The Story of Art, by E. H. Gombrich


The Story of Art, by E. H. Gombrich. New York: Phaidon Press, 1995. 688 pp. $39.95 (paperback).

In his introduction to The Story of Art, E. H. Gombrich speaks of a trap that some people fall into after studying art history:

When they see a work of art they do not stay to look at it, but rather search their memory for the appropriate label. They may have heard that Rembrandt was famous for his chiaroscuro—which is the Italian technical term for light and shade—so they nod wisely when they see a Rembrandt, mumble “wonderful chiaroscuro,” and wander on to the next picture. (p. 37)

Gombrich aims to steer readers clear of this trap.

I should like to help to open eyes, not to loosen tongues. To talk cleverly about art is not very difficult, because the words critics use have been employed in so many different contexts that they have lost all precision. But to look at a picture with fresh eyes and to venture on a voyage of discovery into it is a far more difficult but also a much more rewarding task. (p. 37)

In the chapters that follow, Gombrich takes us on a voyage into much more than a single picture. He takes us on a journey through the history of art. And the rewards are plenty.

By the history of art, Gombrich means “the history of buildings, of picture-making, and of statue-making” (p. 37). He includes all such things as part of this history, without respect to where they took place or at what time, but he focuses on the history of art in the West.

This selectivity makes his book unconventional in today’s egalitarian and multicultural tide. Gombrich does not go out of his way to include women artists, for fear of being labeled “sexist.” Nor does he include artwork from every nation on the planet for fear of being labeled “Eurocentric.” And, of course, The Story of Art has been criticized accordingly.

Gombrich does include some art from countries outside Europe (and America). He just does so to the extent it is warranted, which means a lot less than a historian today might do so. Within a discussion of primitive art, for example, Gombrich includes a simply designed wooden pole from Tahiti and a ritual mask from Papua New Guinea, as well as a fantastically realistic bronze head from ancient Nigeria and an intricate wood carving made by the Maoris of New Zealand. He does not include these items to check off “art from non-European countries”; rather he includes them because the masterful skills required to make the latter two (especially as compared to the former) are relevant to a point he wants to stress. Namely:

[T]he fact that a thing was difficult to make does not necessarily prove that it is a work of art. If it were so, the men who make models of sailing ships in glass bottles would rank among the greatest artists. But this proof of tribal skill should warn us against the belief that their work looks odd because they cannot do any better. It is not their standard of craftsmanship which is different from ours, but their ideas. It is important to realize this because the whole story of art is not a story of progress in technical proficiency, but a story of changing ideas and requirements. (p. 44)

As Gombrich shares more of this story, his selectivity becomes ever more important. Indeed, far from being a vice, it is arguably the chief virtue of The Story of Art, the one that accounts more than any other for its mass appeal.

Consider some of the features that follow from it. For one, technical terms prevalent in many art history books are absent from this one. There are no lengthy discussions of chiaroscuro here. Nor is there a plethora of names to be remembered or paintings to be looked up in order to make sense of what the author is saying. Gombrich restricts his commentary only to the works of art he shows—often on the same page.

So many benefits follow from these features that it is no wonder the book has sold more than seven million copies. The absence of nonessential terms, names, and artworks leaves room for Gombrich to focus in greater detail on the works most important to the history of art. This, coupled with Gombrich’s decision to discuss only works he can show, enables readers to follow the story in each of its individual acts without losing sight of the larger movement and always in a firsthand way.

Gombrich says that, in telling the story, he “thought first and foremost of readers in their teens who had just discovered the world of art for themselves.” But, because he “never believed that books for young people should differ from book for adults,” he does not dumb down things. Instead, he smartens them up, because young people, as he puts it, are “the most exacting class of critics, critics who are quick to detect and resent any trace of pretentious jargon or bogus sentiment” (p. 7).

The prime movers in The Story of Art are the artists’ intentions—and beneath these, as Gombrich mentions at the outset, are the changing ideas about the world and about the function art performs in it. Consider, for instance, Gombrich’s description of how these factors led to the unique paintings on the walls of tombs in ancient Egypt:

Once, in a grim distant past, it had been the custom when a powerful man died to let his servants and slaves accompany him into the grave. They were sacrificed so that he should arrive in the beyond with a suitable train. Later, these horrors were considered either too cruel or too costly, and art came to the rescue. Instead of real servants, the great ones of this earth were given images as substitutes. The pictures and models found in Egyptian tombs were connected with the idea of providing the soul with helpmates in the other world, a belief that is found in many early cultures.

