Ernst Gombrich and Western Representations of the Sacred Art of India

By Mitter, Partha | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Ernst Gombrich and Western Representations of the Sacred Art of India


Mitter, Partha, Journal of Art Historiography


It is indeed an honour for me to address you tonight at the University of Vienna, the very university that nurtured my teacher and mentor, Ernst Gombrich. He enrolled at the University to research under the quiet, meditative scholar Julius von Schlosser, thereby becoming part of the famous Vienna School of Art History. One of the ideas that influenced Gombrich in his later life was the belief that art history was a science rather than a pastime for amateurs.1 Gombrich belonged to a long line of Central European art historians who had created the discipline of Kunstwissenschaft, the scientific study of art - the Swiss Germans, Burckhardt and Wolfflin, then Kugler, Schnaase, Riegl, Panofsky, Wittkower - to name some of the most prominent.

Tonight's lecture allows me to pay a tribute to my teacher. My association with Ernst Gombrich was to last for some forty years, from 1965 to the year of his death in 2001. With kindness, Gombrich often introduced me to people as a former student and a friend. Indeed I have been privileged to have been called one of his twelve apostles, perhaps unkindly and with a touch of irony, but nonetheless I feel a great honour, because Gombrich had very few direct doctoral students. The important thing for me was that he didn't believe in exercising rigid control over his students. With a twinkle in his eye he would tell me - you see in those days we were not meant to question the professor. The professor would say - what, you agree with me - you do not agree, you obey!

What I always expected of a teacher is to offer students sufficient independence to work through intellectual problems, and Gombrich was sensitive enough to give me that freedom. My exciting sessions with him consisted of his throwing questions at me to think about. Ernst Gombrich was a liberal humanist in the best sense of the term, while my own work always had a more political orientation. But I owe a profound debt to him in being able to question everything, even one's most cherished beliefs.

The substance of tonight's lecture is the history of western representations of ancient Indian art, which forms the core of my first work, Much Maligned Monsters:History of Western Representations of Indian Art (1977). It aimed at exploring the interpretations and misinterpretations of Indian art by western scholars who often saw monsters where artists had intended gods.2 As I hope to show, Ernst Gombrich directly influenced the work in quite unexpected ways. Of course, one may say, in the final analysis, his specialism was western art and culture. However, in this talk I want to argue that although Gombrich was renowned as a great scholar of the Renaissance, with his path-breaking début on Giulio Romano and Mannerism, his contribution to cultural theory has in fact had a far greater and wider, though nowadays less recognized, impact.31 would suggest that his classic, Art and Illusion, laid the foundations of the new discipline that may be described as the history of representations. This discipline has had a great impact not only on art but also on literature and a variety of disciplines, and above all, on post-modern and post-colonial theory. Let me quote an important passage from Murray Krieger, a Professor of English in the US, and by no means an uncritical admirer of Gombrich. Krieger wrote in 1984, 'It is difficult to overestimate the impact.. .which Gombrich's discussion of visual representation made on.. .an entire generation of thinking about art - and even more - on literary art.. .theory and criticism. Art and Illusion radically undermined the terms which had controlled discussions on how art represented 'reality'.. .1 believe he must, then, be seen as responsible for some of the most provocative turns that art theory, literary theory, and aesthetics have taken in the last two decades.'4

As early as 1954, Gombrich exploded the myth of the innocent eye, invoking the linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf's idea that language didn't name pre-existing objects or ideas so much as it articulated the world of experience. …

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