercises was clearly formulated in a seventeenth-century treatise by the German painter Joachim von Sandrart: “When our Understanding issues its well-conceived concepts, and the hand, practiced by many years of industrious drawing, puts them to paper according to reason, the perfect excellence of both the master and his art becomes manifest.”

The product of these exercises was the kind of linear grace that is almost as extinct as the conceptual rigor it represents:

From Ingres' sketchbook


© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey


  1. My 1972 Phaidon paperbound edition of The Story of Art with thick shiny pages is still in one piece, and in addition to serving as a handy dictionary is weighty enough–appropriate, even–to prop a canvas against the wall. I still love to read the chapter titles: Tradition and innovation; A crisis of art; Light and colour; Power and glory; and my favorite, The break in tradition. These headings have not faded for me, on the contrary they are glasses that have held many newer vintages.

  2. It’s not every day a scholarly art historian pays attention to caricature and cartoons. But Gombrich did. In Art and Illusion, he wonders why caricature appears so late in Western art. Like so much else Gombrich turned his attention to, “The Experiment of Caricature” is a great read. Beats me why he is not referenced more often. Did everything begin and end with Greenberg?

  3. #1 reminds me of one of Gombrich’s anecdotes in The Story of Art. I think it was in “Light and Colour” (it’s been awhile!): Erasmus writes a letter of introduction for Holbein, who is leaving Switzerland for England. The letter states: “The Art here is freezing.” The comment still applies, and we’re not in Switzerland.

  4. Yes, the art here is freezing–at least to fans of Gombrich. Not to be a crank, but the anecdote told by Romy (#3) is in the chapter “A Crisis of Art.” It is framed by two illustrations of paintings by H. It is actually nice to be reminded of it. Despite that Germanic-sounding name, we do tend to think of Holbein as English. (What were the Swiss doing in the 16th century, besides yodeling?)

Comments are closed.