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
Gombrich’s work on “pure design” is partly informed by a faint distaste for modern art, not always well disguised. This is made obvious by his tendency to label all abstract painting as “experiments.” He writes on the first page of The Sense of Order: “It was perhaps inevitable that this interest [in representational skills] was sometimes identified with a championship of figurative as against non-objective art, all the more as I have criticized certain theories advanced in favor of these twentieth-century experiments.” It is a bit late in the day to apply the term experiment to the achievements of Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Pollock. While Gombrich certainly does not equate art and illusion, he does seem to feel that on the whole great art requires a balance between mimetic representation and design. In the epilogue “Some Musical Analogies” Gombrich launches a head-on attack on atonality where he gives full vent to his dislike of modern art.
As I remember the lectures, they were extraordinarily polished in their composition, timing, and delivery, and they were greatly appreciated by the audience. Gombrich’s antipathy to modern art seemed more overt, his ideas more bluntly asserted than in the book, which has become quite different. Gombrich, always quick at discovering the faults in the arguments of others, is almost as adept at finding weaknesses in his own thought. In the published book he has now hedged his ideas with so many qualifications that the arguments have become involved and diffuse, the ideas often hard to follow and usually impossible to summarize. It is especially difficult to do justice to the wealth of observations and insights that enliven every page.
The book begins with a sketch of the development of ideas on ornament and design from the neo-classicism of the eighteenth century until the first years of the twentieth; the time usually considered the beginning of modern art. Gombrich is principally concerned here with the relation between decoration and high art, and with the pervasive idea that ornament is immoral. He traces the condemnation of rococo design and decoration in general in neoclassical theory until the great Viennese architect Adolf Loos half humorously damned all ornament in his essay “Ornament and Crime.” In this famous manifesto of modern art, Loos explains that it is normal for primitive men to like ornament and for savages to be tattooed, but that in our civilized society only criminals have tattoos. An innocent man with a tattoo is only a criminal who has not had a chance to commit his crime.
Gombrich is anxious to show that the theories of abstract art that emerged in the twentieth century derived from nineteenth-century discussions of ornamental design. While there is some truth in this, one should not forget that a conception of abstract art is implied and sometimes quite explicitly affirmed in the romantic theory of art articulated around 1800 by German critics and painters such as Tieck and Runge, and that it recurred throughout the century, being most powerfully restated by Symbolism. To insist that one stream of thought culminated in abstract art is tendentious and misleading. In practice, it was essentially landscape that was the laboratory of abstract art; in both Kandinsky and Mondrian the movement from landscape to abstraction can be followed step by step, and it bears little relation to the procedures of stylization used by the professional designers of late-nineteenth-century ornament.3
Having examined various theories of design, Gombrich then attempts to provide general definitions of the aims of the decorative artist and finds them in what he calls framing, filling, and linking. Framing consists of defining and stressing the field to be ornamented. Filling speaks for itself, and linking is really an extension of filling. “Any regular lattice or symmetrical design is always capable of further development by the creation of links between its constituent elements. In this process a rich network of progressive intricacy can be seen to emerge….”
The second part of The Sense of Order is devoted to the psychology of perception and its application to the way we perceive patterns and design. This is Gombrich’s favorite subject and in many ways the best part of the book. His theory of knowledge has been borrowed from his great friend Sir Karl Popper. Knowledge does not advance through the verification of a hypothesis, but through its invalidation. A hypothesis is held workable until proved wrong, in which case a more powerful one is required. “All French women are blond,” concludes the Englishman disembarking at Calais. He holds to this theory until he meets one French brunette, at which time he must build a more workable hypothesis.
