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E. H.

Gombrich (1909-2001)
Author(s): Elizabeth McGrath
Source: The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 144, No. 1187 (Feb., 2002), pp. 111-113
Published by: The Burlington Magazine Publications Ltd.
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E.H. Gombrich
WHENErnst Gombrich (Fig.126) died in November 2001 he was
finishinga book on a subject that had engaged him, on and off,
since his youth. He entitledit ThePreferenceforthePrimitive,
by which
he meant the search for antidotes to cloying, even corrupting,
charm, or bland perfection,and the inspirationwhich artistsand
writersfrom Cicero to Picasso have found in work perceived as
embodying qualities of freshness,or expressivevigour, or moral
purity('sincerity')- whetherin earlyGreeksculpture,Quattrocen-
to frescoes,or Africanmasks.The book, soon to be published,is yet
another example of his interweavingof history and psychology,
investigatingand seekingto explain the roots and changingnature
of artisticstyle. It is at once a continuationand a complementary
explorationof themesin ArtandIllusion(1960)and TheSenseof Order
(1979). With this 'primitive'topic Gombrichreturneddefinitively
to the firstart-historicalproblem he ever chose to write on, in his
lastyear of school, about changesin the sortof art in criticalfavour
from the time of Winckelmannonwards. Typically, Gombrich's
youthfulquestionhad been promptednot just by reading(though
he was already impressivelyacquaintedwith art-historicallitera-
ture in his mid-teens)but by looking around him, and observing
how the taste of his parents'generation,epitomisedin the classic
serenityof Raphael (the SistineMadonnahad prideof place on the
wall) was being challenged by a new appreciationof the angular
expressionismof German late Gothic. Ironically,the work which
more than any other encouragedGombrichto take up art history
as a profession,Max Dvorik's Kunstgeschichte als Geistesgeschichte,
at 126. SirErnstGombrich,by R.B. Kitaj. 1986. Pastel,67.6 by 57.8 cm. (Courtesyof
first so appealingwith its explanatory'spiritof the age', came to the National PortraitGallery,London).
representthe sort of culturaltheorythat he stroveto oppose - and
did so implacablyafterhe had seen how it could be pressedinto the
serviceof racistideology. His enterpriseas an art historianwas to particularattention to theories of the psychologyof human per-
attempt general explanationswhich were founded on historical ception. That combinedinterestwas likewiseat the heartof Gom-
data and reasoned principles, on probability and on common brich'sapproach,even if he rejectedRiegl'sconcept of the r61eof
sense. perception;alreadybeforehis intensivedebateson the matterwith
Ernst Gombrichwas born into a comfortablyplaced Viennese his friendKarl Popperhe was intriguedby the extent to which art
family- his fatherwas a respectedlawyer- in which learningand history could learn from the methods of science. The rigorous
engagement with the arts and literaturewere valued above the scholarlyexplorationsof his chosenteacherat university,Julius von
accumulationof material possessions.To this he added his own Schlosser,who emphasisedrelianceon primarysourcesand histor-
scientificcuriosity,and an interestin the workingsof nature;it was ical texts,provideda healthycorrectiveto the temptationsof theo-
the Natural History rather than the Art History Museum which rising (and here Dvorik, with his Zeitgeist,was more of a danger
firstexcited him. The behaviourof animalsremaineda subjectof than Riegl), and proved a lastinginspiration.One of Gombrich's
wonder; in later years, when his mobility was restricted,simple most satisfyingstudiesof an individualworkof art, his essayon the
'cow-watching',as he liked to call it in the comic verses he put on Stanza della Segnaturain Symbolic Images(1972), based itself on a
postcards,was a majorholidaypleasure.Music was alwaysfunda- long and learned article by Schlosseron the traditionsof library
mental to his life; indeed an understandingof music, both as lis- decorationto produce a masterlyexpositionof the leading r61eof
tener and performer,helped shape his theoriesabout rhythm,and artisticintelligencein that celebratedscheme of decoration;for he
its interruption and variation, in patterns of ornament. His moth- showedhow Raphaelgave imaginativeformto philosophicalideas
er, a fine pianist who played professionally, also took in pupils. One that were common currencyat the court of PopeJulius II. It was
of these, Ilse Heller, was to become his wife. under Schlosserthat Gombrichwrote his dissertationon the archi-
Not long ago Gombrich described himself as 'a Viennese from tecture of the Palazzo del Te, in which the topical art-historical
England'; and if anything his sense of the Austrian roots of his cos- questionof the stylisticcharacterof Mannerismwas testedagainst
mopolitanism became stronger - at least more explicit - as he grew the realitiesof patronageand the practicalitiesof historicalcircum-
older. His desire to express himself on the matter was sharpened by stancesas revealedin the Mantuanarchives.
