Monograph: The Professor in the Storm Cultural Historian E.H. Gombrich’s Troubled Achievement by Susannah Rutherglen

Sir Ernst Gombrich, the venerable humanist and scholar of art who died last year at the age of ninety-two, was not a great believer in historical epochs, but his passing marked nothing less than the end of one. Gombrich was the last member of a formidable dynasty of philosophers and historians who, beginning in central Europe during the nineteenth century, devoted themselves to discovering the deep structures of human culture. Their scholarship—Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, Max Dvořák’s Art History as the History of the Spirit—deployed the tactics of science to uncover the vital origins of literature, philosophy, music, art, theology, and history since the time of Plato. They believed that a common set of principles underlay the whole edifice of Western achievement, and that those principles could be discerned by rigorous, historically informed study of its great monuments—from Greek vases to medieval epics, from Roman oratory to the paintings of Botticelli. Scholarship of this kind, they argued, was the Western tradition’s last bulwark against the mechanized oblivion of modern life, its final hope for holding on to kinds of knowledge and feeling that were ineffably slipping away.

At the heart of this effort of cultural preservation lay a new discipline, invented at the University of Vienna in the late nineteenth century: Kunstwissenschaft, the “science of art.” The scholars who invented and practiced Kunstwissenschaft situated the work of art at the nexus of all forms of cultural activity, and sought to understand and preserve it as a concentrate of its creator’s entire civilization. Gombrich, who was born in Vienna in 1909 and attended its university, embraced this new “science” with fervor. Although nominally an art historian, he began his most successful book with the words, “There is no such thing as Art”. He often told his audiences that the Renaissance painter was more like a molecular biologist or a weapons engineer than a tattered poetic soul, and liked to recount that, in his boyhood, he had preferred the bones in the Museum of Natural History to the pictures in Vienna’s famous art museum. Gombrich’s favorite quotation came from Hippocrates: “Art is long and life is short”—art in this case being that of the life-saving doctor, not of the melancholy painter. Cultural history, he felt, ought to aspire to the condition of disciplines like medicine, biology, and physics—to devote itself to sturdy empirical inquiry into fundamental and enduring causes.

All the same, though, Gombrich was never a through-and-through scientist. He occupied a dramatic historical moment, and his experience of contemporary culture and art was tinctured by the kind of tragedy that tends to elude scientific explanations. He grew up during twilight days: a few years after Vienna’s fin-de-siècle intellectual glories had faded, a few years before the city was ripped to shreds by war. His mother was a gifted musician who had known many of the great figures of the nineteenth century (she had, the story went, refused to play with Arnold Schoenberg because he couldn’t keep time). But Gombrich knew this world only through stories; the Vienna of his acquaintance was destroyed by the First World War, and he himself was forced to flee the Nazis. He arrived in London in 1936 to take a scrappy job at the Warburg Institute—itself a refugee institution, built around the library of the reclusive Hamburg scholar Aby Warburg. In the years following World War II, the Institute became a mecca for erudite, mysterious teachers devoted to rigorous study of humanistic subjects in the Continental tradition. Gombrich eventually rose to its directorship and, consequently, to a position of great prominence in the galaxy of postwar European cultural studies.

During his decades at the Warburg, Gombrich wrote effortlessly, prodigiously, and for many audiences. In 1950, he penned The Story of Art, still the best-selling art history text in the world, in a few months, without looking at any books. Although it is essentially an introductory art-history survey aimed at teenagers, this book offers a gloss on Gombrich’s whole scholarly program. “My ambition – and it was rather a lofty ambition – was to be a kind of commentator on the history of art,” he said later in life. “I wanted to write a commentary on what actually happened in the development of art.” While a traditional art historian might hold up two objects—say, a bust of Aristotle and an African tribal mask—and then proceed to talk about how they were different, Gombrich set out to explain why they were different. What had the sculptor of Aristotle seen? How had he transposed his vision into stone? How were his acts of seeing and transposing different from those of the African artist?

