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: