‘Story of Art’, Ernst Gombrich, London: Phaidon, Reprint of 16th Edition, 2006.

Review first published in, ‘MAP Magazine’, Issue 9, Spring 2007.

Published five years after Sir Ernst Gombrich’s death, this book is a
restyled reprint of the revised and expanded sixteenth edition of 1995. Phaidon
have chosen a pocket-sized format for this series, and in this case, with its
ribbon page markers and wafer-thin paper, The Story of Art takes on the physical
properties of a bible. Not before time, according to one of the testimonials on
the dust jacket; a Birmingham Post reviewer declaims that the author is as
authoritative as God and wonders why Gombrich doesn’t upstage Gideon in hotel
rooms.

First published in 1950, The Story of Art has sold more than eight million
copies and has been translated into more than thirty languages. For some
rearguard postmodern evangelists, however, this success is evidence of the
satanic crime of ‘authoring the metanarrative’. The accusation is that Gombrich,
by dint of his simplification of the complex story of world art, has produced a
partial and populist account which colours the true (sic) narrative with
dyed-in-the-wool Western presumptions.

Some of this criticism seems to stick: Gombrich is still used as whipping boy
in opening lectures on New Art History. His approach was indeed to respect
accepted masterworks and to exclude anything which he considered ‘to be without
a peculiar merit of its own’. The result is a famously conservative series of
case-studies which occasionally sees Gombrich and his taste overpower the work
he presents.

But what this type of faux-ethical denigration overlooks in its inverse
partiality is Gombrich’s passionate (and, yes, erudite) lifelong attempt to
account for the ‘mental set’ of the viewer of art, the ‘beholder’s share’. In
this he was clear that art is not resonant until the cultural settings of
historical context and contemporary reception are explored. To this end he was a
crucial exponent of ‘outward looking’ iconology in contrast to ‘inward looking’
iconography.

Along with goliaths like Panofsky, Gombrich can be seen as a cornerstone of
the more anthropologically orientated approaches to the study of the history of
art. As many postmodern theories now read like anxious millenarianism, a return
to this version of the history of art might be timely as a reminder of how to
balance due care for the formal properties of artworks with due care for
cultural contexts. To avoid reproach, make sure you consult the postmodern sage
before drawing up your own list of quasi-master/mistress-works.

Advertisements