A Preference for the Primitive: Gombrich's Legacy

By Wilkin, Karen | The Hudson Review, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

A Preference for the Primitive: Gombrich's Legacy


Wilkin, Karen, The Hudson Review


FOR THOSE OF US OF A CERTAIN AGE EDUCATED IN A CERTAIN WAY, the name Ernst Gombrich immediately conjures up The Story of Art, a journey from Paleolithic to Picasso that for many us was our first art history textbook. Frankly intended for novices-"for all who feel in need of some orientation in a strange and fascinating field," Gombrich announces in his preface-the book in its original form is a useful synopsis of the evolution of Western painting and sculpture, with a cursory glance at Chinese and Islamic art. It's like a tour led by a chatty, informed, only slightly condescending guide of an encyclopedic museum that miraculously houses every paradigmatic work of art from ancient Egypt to the early twentieth century, located in a city full of the paradigms of architecture. Yet despite Gombrich's avowed intention of simply showing "the newcomer the lie of the land without confusing him with details," The Story of Art is not simply a dispassionate, tidy recounting of what happened when. As Gombrich presents it, the story is definitely "conceived and told in terms of a technical progress toward the imitation of nature." The history of that "progress," for the author, is not a sequence of "isms" driven by some inevitable force, but instead a complicated account of the efforts and serendipitous achievements of individuals. No surprise then, that as adults many of us discovered another Gombrich, one whose books revealed him to be more an inquisitive observer who endlessly sought the "why" behind any manifestation than a traditional art historian concerned with specifics of influence and attribution, style and dating, norms and aberrations-although he was also a master of that approach.

Gombrich called his project a search for "an explanatory science of artistic representation," a notion that probably owed a good deal to his close association with the multivalent Warburg Institute, London's legendary pressure cooker of displaced German-speaking humanism cum Wissenschaft, where he found refuge after fleeing Vienna in the mid-1980s. In practice, over Gombrich's long and productive career, this high-minded idea translated into a series of publications that chart his continuing engagement with what I suppose must be called the psychology of art. Gombrich's books, essays, and lectures document his endless curiosity (and speculation) about how we think about everything from decorative ornament to narrative painting and a lot in between, both as perceivers of works of art and as makers. He saw it all primarily in terms of individuals, rejecting utterly the idea of a Zeitgeist, in The Story of Art, he even suggested that there was no such thing as Art (with a capital A), only artists. He remained attached to the tacit assumption underlying The Story of Art that the history of art was driven by a basic human desire for some kind of perceptual truth; and, as a result, most twentieth-century art eluded him. He was never really at ease with anything but illusionistic painting and sculpture, apparently convinced at some fundamental level that the aim of art was to reproduce the visible more or less faithfully; he discussed Cubist paintings, for example, as though they were visual puzzles intended to be mentally reconstructed-but that's a quibble. When Gombrich died in 2001 at ninety-two, he left an impressive body of provocative and illuminating works, the fruit of a lifetime's probing of attitudes toward art and artifacts that amounts to a history of taste.

The most recent addition to this legacy, published posthumously, is The Preference for the Primitive: Episodes in the History of Western Taste and Art,1 an exploration of what Gombrich sees as a pattern repeated throughout much of the history of Western art: a sequence of changing taste in which the belief that aesthetic value is commensurate with the degree of skill, refinement, and fidelity to nature exhibited by a work of art is supplanted by an appreciation for simplicity, intensity, and even crudeness.

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