To discover these deeper explanations for the way art looks, Gombrich, following the example of Karl Popper, turned to empirical science. His scholarly books, beginning with Art and Illusion in 1960, sought to explain the vagaries of style in the basic, irreducible terms of optics and psychology. Gombrich was anathema to the idea that the artistic styles of different periods arose from the “spirit of the age”, the Zeitgeist, or from a mesh of particular historical and cultural circumstances. Rather, he believed, people have always seen and put together images in the same fundamental ways, and the “story of art” is merely an accretion of illusionistic techniques and insights overlying these basic habits.

Gombrich’s narrative in The Story of Art—and in all his books—thus describes the progress of art as a slow, successful conquest of the difficulties of perception. Giotto built on ancient Roman sculpture, Michelangelo built on Giotto, Rubens built on Michelangelo, Cézanne built on Rubens. Artistic change over time was something like the progress of an enormous tumbleweed, which, always retaining the same core of perceptions and visual patterns, rolled on through the ages, collecting new layers of illusionistic tricks.

The problem with this view is that the tide of taste runs in absolutely the opposite direction. For thousands of years, patrons of art have resolutely preferred the older, simpler, and less illusionistic forms of “primitive” art to the kinds that mark the apotheosis of Gombrich’s story. They have consistently foregone the art of their own time—polished, fresh-off-the-shelf works executed according to the latest technical advances—in favor of the cruder forms of the past. The ancient architectural theorist Vitruvius liked rustic Doric columns; Goethe liked Andrea Mantegna; Herder liked simple folk tales; Walter Pater liked Botticelli. The pre-Raphaelites, the Nazarenes, the Primitifs, Edmund Burke, French caricaturists, Picasso—even Gombrich himself at times—are all guilty parties.

The tendency persists equally today: given the choice between a forthright Giotto and a luscious Bouguereau, we pick the Giotto. We prefer the Byzantine icon to the slick Academy painting; the humble saints of Chartres to Bernini’s twisting bodies; Fra Angelico’s simple Madonna to Tiepolo’s voluptuous one. (The same is true of taste in music: Plato preferred the old, austere Lydian mode to the soft Ionic mode of his age, just as we prefer the Beatles to the Backstreet Boys.) As surely as the tendency cannot be described with any precision, it has existed in more or less consistent form since Antiquity. In fact, it was indignantly remarked upon by Cicero: “How much more brilliant, as a rule, in beauty and variety of colouring are new pictures compared to the old ones,” he said, “but the very roughness and crudity of the old paintings maintains its hold on us.” Why?

Gombrich spent the last decades of his life coming to grips with this problem, and his answer finally arrived posthumously, in April of this year, in the form of The Preference for the Primitive: Episodes in the History of Western Taste and Art. It is an unfinished book: a long, diffuse, and difficult collection of essays and lectures, studded with awkward interludes and verbal tics (most prominently among them, meretricious use of the word “meretricious”). The whole thing could have used a few more months in the shop. But enough of it is there to convey Gombrich’s answer to the great puzzle of taste; and this answer poses many questions of its own. It is a troubled and troubling coda, an indictment of the very principles underlying a lifetime of scholarly achievement.

From the beginning of his career, Gombrich predicated his studies in art on the idea of progress—each age building on and surpassing the illusionistic achievements of the previous one. A version of this notion goes all the way back to Aristotle, who described the evolution of tragedy with a biological metaphor: the forms of tragedy grew and developed like an animal, eventually arriving at their ultimate shape, their natural form. The same idea was taken up by Vasari, in his Lives of the artists, to describe the development of art from infancy in Giotto to adulthood in Michelangelo. This is the matrix of concepts from which the word “primitive” arises: we could not speak of primitive art if there were no adult art with which to compare it.

