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The Last Humanist


When Ernst Gombrich, the most celebrated art historian of our time, died last year at the age of ninety-two it seemed as though not just an individual career but a whole movement of thought and sensibility had come to an end. He was the last of the great Central European humanists who sought to realize the dream, first set forth by Jakob Burckhardt in the 1860s, of a Kulturwis-senschaft: a comprehensive, “scientific” study of Western high culture that was at the same time a defense of that culture against the terrible simplifiers of modern barbar- ism. Ernst Robert Curtius, Erich Auerbach, and Leo Spitzer in literature, Ernst Cassirer, Karl Pop- per, and Paul Oskar Kristeller in philosophy, and Erwin Panofsky, along with Gombrich, in art history, most of them refugees from Germany and Austria to Britain and the United States in the late Thirties and early Forties, produced a series of formidable works, synoptic, self-confident, and astonishingly learned, that sought to reclaim the heritage of European scholarship after the fascist catastrophe and reestablish it in the, as they saw it, thin and directionless postwar world. The words with which Curtius, who stayed behind in Bonn quietly writing his way through the horror, prefaced his grand, unbending study of Latin literature in the Middle Ages—begun in 1928, finished in 1948—could have served as motto for them all: “This book does not content itself with scientific purposes; it attests to a concern for maintaining Western civilization.”1

Gombrich’s recruitment into this extraordinary enterprise in cultural reclamation was effected through the agency of an odd, unclassifiable library-cum-research center moved bodily from Hamburg to London in the early Thirties: the Warburg Institute. Originally founded by the now nearly mythical figure Aby Warburg of the banking Warburgs, a follower of Burckhardt’s, a compulsive bibliophile, and a proponent of what he called alternatively “historical psychology,” “the psychology of style,” “the science of culture,” and “the afterlife of antiquity,” the institute formed a home for a wide variety of German-speaking humanists trying to continue or restart their interrupted careers in an Anglo-American environment—philologists, archaeologists, iconologists, epigraphers, stylisticians, ethnologists, psychoanalysts, mythographers, archivists, historians of science, painting, religion, and philosophy, exegetes, and rhetoricians. Gombrich, who left Vienna at twenty-six, a half-step ahead of the Anschluss, joined the institute as the editor of Warburg’s papers in 1936 and remained with it, eventually as its director, for the rest of his life. “I found myself in an entirely new milieu,” he said in an informal talk fifty years later, reflecting on his sudden passage from a staid, discipline-bound university system to the swirl of recondite studies (“the patronage of the Medici, the survival of Neo-Platonism, Vasari, astrology”) that was the Warburg. “Nobody quite knew what we were doing and why we were doing it…. It is not an art-historical institute and it never was.”2

Since the Warburg was not an art-historical institute, Gombrich, who had been quite traditionally trained, mostly in the typology of ornament, had perforce to become something other than, or anyway something besides, an art historian. Generally uninterested, by his own account, in connoisseurship, in iconography, in criticism, or in aesthetics, and deeply hostile to both the sociology of art (then, mostly Marxisant) and to any form of Hegelian murmuring about “world view,” “the spirit of the age,” or “the unfolding of the Absolute,” he turned instead—single-handedly and with a fierce sense of breaking with “the charmed circle of…people who say, ‘You know this picture will come up at Christie’s in three weeks’ time. …How much do you think it will fetch?’”—toward the development of what he called “an explanatory science of artistic representation”:

…I staked my claim to be interested not only in the history of art as it is [usually] taught, but in something different. That difference is an interest in explanations. Explanations are scientific matters: how do you explain an event? I thought that certain aspects of the development of representation …which I had discussed in The Story of Art in the traditional terms of “seeing and knowing,” deserved to be investigated in terms of contemporary psychology…. I studied the subject for the sake of explanation….