This method has been transported by Gombrich to the domain of perception. We unconsciously assume continuity and regularity. It is the irregularities, the breaks in continuity, that attract our attention and shatter our assumptions. Gombrich writes:
We expect things not to change unless we have evidence to the contrary. Without this confidence in the stability of the world we could not survive. Our senses could not cope with the test of mapping the environment afresh every moment. They rather serve our internal representation, on which we enter certain observations and assumptions, with which we operate unless and until they are disproved. This is the application of the “Popperian asymmetry” which I foreshadowed in the Introduction. Our whole sensory apparatus is basically tuned to the monitoring of unexpected change.
The theory of visual perception that took the camera for a model is, Gombrich persuasively assures us, clearly obsolete. Recent work on perception, upon which Gombrich relies, is based on information theory and takes a much more sophisticated apparatus as its model of explanation: the computer, programmed to process data and to detect irregularities and deviations from regular patterns. There are good reasons to believe that, like the model of the camera, this new model itself will eventually be superseded, but for the moment it certainly accommodates a great deal more observation and evidence than the old one. Gombrich gives fascinating examples of how his principles operate in the perception of shapes and patterns. In the case of the pyramid illustrated on page 19, for example, he comments:
…the progressive diminution in the width of the steps is taken for granted. Now it is the identity of the two in the middle which breaks the sequence and attracts attention.
What we call a “visual accent” must always depend on this principle….
Gombrich then proposes to examine how his hypothesis, or tentative theory of perception, can illuminate the way we perceive designs aesthetically, the “feelings” of restlessness or repose, balance or instability induced by certain motifs. But he is aware of the jump he now takes when leaving the rudiments of perception and entering into even the simplest of aesthetic effects. He sees the danger both in the “subjective element”—different people will react differently—and in the fact that reaction to a test in this field is largely influenced by the giving of the test itself. Yet he is not entirely pessimistic. He writes:
Benedetto Croce dismissed the experimental psychology of his day with the remark that if he were asked which shape of a rectangle he preferred for an envelope he would have to know whether it was to contain a love letter or a business letter. He was right, but only partly so. In fact few people care about the shape of the envelope unless their attention is drawn to it. It is only after they have been asked that they may discover their preferred choice…. We do not claim, as do so many books on the aesthetics of design, that certain combinations of shapes or colors should or must be seen in any particular way. We remain aware of the fact that we are frequently asking leading questions and that these inevitably affect the subsequent response. Why should they not? They are part of the previous experience the subject brings to the pattern, but the answer may still tell us something worth knowing.
In his analysis of effects, Gombrich realizes that he cannot deal with the perception of geometric configurations without some kind of mimetic interpretation. “We would be hard put,” he points out, “to decide in which of the categories to place one of the most frequent devices of ornamental design—the interlace.” This is a perfectly regular two-dimensional pattern which we irresistibly perceive as three-dimensional strips running behind or in front of one another. We have a natural tendency to read things into what we see, to interpret any shape as an image of something else.
But, as we are shown in the next chapter, “Shapes and Things,” the repetition and the regular arrangement of representational motifs deflate their mimetic effects. A leaf motif can almost completely lose its naturalistic appearance by being repeated in a geometric arrangement. In the light of his theory of perception, Gombrich discusses the impact of patterns on our understanding of images, and the way a decorator can exploit our tendency to project images into shapes so that, for instance, the most indistinct suggestion of eyes or mouth induces us to see a face. Gombrich proposes some suggestive psychological and even biological explanations of these phenomena, but he prudently abstains from a coherent and complete theory of design.
In the third part of his book, Gombrich takes an even greater speculative leap and tackles the general question of continuity and change in the history of art, what is often referred to as the problem of style. We generally believe that things made at a particular time in a particular place (seventeenth-century France, or Florence in the Renaissance) have a sort of family resemblance, sufficient for us to be able, when we see a picture or a snuff box, to say things like “That must have been made in Germany in the eighteenth century.” This familiar experience, which at first sight may seem innocuous enough, cannot be accounted for in any simple way and poses the most nagging problem for any theory of history. Furthermore, it is hard not to feel that the playful exuberance of rococo furniture, especially if compared to the grand severity of French furniture made fifty years earlier, tells us something about the society that produced it, that it does “express its time” and even in some way corresponds to the freedom and amiable audacity of a contemporary writer like Voltaire.