Gombrich’s notion of “progress” is slightly different from Aristotle’s and Vasari’s, in that it involves a value judgment about primitive forms. In his view, the development of art is predicated on technical improvements in the creation of illusions; the newer, more realistic forms are thus superior to the older ones. “Gingerbread figures should not be regarded as great works of art,” he quotes Ernst von Garger, “even when they happen to be of stone.” A preference for archaic, less naturalistic forms amounts to perversion: it is like eating with a stick when forks are available, or crawling instead of walking, or, as Cicero said, living on acorns after grain has been discovered. In Gombrich’s view, the artists of the twentieth century, with their deliberate turn away from illusionistic techniques, inexplicably rejected “progress”: it is as if they underwent surgical operations to make their thumbs unopposable.

This is, to say the least, a constricted view of artistic change. It has an alarming tendency to equate developments in art with developments in nuclear weapons and toasters; and its drive is teleological, its judgments severely restricted by the assumption that all art tends toward the singular goal of creating illusions. Moreover, it cannot account for the art of the twentieth century except by rejecting it. Yet again and again, Gombrich twists the historical and interpretative record to support his model.

The most egregious of Gombrich’s distortions involves Vasari’s Lives, which he deploys as a kind of shorthand, a dependable supply of judgments about the value of illusion. “The revival of the arts as chronicled by Vasari in the sixteenth century,” Gombrich says, “deliberately mirrored the progress towards mimesis witnessed in the ancient world.” According to this view, Vasari didn’t appreciate the arts before Michelangelo; he merely took a quirky, antiquarian interest in them. As Gombrich must know, however, the Lives are far from a straightforward narrative of the conquest of natural appearances, and their author’s interest in older forms involves no such “distinction between antiquarian interest and aesthetic appreciation.” Vasari in fact praises many a picture that fails to offer an illusion of reality: he describes Giotto’s virtuosity in drawing a perfect O, an abstract shape; he marvels at non-mimetic works by Michelangelo, Donatello, and Masaccio; he praises Titian’s late paintings (they failed to imitate life, he says, and thus magically became alive themselves). Vasari’s story about the development of art is various and organic, permitting space both for unillusionistic painting and for appreciation of the older forms; Gombrich’s is rigid and mechanistic, describing a steady march in which each innovation absorbs and negates the last.

The same is true of other strands in Gombrich’s book. Techniques such as perspective, he declares, were invented in order to further the aim of depicting the world illusionistically: “such devices `caught on’ among painters because they constituted a move towards illusion, relegating earlier procedures nearer to the primitive.” Yet, as Gombrich’s countryman Otto Pächt has shown with great force, perspective has always worked according to a “double rule” in which illusion and abstract design coexist. In the fifteenth century, Netherlandish painters used the technique specifically to draw attention to the abstract patterns covering the two-dimensional picture surface. Of course, outside the confines of a mechanistic historical scheme, this fact is self-evident. Anyone who has looked at a picture by Paolo Uccello, or at the Mérode altarpiece, or at the Stanza della Segnatura is aware that perspective serves many purposes apart from—or even conflicting with—that of illusion.

The same principle applies to every other device used by artists. Chiaroscuro, sfumato, optical tools, atmospheric perspective, color patches, disegno, the constructive stroke—almost everything in the artist’s bag of tricks can be and is deployed for myriad purposes, including but not limited to the imitation of reality. The Western tradition has prized illusion, of course, but only as one of art’s many ends. And when artists have created or appreciated less illusionistic forms, they have not always done so out of a malicious refusal to describe the world as well as they might have. As Paul Cézanne explained of his own painterly distortions and disjunctions, “To paint from nature is to set free the essence of the model…painting does not mean slavishly copying an object.”

Given the restrictiveness of his view, Gombrich might have written a kind of outraged history, a chronicle of all the ways in which artists and connoisseurs have wasted the years scrounging after acorns. Instead, he embarks on a sincere search for causes. The quest takes on a special urgency during his forays into the twentieth century: why, he wants to know, did Picasso enjoy African masks, and why did the exalted formalist critic Roger Fry swoon over the art of children and cavemen? Why might regression constitute a kind of refinement?