what he saw as a modern provocation, namely the identification Emergingwith his doctoratein 1933, Gombrichcould find no
and isolation of an influential 'Jewish culture' in early twentieth- universityjob. His greatstudentfriend,Otto Kurz,similarlyunem-
century Vienna (into which he himself was notionally inserted; his ployable, had been workingas an assistantto ErnstKris, who was
parents, converts to Protestantism, were of Jewish extraction). collectingmaterialfor a book on enduringmyths about the artist.
Gombrich regarded this retrospective group labelling of indivi- Kris, an extraordinaryfigure,at once museumcurator(the author
duals who had no consciousness of themselves as a particular con- of definitivecataloguesof the gems and the goldsmiths'workin the
stituency, not just as ahistorical, but as essentially racist - along the KunsthistorischesMuseum)and practisingpsychoanalyst,was in
very lines of Hitler's model. contact with the BibliothekWarburgin Hamburg, and had just
Certainly Gombrich was, as he has proclaimed himself, an art persuadedits directorFritz Saxl to take on Kurz as a researcher.
historian of the 'Vienna school'. The founder of that school, Alois (Kurzwas later to remarkthat he must have been the onlyJew to
Riegl, had sought to set his discipline on a scientific basis, and paid immigrate to Germany during the Nazi period.) Gombrich was


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able to replace his friend as Kris's collaborator, this time with the him; such are the few, eloquent pages he once devoted, in Symbolic
aim of writing a study of caricature which Kris saw as a transfor- Images,to Rubens's Horrorsof War, and such is the very first article
mation of and substitution for image-magic. Gombrich much val- which he published in THE BURLINGTONMAGAZINEin 1942 on
ued the stimulation of working with this imaginative scholar who Reynolds's theory and practice of imitation as illustrated in his
was always ready to pose wide-ranging, general questions. He him- Ladiesadorninga termof Hymen.
self had already, almost accidentally, found himself writing a histo- The two contributions to the Burlington, as can be seen from the
ry book of the most general kind: the publisher Walter Neurath had 128-page bibliography published in 2000 byJ.B. Trapp,' constitute
commissioned him to translate from English a world history for virtually Gombrich's entire wartime output; earlier contact with
children; having read this 'unbelievably awful' work, he showed Herbert Read (editor until 1939) was no doubt crucial in encour-
how he himself could produce something much better. The success aging these short but important studies into print. The war largely
of this prompted Neurath to suggest a follow-up history of art for removed Gombrich from scholarship, though he stayed in touch
young people, thus implanting an idea which eventually, and tri- with his Warburg colleagues. He was occupied with the exacting
umphantly, took form in English as TheStoy ofArt(1950). The book job of radio monitor, listening to and retailing the content of Ger-
on caricature was, however, blighted by circumstance. Kris, who man broadcasts. Gombrich had a remarkable ability to learn from
had been closely observing the advance of National Socialism, his surroundings, to profit from people and from circumstances,
sensed the imminent threat to Austria. He now persuaded Saxl to even adverse ones. His reflections on the difficulties of understand-
take on Gombrich in the newly established Warburg Institute in ing indistinct patterns of speech (or again in interpreting aerial pho-
London - the Library had migrated from Hamburg in 1933. tographs) without a set of prior expectations of the content, were
Gombrich arrived at the Institute in 1936 to be confronted with the fundamental to the genesis of ArtandIllusion.His war work also con-
daunting task of sorting the photographs and papers of the tributed, indirectly, to another book. Six years of interpretation and
Library's founder, Aby Warburg, who had died in 1929. The aim translation into English immeasurably improved his command of
was to publish these in some way, but given the scattered and often the language. This is seen in the lucid and unpretentious prose of
enigmatic nature of the material, some of it written in the shadow The Stoy of Art which Gombrich took up - in his spare time, since