This…meant that I never became a proper art historian…. My main interest has always been in more general types of explanation, which meant a certain kinship with science. Science tries to explain. In history we record, but in science we try to explain single events by referring them to a general regularity.3

The launching of this program took place, suddenly, boldly, and all at once, in 1956, when Gombrich gave the prestigious Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts at the National Gallery in Washington. Under the general title “The Visible World and the Language of Art,” he set out what has come generally to be known as a “constructivist,” as opposed to a mimetic, approach to the plastic arts.4 “No artist,” he declared roundly, “can ‘paint what he sees.’” What he (she) can do, and does, is exploit the means available in this place, or that time, for image-making, the production of sensory illusion. “The world can never quite look like a picture, but a picture can look like the world.”

This reverse mimesis (“There was no fog in London,” Oscar Wilde remarked, “before Whis-tler painted it”) is, however, a much more complex and various achievement than it might at first appear. “The story of art,” in Gombrich’s account, is not a procession of periods and masterpieces, a progress of the spirit. It is a long and unplanned series of technical inventions and psychological discoveries, inventions like perspective or impasto or foreshortening, discoveries like gestalt perception, size constancy, and color spreading—concrete, un- obvious, and extremely hard come by. From prehistoric hunters scratching the outlines of bison on the walls of their caves or children drawing cats as superimposed circles with arc tail and triangle ears to Constable rendering clouds, rainbows, and the shadowed meadows of Wivenhoe Park as “experiments in natural philosophy” or van Gogh using the collision of violet walls, red floors, and green doors to depict The Night Café as “a place where one could go mad” (“color alone,” he wrote to Theo, “must carry it off”), the development of illusionist painting—the only sort for which Gombrich shows much enthusiasm—is a matter of first constructing images and then, only then, fitting them to expressive aims. It involves contriving a language and then saying…suggesting…arguing…show- ing…something by means of it. “Making,” he says in what has become a famous slogan, “precedes matching.”

With this basic notion in hand most everything else falls into place. The succession of styles, standards, and canons of taste in the visual arts emerges from a process of trial and error, of experiment with schema and correction rather like that his friend and mentor, the philosopher Karl Popper, describes for the natural sciences, a sort of pictorial problem-solving.5 Art builds on art; the innocent eye is aimed and educated; the power of appearances is gradually discovered; the language of representation—“cryptograms on canvas” (the phrase, surprisingly, is Winston Churchill’s)—is revised and extended. The Greek muralists’ rendering of round figures turning freely in the picture plane (a “conquest of space” Gombrich compares to the invention of flying), Rembrandt’s soft-focus projections of the human gaze, Dürer’s experiments with negative shapes and Escher’s with impossible ones, the Impressionists’ exploration of synesthetic color effects and the Cubists’ with spatial disruptions—all these are episodes in a cumulative yet undirected expansion of our capacity for graphical representation. It is, again, rather like science, or like the progress of civilization overall: an opportunistic, precarious, easily interrupted, easily diverted process of lurching toward a more various sense of the world and the possibilities it holds for us.


There is, however, a flaw, unnerving and hard to account for, in this uplifting story of makings, matchings, and the onward evolution of artistic skill: the tide of taste often runs in the other direction. It runs toward crudeness, toward clumsiness, toward the insipid, the sugary, the brutal, the decadent, the seductive, the naive, the regressive, the unfinished, the simple, the violent, the exotic, the vulgar, and the inept, toward, in a word—for Gombrich a charged, voluminous word containing multitudes—“the Primitive.” “The Primitive” is everything that goes “counter to [the] dominant trend [of artistic effort].” It is a “revulsion from that very perfection that art [is] said to aim at.” The archaic, the tribal, the popular, the commercial; Fra Angelico, Doric capitals, Art Officiel, Guernica, kitsch, schmaltz, Japonisme, Dada, Grandville, graffiti, the comic strip, and airport art; Yoruba masks, Cycladian idols, and Greek terra cottas—all are said to be marked, in one way or another, by the primitive. So too Attic oratory, the Arch of Constantine, and the paintings of children, madmen, and—as with Klee, Dubuffet, Gauguin, Thurber—the faux naive. We can, says Cicero, perhaps the first to note the fashion for artlessness and to raise a question about it, appreciate the rough style of Thucydides without wishing to write as he did: “Are men so perverse as to live on acorns after grain has been discovered?”