The most sustained effort to account for the changing significance of styles was probably made around 1900 by the Viennese historian Alois Riegl, who had also, some years before, written what Gombrich and most other historians consider the finest work on the history of ornament. One of Gombrich’s concerns is to define his attitude to his great predecessor. “I cannot but regret,” he writes in his preface, “that my continued interest in the theories of one of the most original thinkers of our discipline has earned me the reputation of being hostile to this great man.” In the introduction to Art and Illusion Gombrich wrote that Riegl’s theory “weakens resistance to totalitarian habits of mind.” Such a statement might help to explain this regrettable reputation for hostility.
Gombrich has no great difficulty in accounting for continuity in the history of art, for the persistence of certain forms over a long period of time. His theory of perception lends itself well to the task, by simply extending the principle of regularity. “The force of habit,” he starts this new part of the book, “may be said to spring from the sense of order. It results from our resistance to change and our search for continuity. Where everything is in flux and nothing could ever be predicted, habit establishes a frame of reference against which we can plot the variety of experience.” Habit is the effect of the sense of order in time.
Gombrich’s principal illustration of the extraordinary persistence of certain patterns is borrowed precisely from Riegl. It is the motif of the palmette which has a continuous history from ancient Egypt to the present, undergoing several metamorphoses as lotus flower, abstract design, acanthus leaf, and finally arabesque. While Gombrich is enthusiastic about Riegl’s historical findings, he considers Riegl’s view of the persistence of ornament somewhat mystical, and attempts a rational explanation for the choice of one motif over others and for its continued success. He suggests a Darwinian notion of fitness. “Thus the acanthus scroll offers scope for all the basic activities of the decorative designer which I described in Chapter III as ‘framing, filling, and linking’—the latter taking the forms of branching or radiation—and combines them in so flexible and sensitive a way that it offers the perfect instrument for the organization of areas.” Gombrich, however, is quick to tell us that “any such analysis must, by its very nature, have all the faults of an ‘ad hoc’ hypothesis which cannot be tested.”
Gombrich’s theory can make useful and interesting suggestions about the continuity we observe in the history of art, about the preference for certain forms over others. However, when it comes to the coherence of art over a given period of time, Gombrich seems unable to bring his psychological theory to bear effectively on the problems that arise. In his attempt to do so, he warns us against an obvious trap and tumbles into an even more obvious one when he writes:
We certainly must not fall into the trap of reducing the artist’s choice to a few alternatives. Style in art, like style in language, is rather a matter of weighted preferences. It is only where there is a choice that those who aim at a plain style will go for the short word, whereas personalities manifesting predilections favoring polysyllabic alternatives activate opposite selectivities.
We may admire the professorial humor, but also note that Gombrich here is speaking not about the style of an age, which is the subject he claims to be tackling in this chapter, but only about the style of a person, which indeed defines itself as a choice. The style of a period is an entirely different matter: we must think of it as the range of choices at a given time, as the limits within which individual choices can be made. If we try to define a style of French painting at mid-nineteenth century, it has to accommodate both Courbet and Couture, both the advanced and the conservative possibilities. If we accept the idea of coherence at a given time and still recognize that art is made by individuals, the problem is precisely how to go from the individual choices to the large-scale changes of form and expression.
Riegl considered only the aims and the general tendencies and aspirations of societies over periods of time, but he was negligent of the how, of the modus operandi that related these aspirations to the individual making of things. We can understand Gombrich’s impatience and his suspicion of a method that plays too easily with large-scale abstractions and treats them as real objects rather than constructions of the mind. His critique of all-too-embracing theories has been brilliant ever since the 1930s. But we may also wonder how far Gombrich can go in filling the gap between the short and the long range, between the small and the large scale. He can show, as he did in Art and Illusion, how given a particular aim, artists or craftsmen will go about pursuing it. But his method of investigation has no way of seizing the larger changes of direction.