of mental illness, the question of how to do so appropriately was he felt it was not judged a really serious project by his colleagues -
delicate and difficult. (Gombrich's solution, which he admitted was directly after the war finished and he returned to the Warburg. In
a partial one, was to incorporate significant elements into an intel- Vienna, he had doubted the feasibility of explaining the history of
lectual biography of Warburg which he revised and published, art to children, even though he had duly set out to try. The reader
through the Institute, in 1970.) Gombrich's early experience of for the Phaidon Press in London, in the person of Bela Horovitz's
London seems to have been something of a culture shock. Fortu- daughter Elly, approved the abandoned German chapters, and
nately he had Kurz, ever philosophically good-humoured, with Gombrich produced in English the book which over the years has
whom to share ideas and problems, and a relentless diet of tinned introduced so many people all over the world, young and not so
food in their spartan lodgings. And in the summer of 1936 he was young, to an interest in art and its history.
able to return briefly to Vienna to work on the book on caricature With this work Gombrich acquired a fame he never expected,
with Kris (which, however, appeared in 1940 in English only in outside but also within the academic world (the book was indeed
abbreviated and schematic form) - and to marry. Ilse accompanied taken seriously by many scholars). Invitations to visit and give talks
him back to share his new life in London; two years later the came from Britain and abroad, especially the United States -
Anschluss marked the move as definitive. though his grateful attachment to the country in which he had
Like Saxl, Gombrich strove to counter the image of the Warburg found hospitality made him resist American job offers. At the War-
Institute as an isolated Germanic enclave, and in the late 1930s he burg Institute he taught renaissance history and established himself
began teaching at the Courtauld Institute. The director, T.S.R. as a renaissance expert, publishing on subjects from the Primavera-
Boase, suggested that he and Kurz compile various handbooks for with a Neoplatonic interpretation that, without repudiating, he
students, beginning with a guide to iconography; and the pair later half-recanted - to the Medici as artistic patrons; at the same
embarked enthusiastically on this task. They thought of dealing time he lectured widely and on wider topics, notably as Slade Pro-
with subject-matter by categories: portraits, for example, or allego- fessor, at Oxford from 1950-53, and at Cambridge from 1961-63,
ry, or history, a formula which was preserved in the iconography and as Durning-Lawrence Professor at University College London,
course they later taught at the Warburg Institute; alongside these from 1956-59. But the decade between the publication of The Stoy
general themes they introduced telling case studies of individual ofArt and the appearance of Art andIllusionsaw him present papers
works. It was in connexion with this enterprise (the book itself was to scientists, philosophers and psychologists as much as to art his-
another casualty of events) that Gombrich happened upon the idea torians. These encounters, and the discussions which resulted from
that became in 1944 an article in THE BURLINGTONMAGAZINE: the them, influenced the formulation of ideas in Art andIllusion- a work
explanation of Poussin's Orionin terms of the meteorological read- which impressively implements his plan to attempt 'explanations'
ing of the classical story that the painter would have found in for artistic developments along the lines of those posited for
Natale Conti's mythological handbook. But Gombrich always held advances in science, adapting, for example, Popper's notion of con-
that the exploration of artistic conventions and traditions, estab- jecture and refutation; at the same time he laid up material for The
lishing the normal range of possibilities open to a painter or sculp- Senseof Order(significantly subtitled 'A Study in the Psychology of
tor at any given period, was a better starting point for investigation Decorative Art') and for his investigations into 'the Primitive'.