To us these reliefs and wall-paintings provide an extraordinarily vivid picture of life as it was lived in Egypt thousands of years ago. And yet, looking at them for the first time, one may find them rather bewildering. The reason is that the Egyptian painters had a very different way from ours of representing real life. Perhaps this is connected with the different purpose their paintings had to serve. What mattered most was not prettiness but completeness. It was the artists’ task to preserve everything as clearly and permanently as possible. So they did not set out to sketch nature as it appeared to them from any fortuitous angle. They drew from memory, according to strict rules which ensured that everything that had to go into the picture would stand out in perfect clarity. Their method, in fact, resembled that of the map-maker rather than that of the painter. (pp. 58–61)

The ideas and values held by ancient Egyptians, and the corresponding intentions of their artists, can readily be seen in their buildings, paintings, and sculptures. And this is true of eras and artists in general. Changes in ideas and values over time have given rise to different intentions on the part of artists, and, correspondingly, to different forms of art. This connection along with the evidence supporting it is one of the great values of the book.

But Gombrich writes of two other intentions at work in the creation of art. One is the desire of artists to get things “right,” which can cause great stress and even distress for artists when working on something detailed or difficult, such as the correct gradation of light over a form or the right visual relation of parts to a whole.

The other intention is the urge of artists to do something “different” than what has been done before, something truly unique. This, Gombrich observes, is one of the many legacies that started in ancient Greece, and that is responsible for many advances in the history of art. Consider Gombrich’s analysis of Donatello’s St. George:

It was commissioned by the guild of the armourers, whose patron saint, St. George, it represents, and was destined for a niche on the outside of a Florentine church . . . If we think back to the Gothic statues outside the great cathedrals . . . we realize how completely Donatello broke with the past. These Gothic statues hovered at the side of the porches in calm and solemn rows, looking like beings from a different world.

Donatello’s St. George stands firmly on the ground, his feet planted resolutely on the earth as if he were determined not to yield an inch. His face has none of the vague and serene beauty of the medieval saints—it is all energy and concentration. . . . He seems to watch the approach of the enemy and to take its measure, his hands resting on his shield, his whole attitude tense with defiant determination. The statue has remained famous as an unrivalled picture of youthful dash and courage.

But it is not only Donatello’s imagination which we must admire, his faculty of visualizing the knightly saint in such a fresh and convincing manner: his whole approach to the art of sculpture shows a new conception. Despite the impression of life and movement which the statue conveys it remains clear in outline and solid as a rock. . . . [I]t shows us that Donatello wanted to replace the gentle refinement of his predecessors by a new and vigorous observation of nature. Such details as the hands or the brow of the saint show a complete independence from the traditional models. They prove a fresh and determined study of the real features of the human body. For these Florentine masters of the beginning of the fifteenth century were no longer content to repeat the old formulas handed down by medieval artists. Like the Greeks and Romans, whom they admired, they began to study the human body in their studios and workshops by asking models or fellow artists to pose for them in the required attitudes. It is this new method and this new interest which makes Donatello’s work look so strikingly convincing. (p. 230)

Gombrich’s point here (and elsewhere in the book) is that when independence became highly prized, and when artists became genuinely interested in this world, the art they produced changed accordingly. This is one of the many fascinating aspects of The Story of Art: When ideas change, a new chapter in art’s history is ushered in.

Gombrich does not write about the history of art as a continuous progression upward (which is fitting, because it was not). Throughout each change discussed, he notes what was lost and what was gained, what problems artists were struggling with and how they overcame them, what values the art offered and what values were no longer provided. While doing this, Gombrich is unfortunately far too easy on many artists, including some who should not even be called artists (e.g., Jackson Pollock). This is the book’s one major weakness.

Apart from that flaw, which is substantial, the book is brilliantly conceived, masterfully written, and a joy to read. The Story of Art is my favorite book on the history of art. Give it a read. It may also become yours.

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