The answer, Gombrich decides, is that appreciation of primitive forms arises as a moral gesture. Faced with the slick, gilded, and tacky excesses of their own times, artists and connoisseurs have consistently embarked on a nostalgic search for the simpler and purer visions of the past. This was why Plato rejected all forms of artistic innovation, believing them to be nothing more than a poisonous indulgence of the senses. Many centuries later, Protestant reformers took up the same idea, arguing that naturalistic art is irreligious—that the beautiful, illusionistic naked bodies of Greek sculpture are forms of sacrilege, that they elevate the human body to the status of a god. As Peter von Cornelius said, the art of the academy “has drunk too deeply from the chalice of the Babylonian whore”. Our only escape from godlessness is the chaste frescoes of Fra Angelico, who, Vasari wrote, never took up a brush without praying.

In Gombrich’s final estimation, however, these pious and moralizing beliefs conceal the same old tendency: pusillanimous rejection of the possibilities of art. “The increase of artistic resources also increases the risk of failure,” he says. “Base line art is safer and all the more lovable for that.” If we say that depicting the naked human body is shameful, we are excused from the challenges of describing it; if we reject the art of the Academy as kitschy, we no longer have to attend school or learn the techniques of our predecessors. Both the “avoidance reaction” against artistic surfeit and the “pious mode” consist, at heart, of a knee-jerk reaction against the challenges of making art. These tendencies, according to Gombrich, culminate in the hundred-year-long disaster that is the art of the twentieth century.

Where Gombrich sees constriction, cowardice, and failure, however, others see dilation and progress. There exists, not surprisingly, a very different response to the question of why we prefer the primitive; it lies buried in the history of taste—in the slow, continuous expansion of our definition of what art is. We can sense the beginnings of it in Cicero, who, while firmly rejecting the older and cruder forms, saw in them a certain space for appreciation: “Zeuxis, Aglaphon and Apelles differ from each other: but none of them appears to lack anything in his art,” he said. It appears again in Vitruvius, who believed that Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns were each suitable in their own way, and fit the characters of different buildings.

In the eighteenth century, with the rise of connoisseurship, this expansion in taste became even more pronounced. Patrons and critics suddenly found themselves capable of appreciating the art of many different eras and places. Herder could now praise “the pure dignity and beauty” of ancient local legends; Goethe could speak of Andrea Mantegna as a “robust, clean, bright, detailed, conscientious, delicate and circumscribed presence that also partakes of the strict, industrious and laborious.” It is as if the eighteenth century made aesthetic pleasure into an art form unto itself, and, in searching for objects on which to project its new powers of creative appreciation, evolved a newly broad concept of how art might be made and understood. The pressure of these new forms of enjoyment even led to the revival of a lost aesthetic category, the Sublime—awesome, forceful images which made human beings aware of the infinitudes of their own imaginations. In its Kantian association with “crude nature”, the Sublime naturally gave rise to appreciation of primitive forms; so indeed did all the new forms and manifestations of taste.

This change signified a rejection of the very narrative which underlies Gombrich’s book. The story of artistic change was not one of progress, like the development of tools, alphabets, or air conditioners; rather, it embodied the unique expressions of individual souls situated in their own ages, responding to and emerging from the mesh of experiences and cultural habits unique to them. At the same time, it could employ a full range of expressive tactics and habits, gleaned from observation of newly incorporated forms of art. “The savage shapes his coconuts, his feathers and his body with weird designs, horrifying figures, loud colours,” wrote Goethe, “and yet, however arbitrary the shapes composing this creation, it will harmonize…for one emotion fused it into a characteristic whole.” That unique emotion, the expressive genius of the individual, speaking out from his own place in the world and in history, was what constituted art—not a checklist of mimetic requirements.

Why is Gombrich finally unable to accept this multiplex, expansive account of artistic change, buried as it is in his own text? Perhaps because he realizes that such a history—in its complexity and plurality, its intersecting streams of historical interest, nationalistic pride, and individual feeling—can never come under the rein of empirical models. Gombrich’s science can explain bits and pieces of how we see and create illusions; it can establish simple polarities between decorative and representative arts, between “making” and “matching”; it cannot describe the vagaries of cultural experience or the welling-up of artistic souls.