into the meaning of a work of art than the (often pointless) search Gombrich thrived on the lecture form, which was so well adapted
for a precise textual key. Poussin's Orionis an iconographic oddity: to his skill in the exposition of the most difficult topics - philosoph-
a novel pictorial theme depicted in an unexpected way. Gombrich ical, technical or historical - and to his talent, fuelled by an extraor-
was pleased with his solution, as he was with other answers to dinary depth of knowledge and breadth of curiosity, in making
iconographic puzzles which he discovered in written sources: the familiar subjects newly and consistently interesting by unexpected,
realisation, for example, that Giulio Romano's 'genre' scenes in the often witty, juxtapositions of thought and of imagery. His appoint-
Sala dei Venti of the Palazzo del Te were illustrations of the effects ment in 1959 as Director of the Warburg Institute, a post in which
of constellations as specified by ancient astrologers. In a sense, how- he remained until his retirement in 1976, may have curtailed his
ever, his more characteristic and methodologically significant stud- scope for academic research abroad (he never took sabbatical
ies in this area were those which considered iconographic invention leave), but he knew how to exploit the resources of London's
in the context of an analysis of an artist's creative process. Such is
the piece on Raphael's Stanza della Segnatura; such are many of
his essays on Leonardo, an inexhaustible source of fascination for J.B. E.H. Gombrich.A Bibliography,London
RAPP: [2000].


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libraries and of his contacts, both within and outside the Institute. special interest; another, Raphael, was perhaps his favourite. With
Questioned as, to his irritation, he regularly was, about the 'War- Haydn and Schubert, Shakespeare and Goethe, Raphael was a life-
burg method', his response, 'asking and receiving help from one's long point of reference and consolation, a testimony to his belief in
colleagues', was not a frivolous one. The formulation provides a the power of art to give meaning to the concept of civilisation, a
key to Gombrich's intellectual personality, when the notion of col- belief which he did his utmost to promote.
leagues is extended to the broad scholarly and scientific communi- ELIZABETHMCGRATH

ty, and the expectation and provision of help is translated into a

mutual one - for he was immensely generous to others.
The scope and variety of Gombrich's writings makes it impossi- The Editor writes:Because of Ernst Gombrich's unparalleled emi-
ble to attempt any adequate survey here; as in the case of the hon- nence as an art historian, and his exceedingly long association with
ours he received (of which the Hegel Prize in 1976 was perhaps the the Magazine - he was a member of the Consultative Committee
most surprising given his well-known dislike of Hegelianism), a bare for well over fifty years - his achievements have been gratefully
catalogue would be too long. His students never formed a 'school'. recorded in these pages on other occasions.2 Nevertheless, one par-
They neither shared a subject area nor felt bound by a line of ticular aspect of his contribution, in addition to those recalled
approach. Ideological preconceptions were resolutely discouraged: above, should be remembered here - his ro1e, with Cesare Brandi
it was enough for Gombrich that a prospective candidate was seri- and Otto Kurz, in the so-called 'cleaning controversy' in these
ously committed, academically competent, and had chosen a topic pages from the late 1940s to the 1960s and his continuing insistence
of real interest; he had a refreshing aversion to programmatic over many decades (his last intervention on the subject was in the
imposition in scholarly research, as in life. He was at once a January 2001 issue, p.162) that conservators of paintings should
supreme generalist, ranging easily through time and space (his exercise caution and restraint, not least for fear of removing possi-
engagement with non-European art, particularly the arts of the ble original varnishes and surface coatings.
East, is much more evident in TheSenseof Order;The StoryofArt con- Writing to Benedict Nicolson in March 1953 about an invitation
centrates on Western Europe because it was also the story of natu- to the Magazine's fiftieth anniversary celebrations that had gone
ralistic representation). At the same time he was a specialist, if a astray, Gombrich concluded: 'I am looking forward to your party
paradoxically multiple one: in the culture of the renaissance; in in 2003 for which I consider myself invited.' His joking prediction
iconography; in propaganda and caricature; in the relationship of was so nearly fulfilled.
