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E.H. Gombrich (1909–2001)

Ernst Gombrich, who died on November 3, was born in Vienna in 1909. His parents participated in the cultural and intellectual life of their time, numbering Freud and Mahler among their acquaintances, while remaining rather conventional in their tastes. From his mother Gombrich inherited a lifelong passion for music, and at school he acquired a solid classical education and an interest in science. At the university in Vienna he chose to study art history, becoming familiar with the entire range of Western and ancient art, and, just as importantly, with the written sources related to it, but from very early on he was skeptical of attempts, then in fashion, to see artistic style largely as a product of social change or collective attitudes of mind. After completing his dissertation he worked with the psychoanalyst Ernst Kris on a study of caricature, a job which sharpened his interest in questions of representation that would preoccupy him for the rest of his life.

In 1936, thanks to Kris, Gombrich obtained a post at the Warburg Institute in London, which was to become the center of his activity and of which he was later director. But his career was soon interrupted by the war, during which he monitored and translated German broadcasts, a task which gave him the opportunity of perfecting his English.

His most widely read book, The Story of Art, appeared in 1950 and has subsequently gone through sixteen editions and been translated into twenty-nine languages. It is work of deceptive simplicity, discussing artistic change in terms not of style but of the practical problems that artists faced and of the means that they adopted to solve them, and it is written with extreme clarity. Gombrich then explored the issues of representation from a different perspective in Art and Illusion (1960), in which he examined how art relates to the psychology of visual perception, and in particular how artists learned to depict the visible world by a process of trial and error. This was by far the most sophisticated and original attempt to apply scientific ideas to the study of the visual arts that had appeared up to that time and it remains the basis of all later discussions of the subject.

Gombrich himself continued to explore the relationship of psychology and art in his later work, notably in his study of ornament, The Sense of Order (1979), but he also published extensively on the history of Renaissance art, on questions of meaning in paintings, and on the mechanism and interpretation of stylistic change. Much of his work was first disseminated in lectures, which he delivered with outstanding skill, or in book reviews, some twenty-seven of which appeared in these pages. Gombrich was not much interested in making historical discoveries. Instead he ranged with equal authority over the entire history of Western art, seeking patterns and asking questions. Deeply influenced by his friend Karl Popper, he saw art history as posing problems that could be analyzed, tested, and solved by the application of knowledge and common sense. His great skill lay in defining these problems in ways that seemed amenable to solution. This was partly because of the power of his intellect but also because of his sensitivity to rhetoric, the art of persuasion.

Gombrich was unpretentious in his manner but uncompromising in argument and at times even severe in his judgments, however courteously these might be expressed. For him, clarity of thought and expression was almost a moral duty; in art as well as in life he was attracted by the idea that a plain style carried intrinsic value. This partly explains his dislike of jargon and academic theorizing, although his suspicion of overtly ideological approaches to art history had deeper roots. He would wish to be remembered not just as an innovator in his chosen subject, but as a defender of disinterested intellectual inquiry.

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