Apparently they are. Gombrich’s concern with the fact that, given a choice, people, artists and viewers alike, even those dubious collectors and connoisseurs, often, all too often, choose the less developed, refined, orderly, or perfected over the more, show not just an interest in “the primitive” but a positive, active preference for it, suffuses virtually all his work—haunts it as an unfocused, diffusive worry, a darkening cloud that won’t go away. In 1953, “the game of Cubism” is described in a lecture to the British Psycho-Analytical Society as “the great smashing…the art of representing Humpty Dumpty after the fall [in which the artist] pours into…regressive forms all the aggression and savagery that was pent up in him.” In 1970, the pop artist Roy Lichtenstein is said, in a BBC talk on “The Primitive and its Value in Art,” to have “found himself trapped in a field of force in which he could see no move but that of turning to the [gross and simplified] imagery beloved of the unsophisticated masses.”

In 1979, in his Cooper Union Lectures, “The Ideas of Progress and Their Impact on Art,” Courbet, Delacroix, Gérôme, and Manet—“early modernism,” broadly construed—are seen as Hegelian sleepwalkers caught up in “a mindless cult of change.” Throughout, he keeps promising and repromising a sustained and systematic, presumptively definitive, work on the subject to be called The Preference for the Primitive. Apparently at last completed just before his death (given its conglomerate, discontinuous form—it is an enormous bear of a book, put together like an album or a handbook, and ranging far beyond “art” as such to philosophy, rhetoric, and the history of ideas—it is hard to know if he really was finished with it), it is now published posthumously, closing out his career with something between relief and resignation:

  1. 1

    Quoted from Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature in the Latin Middle Ages (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953). For the others, see, inter alia: Eric Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Doubleday, 1953); Leo Spitzer, Linguistics and Literary History: Essays in Stylistics (Princeton University Press, 1948); Ernst Cassirer, Essay on Man: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Human Culture (Yale University Press, 1944); Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (Routledge, 1945); Paul O. Kristeller, Renaissance Concepts of Man (Harper and Row, 1972); Erwin Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts (Doubleday, 1955). For Burckhardt, see The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (Phaidon, 1995; orig. Leipzig, 1877–1878).

  2. 2

    An Autobiographical Sketch,” in E.H. Gombrich, The Essential Gombrich, edited by Richard Woodfield (Phaidon, 1996), pp. 21–36. On Warburg and Warburgism more generally, see Felix Gilbert, “From Art History to the History of Civilization: Aby Warburg,” in History: Choice and Commitment (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1977), pp. 423–439, originally a review of Gombrich’s own Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography (Warburg Institute, 1970). Warburg died in 1929.

  3. 3

    Gombrich, “An Autobiographical Sketch,” pp. 33–34, italics in original. “I don’t…look down on [such] people,” he continues: “Some of my best friends are connoisseurs.” The Story of Art (Phaidon, 1950), a commissioned book written (or, rather, dictated) under the press of need over the course of some weeks immediately after the war, turned out to be Gombrich’s most popular work, going through more than forty editions and twenty translations, though he himself seems to have been a bit embarrassed by it (“Within the Warburg Institute nobody was interested in that book, and I don’t think anyone ever read it.”) and only occasionally refers to it, and then obliquely, in his later writings. It should be said that in his books and articles on paintings and exhibitions in these pages and elsewhere, he showed himself a master of the very fields of art history he said were outside his main interests.

  4. 4

    The lectures, revised and expanded, were published as Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (Princeton University Press, 1960).

  5. 5

    For Popper, whose approach is usually referred to as “critical realism” or “evolutionary epistemology,” see Con-jectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (Basic Books, 1962).

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