art to perception. While he habitually expressed his views with
great firmness, Gombrich liked to remark that one advantage
afforded by a long life was the opportunity to change one's mind, 2SeeEditorials,'ErnstGombrichand the WarburgInstitute:1936-1976',THE
and over the years he returned to many old themes with new ques- BURLINGTON MAGAZINE,CXVIII [1976], p.463; and 'The voice of reason',
tions and answers. One great artist, Leonardo, was the focus of his CXXXVI

Book Reviews

Passionate Discontent. Creativity, dency to lose focus in detail. Huysmans'sA imagery which operated within the domi-
Gender, and French Symbolist Art. By Rebours was surely not a 'symbolist'novel. nant naturalistdiscourseof the period?One
Patricia Mathews. 314 pp. incl. 15 col. pls. Not only was it publishedtwo years before can be certain, however, that fin-de-siecle
+ 84 b. & w. ills. (University of Chicago Moreas's manifestobrought that term into intellectualssuch as the ribaldAlbertAurier
Press, Chicago, 1999), $35. ISBN 0-226- common parlance, but the novel revolves and F1lixFRn6onwould have been delight-
51018-2. around themes - corrupt aristocracy,con- ed by PassionateDiscontent's sporadic psy-
spicuousconsumption,and sexual artifice- chobabble.Do we need the speculationthat
This is an unorthodox and partial contri- which were central to the rhetoric of dica- 'female "lack"is not a wound but a privi-
bution to the literature on Symbolism. Cer- dencecurrentin 1884. Such a term had spe- leged statein oppositionto the vulnerability
tainly, serious art-historical texts on the field cific cultural and social associations, and, of the exposed male organ' to understand
are still few, and additions, especially one for this reader,Mathews'stext is not always the profusionoffemmefataleimagery at the
like this that offers so much with which to underpinnedwith sufficienthistoricalcon- end of the nineteenth century? One might
argue, are welcome. And material aboutfin- text. The chapter on madness and creativi- ratherarguethat the proliferationshouldbe
de-sidclewomen artists is rarer, so Patricia ty deals usefully with the theories of Max seen as a necessaryexaggerationto revivify
Mathews's inclusion of material on Elisa- Nordau or Cesare Lombroso.But the con- the tired cliches of bourgeois morality and
beth Sonrel and Jeanne Jacquemin helps struction of symbolist creativity around the separatespheres,a social and economic
widen the debate. That said, the book raises notions new in psychology or criminology construction.And one might also enquire
some real problems in the study of Symbol- was hardly exceptional. Late nineteenth- who bought such paintings.Men, for whom
ism and gender. centuryFrancecommonly adaptedthe lan- thefemmefatalewas an image of desire and
Not every reader will be comfortable with guages of science to explain socio-cultural fascination,not fear.
Mathews's definitions. Her polarisation of phenomena, from crowdsto republicanism. Mathews makes sound points about
symbolist artists in Paris in the 1890s into The argumentsabout how women artists Gauguin's Tahitian women - somewhat
the Neo-Impressionists on the one hand and needed to evolve their own strategieswith- a-sexual, conveying desire for the natural
the Idealists on the other, among whom she in, or outside, a symbolist aesthetic that and maternal rather than the erotic - and
includes such jumbled personnel as Gau- privilegedmale notions of genius and isola- Suzanne Valadon's proletarianParisiennes
guin, S6on, Moreau and L'vy-Dhurmer, tion will engage scholars.Women artistsdid - self-contained and solidly self-aware.
does not inspire confidence. In general, her find it difficultto engage imaginativelywith Though here again I found the unortho-
material on the highways and byways of the Symbolism. But was this just because the doxy - in this case the far from 'symbolist'
symbolist aesthetic is the most substantial aesthetic was 'masculinist'or, more posi- range of comparisons- troubling,wishing
element in the book, and her discussion of tively, because women artists were more that Valadon could have been considered
issues such as the 'isole', primitivism, and articulatewith, and could profit- commer- alongside artistswith whose work her own
occultism is helpful. However, there is a ten- cially and professionally - more, from had clear links - Maurin, Forain, Degas,


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