Art and Illusion was a great book; The Sense of Order is a disappointing one, although it clearly is the work of a master. In the former book Gombrich defined his subject with complete clarity and examined it within a specific historical field. When, however, he tells us that Art and Illusion was “concerned with representation,” he considerably exaggerates its scope; it dealt only with a particular kind of representation, within a narrow and traditional conception of art. While, for instance, Gombrich recognizes that photography is not “truth,” he does not include it in the realm of art. He uses photography only as an outside reference and does not even discuss the problems of “illusion” that it raises. He is in fact solely concerned with the progress of “a convincing picture of the world” within the art of the classical tradition—the art of Greek and Roman antiquity and of the period from the Renaissance to Impressionism.
This, however, is not the only kind of naturalistic art. The prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux are also a convincing picture of the world, yet it is of a very different kind from the one we have had since the Renaissance: the animals are rendered with extraordinary exactness and vividness, but in total isolation, with no concern for their three-dimensional environment. Still, we can assume that the principles of progressive adaptation defined by Gombrich apply here as well, and that these cave paintings are the result of a development comparable to that of the classical tradition.
But there are many types of representation that are not naturalistic. Images can be as abstract as Cycladic idols or early medieval art and still “represent” something without aiming at greater visual resemblance. It is, in fact, difficult to make a distinction between representation and visual signs in general. Gombrich sometimes slips into what he knows to be wrong: he assimilates representation to likeness or “illusion,” and consequently identifies meaning and visual resemblance.
If Art and Illusion dealt with much less than representation, The Sense of Order embraces a great deal more than “pure design”; a large part of the book deals with meaning as though it were taking on a range of questions left out of the first volume. Gombrich realizes the imbalance of his two projects: “Both the aims and the means [in the decorative arts] are more diffuse.” He recognizes the disparity, but he underestimates its seriousness. I think the relative confusion that mars the book can be accounted for in two main ways. First, Gombrich’s conception of “decorative art,” like his conception of “pictorial art,” is that of the classical tradition, but he extends it to the whole history of art where it applies sometimes very well and sometimes badly. The other cause of confusion is that the opposition between design and representation is not as deeply rooted in our mental activity as Gombrich would have us believe.
Gombrich holds to the traditional contrast between decorative and high art (he sometimes calls the latter “symbolic art” or pictorial art). In decorative art, meaning, for him, is subordinate to design, while in symbolic or pictorial art, it is the other way round. This is certainly true of the classical tradition, but it is by no means universal. There are many societies for which the distinction does not exist, and where the “mental set” for understanding art, to use Gombrich’s phrase, is totally different from ours. In early medieval Ireland there was no “pictorial art” of consequence corresponding to the great manuscripts like the Book of Kells with their grandiose designs. Consequently the attention paid to the amazing leaves that enriched the sacred books was not subservient to a more significant kind of art; they were a major form of expression.
The meaning of art is largely a matter of social attitudes and it changes with history. We may recall that according to Marcel Mauss, one of the founders of modern anthropology, art was that which was considered as such by a given society. Our own time has, notoriously, an almost unlimited power to make objects into art. When we frame a fragment of Coptic cloth and hang it in a museum it assumes a significance it did not have originally. Gombrich points out that this power of looking at things as art also affects the making of art today. Indeed, many modern works, such as monochrome paintings, if we did not think of them as works of art, would be completely insignificant; we would probably not notice them at all.
Gombrich is disturbed by this phenomenon and disapproves of the results. The art thus produced may not last for long, it may cease to be understood and more or less disappear (as have many other kinds of art); but this does not necessarily mean that for us today it is inferior to the more traditional kind that Gombrich enjoys. One thing, however, is sure: the present situation is the immediate result of the tradition that Gombrich admires, the tradition that opposes high art to applied art, usually reserving the unqualified name of “art” to the former. For periods when this distinction is not made, the term “decorative art” is irrelevant from a historical point of view. We can now admire the pages of the Book of Kells either as “art” or as “decorative art,” and we may do so according to our inclination or antipathy to modern abstraction. To the makers of the work, I doubt that this distinction would have meant anything at all.
