Obituary: Sir Ernst Gombrich
Hope, Charles, The Independent (London, England)
ERNST GOMBRICH was the most famous art historian in the world. His reputation was based less on a particular approach to the subject, or the mastery of a single period, than on the breadth of his interests and his skill at making the history of art interesting to a non-specialist public.
His first major book, The Story of Art (1950), written primarily for teenagers, is still in print almost half a century after it appeared. Translated into at least 19 languages and selling over a million copies, even today it remains the most accessible, intelligent and stimulating introduction to the subject. It has also created a vast demand for Gombrich's other work of a more specialised kind, so that his books now have pride of place in the art history section of virtually every bookshop.
Gombrich was born in Vienna in 1909, into a family that seems to typify the bourgeois values of the last years of the Austro- Hungarian empire. His father, Karl, was the vice-president of the Disciplinary Council of the Austrian Bar, while his mother, the pianist Professor Leonie Hock, had been taught by Bruckner and sometimes played with Schoenberg. She also knew Mahler, and Freud, whom she did not much like, although she admired his brilliance at telling Jewish anecdotes.
Ernst Gombrich himself, like his parents, was not particularly drawn to the more avant-garde aspects of Viennese intellectual life, but he was brought up with a wide knowledge of European literature, art and especially music, which was to remain his greatest source of pleasure throughout his life. His friends included many musicians, and his sister Dea was a member of the Busch Quartet. Though both his parents were of Jewish origin, neither of them felt that this had any relevance to their own lives, and the same was true of Gombrich himself. The question of whether or not someone was Jewish, as he himself observed, was one he preferred to leave to the Gestapo. In later life he was certainly no Zionist, and disliked all manifestations of nationalism and chauvinism.
The comfortable world into which he was born was destroyed by the First World War. In order to escape the food shortages of the post- war period the young Gombrich was sent in 1920 with his sister Lisbeth to Sweden, where he lived for nine months with a coffin- maker. Back in Vienna, his school-days do not seem to have been particularly happy. He evidently found most of the lessons too easy, and he had no taste or aptitude for sport. Despite an early interest in science, he was in no doubt that he wanted to study art history at university, a choice reluctantly accepted by his father, who himself had been forced to study law rather than science, on the grounds that his chances of employment were so bleak that he might as well do something that interested him.
Vienna had for several decades been one of the main centres for the history of art in Europe, with a university department that had long been outstanding for the distinction of its staff and the range of their interests. In Gombrich's own day the most famous professors were Josef Strzygowski and Julius von Schlosser. From Strzygowski, notorious for his arrogance as well as his dislike of the art of the Roman empire and its later influence, Gombrich acquired some of his interest in the art of Egypt and the ancient near East, but he found Schlosser a much more inspiring teacher.
Even today, Schlosser is considered one of the giants of the subject. He is best known for his survey of the entire corpus of European writing on art, stretching from antiquity to modern times. These texts, including guidebooks, works of criticism, technical treatises and early historiography, provide an essential tool for understanding the attitudes of artists and their public at all periods. Yet this incomparable resource was scarcely exploited by art historians in the first decades of …
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Publication information: Article title: Obituary: Sir Ernst Gombrich. Contributors: Hope, Charles - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: November 6, 2001. Page number: 6. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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