But Gombrich’s inclination for what he called “more general types of explanation”—his need to distill artistic style to a key set of activities and premises—has its own history, and this history emerges with eerie clarity in the pages of this final book. It is the notion of cultural pluralism: the idea, nourished by Vico and Herder, that there is no single answer to the question of what is good, right, and worth pursuing in history and art, and that a necessary tension arises from the many mutually exclusive and tangled ends of human enterprise. These differences, indeed, are what give the study of the humanities its spark and mystery, its inherent interest. As Herder said of the Egyptians, they “must not be judged by Greek standards but by their own…we must ask what they considered art, how they invented it at so early a period, and what they intended with it…one must not press both their works into the same system, but let each of them serve its own place and its own time.” This is an act of aesthetic generosity which Gombrich cannot bring himself to commit. He remains, to the end, an enemy of the Zeitgeist.

With good reason, of course, for it was the notion of individual and nationalistic pride, of the spirits of peoples and ages, which led to Nazism and to the terrible events of Gombrich’s own lifetime. Throughout his last book, Gombrich keeps offering hints that this is the real danger presented by pluralistic notions of beauty. He denigrates Goethe’s praise of Albrecht Dürer, for “we cannot help remembering with hindsight what consequences the injured pride of the Germans was to have in later years.” The Gothic Revival and the Nazarenes were likewise dangerous because they sought to express German nationalistic spirit. In the same vein, Burke’s vision of the Sublime was suspect, because it asserted the value of wild, messy British landscapes against the over-cultivation of French gardens. Even more generally, “we must beware of the conventional concept of national schools that still dominates our art books and our museums.” And so on and so forth. According to Gombrich, if a scheme of art history posits alternatives to some absolute set of values, then it must also endorse the moral systems and beliefs that led to National Socialism.

Gombrich’s teachers at the University of Vienna believed fervently in cultural pluralism, indeed nourished their scholarship on it. Alois Riegl thought that historians should never make value judgments about art; rather, they should simply describe changing artistic intentions, Kunstwollen, as they emerge through time. Julius von Schlosser, Gombrich’s dissertation advisor, and Hans Sedlmayr, the art historian who turned with great fervor to Nazism, held similarly broad views of history and artistic expression. When Gombrich fled to London in 1936—denouncing Sedlmayr’s followers as “enemies of reason”—he was well aware of the dangers to which pluralistic concepts of culture could succumb. He knew that expansiveness and generosity of interpretation have their flipsides, and that cultural appreciation on its own cloudy and ambiguous terms can give rise to a fallacious and destructive form of certainty. That his own interpretations were so strictured—that they militated against the various and indistinct categories of which culture itself consists—is understandable. But these interpretations describe the fears of a certain moment, and must, in our times, be understood as insufficient.

“The only strange and astonishing fact about my long life,” Gombrich once said, “is that in a period which was so full of dangers, of horrors which were grim indeed, I managed by and large to lead what is known as the life of a cloistered scholar.” In this recollection, Gombrich echoed Plato’s Republic, which describes the philosopher as a man caught in a heavy storm. While dust and rain are blown about by the wind, the philosopher stands aside under a little wall, safe within himself, gazing at the spectacle from the remove of the contemplative life; he has sought shelter from the world about him, its violence and ill-considered politics. The price he pays for seeking the truth is withdrawal: the affairs of the world are not only remote from, but also destructive of, his wisdom.

As Gombrich himself must have known, though, complete refuge of this sort is impossible; sometimes the very structures of our thoughts are conditioned by the times. His scholarly oeuvre is in certain ways a transcript of the great struggles of the twentieth century—between empiricism and doubt, history and science, plural and singular accounts of culture and its development. His was a war against uncertainty—against the infinite, mysterious, and admittedly dangerous vicissitudes of civilization—and The Preference for the Primitive is its final, futile battle. The epoch to which Gombrich belonged, and to which he so prodigiously contributed, has come to its own equivocal end.