Gombrich, I think, expects that he can keep “symbolic art” separate from “decorative art” without regard for any historical considerations because he believes that design and meaning stem from two basic and separable psychological features, the “sense of order” and the “search for meaning.” As he writes:
Without wanting to put too much weight on the terms chosen, I would therefore propose to distinguish between the perception of meaning and the perception of order. It appears that these basic categories play their part throughout the range of the visual arts. Needless to say the perception of meaning can never be switched off, but for the understanding of decoration we have initially to concern ourselves with the perception of order.
Not only can the perception of meaning never be switched off, but it has an extraordinary tendency to proliferate. Designs assume a social meaning almost immediately. In prehistoric societies a pattern can be distinctive of a village or of a family, and thus articulate a sense of identity. The tartans of Scotland still remind us of such systems. How long did and does it take for such patterns to assume a physiognomic or expressive value, for the tribesmen to feel that the curvilinear motif on their ceramic utensils expresses the gentleness of their tribe as opposed to the aggressiveness of their neighbor’s angular zigzags? Perhaps not very long. How quickly are mythological explanations conceived and circulated? Anthropological studies bring out both the pervasiveness of such interpretations and the fact that they become less stable as they are more elaborate. A simple motif will elicit a complex interpretation, and it is not rare for two members of the same community to come up with totally different stories.
In his discussion of the psychology of styles, Gombrich underestimates this avidity for interpretation. Some styles of ornament may appear as formal experiments, but even so, if they have any lasting success, they may assume ideological significance almost immediately. Even if the rococo style first appeared only as a novelty invented by a small group of eighteenth-century designers anxious to attract attention, it was probably very quickly felt as appropriate to a new way of life, a new turn of mind, a new sense of identity.
Meaning seems so stubbornly attached to forms that we may wonder whether the ability to perceive a pattern as only that does not require an abstracting effort that only comes after, rather than before, the perception of meaning. Take a basic element of design like a frame. We first see it as enclosing something (which is its meaning) rather than as a simple rectangular shape. Recent studies of perception, like Richard Gregory’s (whose theory Gombrich expounds), make it more and more evident that perception is thoroughly interpretative. The fact that we cannot avoid certain optical illusions even though we know that they are illusions indicates to what extent meaning is part and parcel of perception itself.
“Pure design,” which Gombrich gives such prominence in this book, is a traditional device of analysis, but not always a useful one. As a factor of artistic life, it is the exception rather than the norm, and only occurs in periods with a high level of artistic consciousness, precisely when artists try to free their activity from all other constraints. But art, in the widest sense of shape-giving, is meaningful by nature. The simplest orderly arrangement is already significant in its opposition of order to chaos. We can say that any pattern is an image or representation of order, a manifestation of the belief that the world is, or can be, orderly. If I am right, the sense of order is not only a necessary but can be a sufficient condition of meaning; one might say that the sense of order is the sense of sense.
June 28, 1979
Gombrich calls the book Die Kunst der Renaissance in Italien und das Deutsche Formgefühl; the correct title is simply Italien und das Deutsche Formgefühl; as Gombrich points out it has been “rather misleadingly translated as ‘The Sense of Form in Art.’ “ ↩
This alternative, however, does not exhaust Gombrich’s project of a psychology of art. He writes, “I hope that the book on Symbolic Images (1972) and other matters I have written on narrative and illustration can now be seen as fragments of an even more ambitious project: to study some of the fundamental functions of the visual arts in their psychological implications.” ↩
Frantissek Kupka, also an important figure in the creation of abstract art, might have been more affected by design; interestingly Gombrich never mentions him. ↩