The Importance of Being Ernst: A Reassessment of E.H. Gombrich's Relationship with Psychoanalysis

By Dedman, Rachel | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2012 | Go to article overview

The Importance of Being Ernst: A Reassessment of E.H. Gombrich's Relationship with Psychoanalysis


Dedman, Rachel, Journal of Art Historiography


Introduction - discussing myth

Ernst Gombrich is unquestionably a cultural giant of the twentieth century, whose prolific career spans seventy years of scholarship. The sheer wealth of work he produced presents both a rich intellectual legacy, and a methodological challenge. His official bibliography rivals Norm and Form in length. Yet the majority of readers, commentators and critics know Gombrich through relatively narrow material. However important The Story of Art and Art and Illusion are, they comprise merely a fraction of Gombrich's corpus. Each seminal text he produced was preceded by hundreds of versions and revisions in the form of lectures and articles, and each was continually re-evaluated and developed after initial publication. One could say that limited reading of a scholar as paradigmatic as Gombrich is inevitable, but this is an attitude that exposes the fault lines in methodological rigour.

The question arises, then, of whether twenty-first century scholars apply the same contextual and socio-historical meticulousness, with which they approach artists and objects, to the study of art historians. The more a scholar is read, the more his or her ideas are - sometimes imperceptibly - distilled, until these ideas are in danger of becoming a set of soundbites which preclude the existence of doubt or complexity in the scholar's work. This reductive interpretation must be resisted, to avoid misconception and myth building around a historian's oeuvre.

This study hopes to challenge one particular assumption made about E.H.Gombrich's theoretical position and academic influences: his relationship with psychoanalysis. It aims to problematise the commonly-held belief1 that Gombrich rejected and mistrusted psychoanalysis as a discipline, and that it had no influence on his art historical work. Gombrich's relationship with psychoanalysis is worth exploring carefully because by problematising and questioning his work, our understanding of its impact cannot fail to be enriched.

The reductive interpretation to which I perceive Gombrich to have been subject posthumously is particularly evident in one area more popularly engaged with than psychoanalysis - modern (ie. twentieth century) art. Gombrich is infamous for his dislike of modernism, but few people who regurgitate this 'fact' really explore his writing on the subject. Challenging this myth will act as a foil to the exploration of the misconceptions surrounding his relationship with psychoanalysis, and make our task of rehabilitating psychoanalysis into the wealth of Gombrich's influences appear possible.

An obituary for Gombrich, written by Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times asserts, 'his discomfort with modernism was undeniable, and it had partly to do with his disdain for novelty for its own sake. The modern era, he said, was unlike previous eras because it was ready to embrace whatever was new'.2 The power of the reductive is evident. In this obituary - a public testimony to his exceptional life - Gombrich is immortalised in terms of a myth. Gombrich himself would surely have disputed this simplification of his extensive writing on modernist ideology; in A Lifelong Interest: Conversations on Art and Science with Didier Eribon he admits, ? am very critical of the ideology of modern art, that is, of the cult of progress and the avant garde which I have frequently analysed and discussed in my chapters on Hegel'.3 However, he goes on to say:

How could an art historian fail to be interested in the transformations of art in the twentieth century? [...] Just as I can admire artists of the past whose ideology I do not share, I am also very ready to admit that artists of enormous talent lived in our century.4

Thus the simplified summary fails to tell the whole story. Kimmelman's claim that modern art was something 'he stubbornly declined to understand'5 does an injustice to the tenacity with which Gombrich pursued answers, as this study will illustrate. …

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