E.H. Gombrich, 1950, 1995
“What we call ‘works of art’ are not the result of some mysterious activity, but objects made by human beings for human beings…For most of the paintings and statues which are now lined up along the walls of our museums and galleries were not meant to be displayed as Art. They were made for a definite occasion and a definite purpose which were in the artist’s mind when he set to work.” (32)
I’ve had an off-and-on interest in art for a number of years but I’ve never had any formal education on the subject. Through the years my interests and tastes have grown through my ongoing exposure to different works on display in the many museums I’ve visited throughout my travels. I’ve realized that I’m often unable to articulate why I appreciate or am drawn to certain works of art. Unlike my literary education which taught me how to articulate my appreciation or dislike for certain linguistic arts, I realize that my taste for visual art is more akin to a palate that has grown with age and exposure to quality ingredients and preparations. Certain foods just taste good, some are terrible and sometimes certain foods that tasted good to a younger version of myself are undesirable to my current palate. The same can be said of visual arts: some of it speaks to me with inspiration that illuminates an essential beauty and some of it is bland and meaningless, and some of it that I had loved in my younger years isn’t as interesting to me now.
With my most recent visit to France this past November I had the fortunate pleasure to dive deep into the extensive collections on display in this art loving city. I followed through an ambitious challenge to explore the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, and Centre Pompidou in chronological succession over two days. Viewing the transition of art through time from the ancient to the renaissance, on to the baroque and later impressionist and post-impressionist and then ultimately onto the modern and post-modern abstract works was an enlightening experience. Viewing such a large number of works from different historical periods enhanced my appreciation for the transition in artistic styles through the ages.
This experience had ignited a long standing appreciation for art, and shortly after my trip I found myself browsing the art books at my local bookstore, hoping to further expand my knowledge of the many great works that were fresh in my mind. I discovered Gombrich’s The Story of Art and researched that it was a comprehensive introduction of art through the ages. The book was written in 1950 and has subsequently been republished many time through the subsequent decades to provide an ongoing reassessment of the transitions of postmodern and abstract experimentalism through the later half of the century.
From the outset, I will state that The Story of Art is a highly enjoyable and educational read, but only if the reader is forgiving toward the 1950’s Euro-centric perspective of the author. The book’s first chapters explore “primitive arts” and makes some bold, overarching generalizations that compares Neolithic cave paintings alongside semi-modern native American and Polynesian arts and pre-colonial African. In these disappointing generalizations Gombrich gives no recognition to the depth and complexity of Mayan, Aztec, or Incan cultures and likens all of these cultures as simple primitive people despite the evidence of their ability to build impressive structures built in alignment with a rich appreciation for astrological patterns and the annual seasons that continue standing to this day. In addition to the borderline ignorance toward the “primitives” Gombrich only devotes a single chapter in this 28 chapter book to explore the art history of both Islam and Asian art, and this meager generalization of a rich cultural history does a great disservice to cultural lineages that have successfully populated and influenced a significant portion of the globe.
However, with these limitations called out as an illumination that the Story of Art is really the Story of European Art the reader can appreciate this book for what it really is, a quality in-depth exploration of the progression of the visual art form through the major cultures of the Euro-Mediterranean region. The writing style is conversational and engaging: it adeptly balances the fine line required to explain diverse historical concepts and artistic styles without ever falling into an over-simplification of the subject matter. There are beautiful prints of the art works in discussion presented on practically every other page of the text and rarely is one artist represented more than once with the exception of the giants of artistic genius such as Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Picasso who each have several pages dedicated. Generally, the book provides a broad depth of artistic works to achieve its overarching goal, to present the progression and influence of history on the present through transitions in style.
Ignoring the unnecessary and embarrassing digression about primitive art, the story of art begins with an exploration of the most prominent ancient civilization, ancient Egypt. Gombrich provides an engaging explanation of the unique style of Egyptian figures that show the face, arms, and feet in profile, but the body forward facing, presenting the best idealized forms known to the artists of the time. Much of the art of this period is similar in style due to an idealized expectation of how the imagery should appear. This idealization was perpetuated by a tradition that was dependent upon creating art for religious purposes primarily intended to be viewed by the royalty in the sacred spaces of their tombs.
The story transitions as does history, exploring the influence of new civilizations on the artistic movements of the predominant cultures, moving forward through Greece and Roman traditions and then stepping back during the “dark ages” and then reawakening with glory in the renaissance. Of course the story isn’t a simple as that generalization of the progression of history; there are subtle influences of one culture upon another that morph the styles of canvas, sculpture and architecture. The profile foot and face of the Egyptian canvas gradually changed into forward facing feet on the Grecian urns and ultimately developed into the hyper real and highly idealized portraits of the masters of Raphael and Da Vinci. There were certainly genius’s that stood out through the ages, but the overall trends of artistic expression was a progression of influences.
Through his many examples, Gomrich argues that with the achievements of the European renaissance displaying a pinnacle in the potential of artistic beauty, the styles began to diverge into experimental tangents that ultimately led to the impressionists and unique masters such as Van Gogh and Cezanne. Although their were schools of artistic thought that initially ridiculed each new heretical experiment, the experimentation was an inevitable necessity to push the boundaries of human expression through art forms and ultimately the new styles further influenced the further expression of new styles.
Of course my summary is a very high-level and overly simplified summary of a 600 page book that academically presents an overarching progression of several thousand years of the artistic progression. An important topic to take away from this story is an understanding of the change in the meaning and relationship of the visual art-form with the viewer of the art-form. Through the ages art primarily had a religious intention, providing a means to communicate ideas and ideals to the viewer.
Art was not always intended for museums, but was primarily located in places of worship or for practical purposes. As regional styles began to develop, regional schools and studios would teach styles to apprentices and non-religious pieces would be created to appease benefactors. As ideas of religion changed, most notably through the Protestant Reformation, religious styles subsided and more secular styles grew into fashion. Additionally, as society changed, with increasing idealization of individuality, the artist became less capable of being hired into an apprenticeship. The ultimate development of cubism, surrealism, and avante-garde abstraction were an inevitable progression of the changing relationship of the artist as a sort of celebrity. All of this is of course an ongoing progression, but in reading Gombrich’s book, I have a better appreciation for “modern” art as part of the larger story.
In addition to providing an overall enriched understanding of artistic history while reading this book I found myself hyperaware of the influence of history upon the art that surrounds me. In addition to an extensive evaluation of painting and sculpture, Gombrich does provide a summary of architecture as art form through each age and while reading this book I found myself more aware of the influences of different types of columns or decorative facades in the varied architecture in my San Francisco cityscape.
However, after reading this book, I don’t find myself any more capable of articulating how a certain style, artist, or particular piece speaks to me. However, I do have a greater appreciation for how Van Gogh, or Magritte, or Monet fit into the larger scope of the artistic story that includes Rimbaud or Murillo, or Caravaggio. In looking at a particular artwork I now feel that I have a larger understanding of what a piece may have been saying to the viewer of its contemporary time with respect to the backdrop of history and influence.
“we must not forget that art is altogether different than science. The artist’s means, his technical devices, can be developed, but art itself can hardly be said to progress in the way in which science progresses. Each discovery in one direction creates a new difficulty somewhere else.” (262)
Please ignore the silly ads below this post. They do not reflect my opinion or the content of this post.