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A Matter of Form

In response to:

Waiting for Cézanne from the June 20, 1968 issue

To the Editors:

I am grateful to Professor Gombrich for not counting me among the reactionaries, or “conservatives,” as the extremely touchy non-objective artists and their partisans indiscriminately do. I feel, however, prompted to object to some of his statements in his review of my book [NYR, June 20], which seem to me to disregard certain subtle, but very important distinctions. There is, first, the distinction between conditions and structures. The “distribution of pressures and temperatures” in a lake, and its environmental equilibrium, are indeed very delicate, flexible balances, but they are conditional, fluid balances, which do not reach a state of solidified structures. Incidentally, I never contended that such balances are “fortuitous” and “incoherent,” which the vast systems of biological, geological, chemical cycles of nature nowhere are. Incoherence is an achievement of man.

This involves a general lack of distinction between different levels of reality. What I considered was the realm of structures, and as far as that goes, I think, my contrasting structural form with structureless shape is entirely valid. More specifically, I was concerned in this book with artistic form, and with the artistic effort toward form rather than with perfectly finished form, which, as Professor Gombrich rightly remarks, hardly any work of art, be it ever so accomplished, has even been attained, without flaws. This is fortunate, because, were it flawless, it would be a mechanism, and the unconscious aim of the artist, which goes far beyond his conscious will, would be missing in his work. We have to be grateful for the inherent human flaw in a work of art, since it reveals the unending human effort and the existential depth of the artist.

Just as complete incoherence, so also complete mechanical coherence, i.e. the machine, is the work of man. Nature, although coherent in its vastest, humanly ungraspable expanse, is never pure mechanism, never a machine, which is an abstraction and extraction from nature effected by the human intellect.

A further point I have to dispute is the invalidity of history, an argument that is also very dear to Professor Popper. It appears to me to derive from another lack of distinction, between essentials and non-essentials, and in this connection again between levels of reality. It is true that art meant different things to different civilizations, it played different roles, had different places in the hierarchies of concerns of the periods. Life is not compartmentalized. But there still exist, above these different significances, coherence and consequence between the styles of art, internally, technically, as well as in their being affected by the general climate and trend of the age. Nothing springs out of the void and ends in the void; influences are effective from the past, from the different sectors and levels of contemporary reality, religious, social, political, intellectual, and far into the future; and they have indeed a distinct evolutional direction.

Professor Gombrich challenges “the application of evolutionism to the diminutive span of recorded human history,” and treats it as a mere “metaphor.” But he seems to me to overlook the fact that this “span of recorded human history” is not measurable by the number of years, and that by applying this standard he is not comparing “like with like.” The years of the time of antiquity are not the years of our era. For, as a result of the technical acceleration and multiplication of events, and the ubiquity of our experience, approaching sheer simultaneity, the time of our age has a different quality, a different density and intensity as compared with the times of earlier periods.

There are certainly in every age a vast variety of artistic forms and expressions, but when we view from a vantage point the whole scenery of an epoch, then mutual connections of its movements, and a dominant, essential continuity of the successive epochs stand out. The development of perspective and spatiality, of general sensibility of impression and resilience of expression in the early centuries of the Italian Renaissance, the expansion into the landscape in the North, the emergence of mannerism out of the renaissance, the evolution of impressionism from romanticism and realism, indeed in the last analysis from Rembrandt and the Northern masters, the connection of Cézanne with Manet and Monet, and, out of Cézanne the growth of cubism, and from cubism the expansion of non-objective art and its multidimensionality, up to the developments which I attempted to trace through the last decades, this continuity—even seen at a glance and skipping all the links—is still so striking that it seems to me hard to disprove.

It appears to me just as difficult to contest the mounting trend toward collectivism and the correlative shrinking of the significance of the individual, and everything individual, in our days. Surely, all ages of man abound with acts of monstrous inhumanity and cruelty, but who could fail to observe the emergence of that new phenomenon of a-humanity, of complete callousness and insensibility, which grew with the ascent of collectivism? The horrors of our age are in their effect on individuals not worse than those of former times, but they are collectivized and mechanized, which gives them a new dimension, a boundless potentiality of unprecedented scope and peril.

Erich Kahler

Princeton, New Jersey

E.H Gombrich replies:

I have had my say, and so has Professor Kahler. Perhaps the matter should be allowed to rest here. I tried to point out that the Aristotelian concepts of form and of evolution with which he operates are more vulnerable than his use of them suggests. He counters with more concepts from the same tradition including “levels of reality,” “existential depth,” and the contrast between Nature and the Intellect. The fight against this tradition and its derivatives has gone on for many centuries. Some of its critics—notably Sir Karl Popper whose arguments are especially directed against the Aristotelian concept of “essence”—are even inclined to make this school of thought which culminated in Hegel responsible for the rise of that Collectivism which both Professor Kahler and I abhor. Compared to these issues, too large for a letter, the interpretation of contemporary art is a minor matter. But may I remind your readers that far from wanting to “disprove” the continuity of stylistic developments in the history of Western art I have devoted one book to the description of these continuities, and another to the attempt to explain them without appealing to Aristotelian or Hegelian principles?

I have been hauled over the coals by another correspondent for speaking of Cézanne as a near recluse “who neither wanted nor needed to exhibit.” I should have said that since he was financially independent and had been much hurt in his youth he had become reluctant to submit his work to juries and committees, however much he would have liked it to be shown in the Salon. But I was not writing about Cézanne so much as about the fact that it was as hard for Carl Justi to know about him in Bonn in 1902 as it may be for Professor Kahler to know about an equally significant painter today. I think this argument still stands, even though I also know that Berenson did mention Cézanne in 1897.

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