|Trade paperback, 466 pages|
Published 2000 (originally 1960)
Acquired September 2015
Read March 2016
by E. H. Gombrich
I don't remember why I asked for this book any more, other than that it has something to do with how we see, an issue that permeates many of my interests in teaching and scholarship. I ended up being surprised, then, in that it had a lot to do with my interest in literary realism and what it means to be "realistic": something I often emphasize in my teaching is that being "realistic" is usually a set of codes and tropes. Like, George Eliot considered herself to be realistic in Adam Bede in the 1850s. But modernism in the early twentieth century was also about being realistic, but "realistic" for Virginia Woolf was a very different set of things than it was for Eliot. E. H. Gombrich's books is about the history of "realistic" art, and something he captures very well is that "realistic" has always been a set of conventions: we very rarely draw from life; rather, there are certain ways that we signal "this is drawn from life" even as it is drawn from artistic convention. The Pre-Raphaelites and the Impressionists were both aiming for realistic, they just had different ways of creating the illusion of realism. Or as he himself puts it: "in all styles the artist has to rely on a vocabulary of forms and that it is the knowledge of this vocabulary rather than a knowledge of things that distinguishes the skilled from the unskilled artist" (293).
The peak of the book is really Chapter IX, "The Analysis of Vision in Art," where Gombrich unites the previous eight chapters to deliver a series of key insights. (The following two chapters kind of feel like filler.) First is that the "achievement of innocent passivity" is probably impossible: everything we see is filtered through our preconceptions: "Whenever we receive a visual impression, we react by docketing it, filing it, grouping it in one way or another, even if the impression is only that of an inkblot or a fingerprint" (297). All perception is relative. Gombrich argues that even John Ruskin, who was a book advocate of the idea of the "innocent eye," actually understood this: he "demands a willingness to use a pigment which in isolation still looks unlike the area to be matched in order that it may look like it in the end [i.e., in the completed picture]" (310).
I liked Gombrich's point that all representation thus becomes referential, and I think something similar is true in literature. Each artist and each artistic movement learns to see "reality" from the previous one: "If Constable saw the English landscape in terms of Gainsborough's paintings, what about Gainsborough himself? We can answer this. Gainsborough saw the lowland scenery of East Anglia in terms of Dutch paintings which he arduously studies and copied. [...] All paintings, as Wölfflin said, owe more to other paintings than they owe to direct observation" (316-17). In literature, the postmodernists owe the modernists owe the naturalists owe the realists owe the romantics and so on, each one deriving their attempts to depict "reality" from each other more than reality itself.
The result of this in art (and, I suspect, in literature) is that "when complete fidelity to visual experience had become both a moral and an aesthetic imperative" (311), everything fell apart: "if you were really faithful to your vision in every detail the equation would not work out: the elements will not fuse in the end into a convincing whole" (312). This gives us both alternate attempts at representing the real, and also movements like cubism, which "kicked aside the whole tradition of faithful vision and tried to start again from the 'real object' which they squashed against the picture plane" (312). But Gombrich is careful to assert that art is not subjectivity all the way down: we absorb some subjecivities into our vocabulary because they say something compelling to us about reality:
There is such a thing as a real visual discovery, and there is a way of testing it [...]. Whatever the initial resistance to impressionist paintings, when the first shock had worn off, people learned to read them. And having learned this language, they went into the fields and woods, or looked out of their windows onto the Paris boulevards, and found to their delight that the visible world could after all be seen in terms of these bright patches and dabs of paint. [...] The impressionists had taught them, not, indeed, to see nature with an innocent eye, but to explore an unexpected alternative that turned out to fit certain experiences better than did any earlier paintings. [...] As Oscar Wilde said, there was no fog in London before Whistler painted it. (324)Which, I would once again hold, is true of good literature as much as good painting. This book has a lot to say about visual illusion, but it's also a very good introduction to the importance of conventions in all forms of art, both the perpetuating of them and the upending of them.
(The reproduction of images in my copy, a 2000 "millennium edition" and 14th printing, was often muddy. I don't know if the book looked like this originally in 1960, but it was sometimes difficult to make out the details Gombrich's text was alluding to.)