Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich.

E.H.  Gombrich intended for The Story of Art to be a “first orientation” for newcomers to the subject. (Gombrich, p.7). No doubt, it is just that. But for those seeking a refresher on the chronological history of art, and those wishing to fill-in some gaps in their education, it is also quite valuable. I used it in preparation for my first trip to the Louvre and found that this intelligent observer had taught me much, even though I’d been an art enthusiast for decades. The book is written with teens in mind. But the author states “I never believed that books for young people should differ from books for adults.” (Gombrich, p.7).

Gombrich does not talk down to his reader. Neither does he encourage arrogance and pretension. He even goes so far as to explain how a new student of art might avoid the pitfalls of early learning and hubris that prevent one from enjoying art:

“People who have acquired some knowledge of art history…sometimes…when they see a work of art they do not stay to look at it, but rather search their memory for the appropriate label. They may have heard that Rembrandt was famous for his chiaroscuro…so they nod wisely when they see a Rembrandt, mumble ‘wonderful chiaroscuro’, and wander on to the next picture. [This is] half-knowledge and snobbery…we are all apt to succumb to such temptations, and a book like this could increase them. I should like to help open eyes, no loosen tongues…to look at a picture with fresh eyes and to venture on a voyage of discovery into it is a…more rewarding task.” (Gombrich, p. 37).

This teacher’s slant on the development of art over the centuries is not exceptionally original, but it is important. “Each generation is at some point in revolt against the standards of its fathers.” (Gombrich, p. 8). While explaining this motivation for change, Gombrich is emphatic in pointing-out that development does not mean improvement; just change. No one period is superior to another based upon it coming later.

Additionally, the author effectively tackles the issue of beauty in art. He asserts that a “bias for the pretty and engaging subject is apt to become a stumbling-block if it leads us to reject works which represent a less appealing subject.” (Gombrich, p. 15). As an example, he presents Durer’s portrait of his mother and states “His truthful study of careworn old age may give us a shock which makes us turn away from it – and yet, if we fight against our first repugnance we may be richly rewarded, for Durer’s drawing in its tremendous sincerity is a great work.” (Gombrich, p. 17).

Occasionally, Gombrich can overstate his cause. In his enthusiasm for Rembrandt, the professor claimed that the artist “must have been able to look straight into the human heart.” (Gombrich, p. 423). But if too much passion for one’s subject is a sin, most of us are willing to be forgiving.

Some of the flaws in The Story of Art are unavoidable. One cannot fully present the history of art in one volume of less than 650 pages of body. But to introduce this subject in a longer format would be overwhelming. So, Gombrich sets intelligent boundaries and does not indulge in presenting his favorite artists if they do not represent an important change.

In the event that I have just frightened those seeking an introductory book, with the mention of 650 pages, be aware that about half of this offering is taken-up with paintings, photos and drawings. The professor has made sure to provide ample illustration of the periods he discusses. Each topic within the book is accompanied by at least one example.

While Gombrich does his best to avoid technical language, his writing remains elegant and insightful. During instruction about Dutch still-life painting, he explains “just as there is great music without words, so there is great painting without important subject matter. It was this invention towards which the seventeenth-century artists had been groping when they discovered the sheer beauty of the visible world.” (Gombrich, p. 430). These abilities, fluid expression and command of the subject, make The Story of Art a pleasure to read and a superb guide.

Gombrich, E.H. The Story of Art. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1995.

For a review of another art history option, see:

Monday, September 16, 2013

France in Modern Times by Gordon Wright.

Gordon Wright’s cogently written France in Modern Times is a historical survey text from 1750 to the present. The author’s approach to teaching France’s modern history is admirably dispassionate. Wright presents a time or topic as simply as possible, then proceeds to offer the reader a number of conflicting interpretations from modern historians. This way, a reader may see the subject from more than one perspective. The professor will then present his own humble, one might even say timid, opinion on which current he supports.  Wright is rarely forceful or too insistent in the process. Because so many books have been written on each period discussed by Wright, and because there are such a variety of opinions on each period, the Professor ends each major section with a full chapter of related books with descriptions of their content. This open-minded, open-ended structure is one of the chief strengths of the book, along with the author’s broad and deep grasp of modern France.

There are two puzzling areas where Wright was unable to maintain the veneer of dispassion. First is his approach to increasing secularism in society, and second his views on what has been called the Revolution of 1848. Regarding his perspective on secularization and anti-clericalism, Wright begins in the Enlightenment. This normally fair-minded author uses the phrase “lunatic fringe” to describe Baron d’Holbach’s atheist views; hardly a politic choice of words (Wright, p. 26). He ignores that d’Holbach facilitated what is arguably the most important salon of the period. Wright’s opinion is not countered by the usual presentation of an opposing analysis. (For a differing view on the importance of atheism during this period, read Philipp Blom’s A Wicked Company. The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment.) Wright continues with his Philosophe-bashing, by talking about the internalized “persecution mania” of these intellectuals, without discussing that they did suffer actual persecution in the form of censorship and jail (Wright, p. 29).

The professor’s prejudice against secularism continues with his characterization of the 1791 Church Settlement reforms, (a set of laws passed by the National Assembly to strip the Catholic Church of its special privileges) as “ill-conceived” and “the worst example” of reform measures because “it brought down the Pope’s anathema upon the revolutionary leaders and turned most of the clergy into stubborn opponents of the new system” (Wright, p. 48). Again, there is no contrary opinion from this proponent of presenting both sides. A countervailing evaluation how the separation of church and state might be a form of progress, and that a self-interested Church would naturally oppose such action, would have been apt here.

As France continues to remove the Church from public institutions, Wright continues to complain. The Professor appears bewildered by the 1870s attempts to further limit clerical influence on education and government. Regarding the country’s political leadership, he asks “why did it overact in the religious sphere? What produced its excessive, almost neurotic emphasis on the clerical problem” (Wright, p. 242)? For a second time, Wright employs the unfortunate phrase “lunatic fringe.” This time he is describing “Freethinkers associations” whose views were anything but lunatic or fringe, given that their ideas were the politically successful opinions of the majority (Wright, p. 243). It’s as if the professor did not himself live in a society that valued separate spheres for religion and public institutions.

Regarding the second puzzling area in Wright’s narrative, his perspective on the Revolution of 1848, the professor begins his analysis by calling it “a result far out of proportion to the cause” (Wright, p. 128). He explains this statement by claiming that “Frenchmen were not being oppressed or tyrannized (Wright, p. 128).” But the rest of the chapter about 1848 offers evidence to refute his initial statement. Wright discusses the “long-endured misery” of the working class and censorship in the form of opposition leadership “denied the right to hold public political meetings” (Wright, p. 130). In spite of this curious self-contradiction, the author writes a superb encapsulation of 1848 according to Marxist historians. While he did not share their political goals, Gordon Wright was open-minded enough to admit that “some aspects of Karl Marx’s original analysis and of the modernized Marxist version are undoubtedly sound” (Wright, p. 135).

This openness to differing ideas, and an ability to effectively present them, is more typical of Wright than are his views on the secularization of French society. Throughout his career, Wright rarely permitted his examination to fossilize. He was continually incorporating new perspectives. As historiography diversified to include People’s History, and Women’s History, so did France in Modern Times with each new edition. Since Wright himself was always learning and evolving, those who read this history will obtain a generally wide and balanced view.

Wright, Gordon. France in Modern Times. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1981.