Daumier said: "We must follow our own time." And Ingres said: "But what if the time is wrong."
--E.H. Gombrich and Didier Eribon, Looking for Answers: Conversations on Art and Science (1993)
THE ART HISTORIAN Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich was born on March 30, 1909, and died on November 3, 2001. The ninety-two years that he spanned were no ordinary ninety-two years, nor was the life that he crammed into them an ordinary life. Gombrich lived through the dissolution of the great empires of Europe, the destruction of some of its grandest cities and monuments, the excesses of the various nationalisms into which it dissolved, and the continuous, sometimes frenetic questioning of its cultural norms. And through the circumstances of his upbringing and career, he was no mere onlooker to these great historic convulsions. Born in Vienna, where his mother, a pianist, was the pupil of Bruckner and knew Freud and Mahler, Gombrich, while still a young man, went into exile from his native city and lived long enough to be called upon, as the most famous and distinguished art historian of his age, to comment on the work of Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst. In the hushed lisping tones that came naturally to him, he spoke always in his own voice, preferring, had the choice to be made, to provoke than to placate.
For some years Gombrich was the last survivor of that group of German-speaking scholars--including Nikolaus Pevsner, Fritz Saxl, Johannes Wilde, Edgar Wind, and Rudolf Wittkower--who had such a remarkable effect on the country of their adoption. Without any bitterness toward the nation that did not welcome them, they managed, either by keeping themselves to themselves or by becoming totally assimilated, to impose certain standards of intellectual sophistication on British art history: they forced it to come of age.
However, there were major differences within the group. To begin with, Gombrich was somewhat younger than the others. I remember vividly when I was first introduced to him, by Rudolf Wittkower, a man of sublime good nature, in what must have been the late '50s, and Gombrich was spoken of as a prodigy, as a polymath, but above all, as a man of promise. Except for The Story of Art (1950), that amazing tour de force in which the whole of Western art is set out as a voyage of discovery, and of which by now more than six million copies have been sold, the greater part of his work lay ahead. Still to come were Art and illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (1960); a biography of Aby Warburg (1970); The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art (1979); and eleven collections of essays on everything from Renaissance iconography to the cartoons of Saul Steinberg.
But what truly distinguished Gombrich from the other great European scholars was that all of them were, in their different ways, single-minded men: each had his own row to hoe and ultimately made his own contribution to the aims and methods of cultural history. Gombrich was different. His erudition was diverse, his interests were wide-ranging, and he made a point of following them wherever they led. It was this extraordinary range that determined the nature, the stature, of his achievement, but it also made him a less than contented man. Confident in his great abilities, he was often less than confident about where they took him.
It was a common s suspicion that Gombricn was not as sensitive as many lesser minds to the sensuous appeal of visual works of art. In large part this charge derives from a failure to appreciate Gombrich's aims.
Gombrich inherited from the great Vienna school of art history, of which he thought himself product, an interest in the fundamental question of the place of visual art in human culture. However the answers that the luminaries of this school gave to this question, couched as they were in terms of the spirit of the age or the nation, deeply dissatisfied Gombrich. …