The Sense of Sense

E.H. Gombrich started his career as an art historian by straying from art history. As a student at the University in Berlin he was disappointed with Heinrich Wölfflin’s lectures, later published as Italy and the German Feeling for Form. (It is a disappointment that has stayed with him today to the point that he misquotes the title.1 ) He confesses: “I soon stayed away [from the lectures] in order to attend Wolfgang Köhler’s more exciting accounts of psychology.” The escape was significant for Gombrich: he has ever since been more at home in psychology than in aesthetics.

Gombrich’s most famous book, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, had an important and provocative thesis that has been largely accepted; one might even say that it is now taken for granted. He dispelled once and for all the myth of the “innocent eye, the idea that the artist looks at the world and transcribes what he sees as best he can. Gombrich’s point of departure was a “hunch,” as he calls it, that he developed in a brilliant early essay, “Meditations on a Hobby Horse,” an investigation of the biological foundations of representation. He made the striking suggestion that representation was not, as was usually assumed, essentially an imitation of visual appearance, but a substitute for something one wanted; what counted most was not the appearance of the thing but its function. A stick can be made into a hobby horse because it can be ridden. After that, it can be made more and more like a horse by being given a head so the horse can see, reins so it can be controlled, and so forth.

Art and Illusion described the way in which successive artists made their works into a more and more faithful resemblance of our visual experience of the world, an “imitation of nature” starting from schematic images. The book is not a history of art but an attempt to explain how the imitation of nature, or mimetic representation, comes about and how it progresses. The artist improves his picture by matching a given image (or schema) against what he sees and correcting it; the new image can again be improved. As Gombrich puts it, making always comes before matching.

When Gombrich announced that he would take ornament as the subject of the Wrightsman lectures given at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1970, it seemed clear that this was to be a pendant to Art and Illusion. Now, after eight years of work, the publication of The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art makes the parallel explicit: “Thus the resemblance of this volume to Art and Illusion, both in the subtitles and in the organization, is intended to underline the complementary character of the two investigations, one concerned with representation, the other with pure design.” The assertion of this “complementary character” implies that the two books together cover the basic aspects of art.2


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