In ''Art and Illusion'' (1960), Gombrich focused on the mysterious riddle of style. He took as his motto a declaration by Max Friedlander that, since art is a thing of the mind, any scientific study of art would always have to incorporate psychology. The book was based on the Mellon Lectures of 1956, which had the titles, ''The Visible World'' and ''The Language of Art.'' The central idea developed in them, and in ''Art and Illusion,'' is one Gombrich has pondered for many years. He has taught courses on the subject and in 1973 was one of the leading participants in a London exhibition called ''Illusion in Nature and Art'' that was organized by the Institute of Contemporary Arts. It is significant that among his collaborators in that effort was R. L. Gregory, a professor of neuropsychology at the University of Bristol.
Warmly acknowledging the work of many others -including Popper, his own colleague Ernst Kris with whom he worked on the psychological problems posed by the art of caricature, and the psychologist J. J. Gibson - Gombrich persuasively argued on several fronts at once: The history of ''realism'' in Western art is progressive, vocabulary and technique being added to and extended by the skills of individual artists, each learning from other artists, those of the past as well as contemporaries. Artists do not so much paint what they see as what they know; seeing is a process of learning. Although we cannot perceive alternative meanings and appearances simultaneously, behind the veil of illusion there is always ambiguity. Thus, in order to see, we need in some form or other both caption and context: We, the spectators or beholders of art, project meaning into the art; and varieties of possibilities and varying codes contained in what was created allow plenty of room for that projection. We, too, see what we know; our gods have the appearance of men.
GOMBRICH further concluded that, in the making of the representational image, there is a most delicate balance between creating the image and a process of matching the artist's code to his own (and eventually our) experience of the observed world. His profound interest in the psychology and physiology of perception found further expression in a study of the psychology of decorative art, ''The Sense of Order,'' which was published in 1979, was conceived as a companion volume to ''Art and Illusion.''
The subject haunts Gombrich. Now, in ''The Image and the Eye,'' we have a sequel to ''Art and Illusion.'' This new volume contains a variety of papers, lectures and essays in which Gombrich further refines his views of the psychology of pictorial representation, or in his own potent phrase, ''the equation between life and the image.'' It is a book in which pictures are used to form an integral part of his arguments. The pieces in it are characterized by his customary blend of common sense, intense curiosity, prodigious scholarship and an unusual ability to synthesize insights and discoveries from many disciplines, as well as by a prose style of the utmost clarity, which reads as easily as though the author were speaking directly to us.
In ''The Image and the Eye'' there is less emphasis on the discussion of issues posed by Plato - problems concerning the philosophy of the ideal, the general and the universal, which were substantially debated in ''Art and Illusion'' -and more on the physical qualities and components of perception itself, and on photography. Indeed, with delicate irony, the cover illustration is a photograph of the classic gesture of the Western artist interested in representational modes, who stretches out his hand, holding his pencil, to measure the relative size of the objects in the landscape he is observing.
Gombrich begins the volume with a discussion of an experience that is acccessible to everyone: making the necessary distinction between recall and recognition, a distinction that is amplified by our power to be selective. ''To see at all, we must isolate and select.''
NOWHERE perhaps is Gombrich more eloquently persuasive in elucidating questions about how we see and understand than in his essay on the mask and the face, which deals with the perception of physiognomic likeness in life and in art. It is an essay in which he comes as near to defining the quality of both Rembrandt and Velazquez as anyone may be able to. And he amiably explains why portraits by the Austrian expressionist Oskar Kokoschka have such a vivid immediacy - by humorously comparing photographs taken in 1935 of Kokoschka and of Czechoslovakia's president Thomas Masaryk with the portrait of Masaryk that Kokoschka was painting at the time, a portrait in which Kokoschka's own image looms behind that of Masaryk.
Meaning, Gombrich reminds us, does not depend on ''likeness.'' Nevertheless, it is his resonant conclusion that Western art developed its own ''special tricks of naturalism'' by finding ways of putting into images those ''features which serve us in real life for the discovery and testing of meaning.'' The fertile interplay among subjective standards of truth is another subject for an exceptional essay that incorporates examples from the art of J. M. W. Turner and Claude Lorrain, but that also discusses how different degrees of definition in X-ray images can be useful to a doctor making a diagnosis (in certain instances, the better the definition, the less the image may fulfill its role as an aid to medical treatment).
One reason Gombrich's work is so appealing to specialists in several disciplines as well as to the layman is that he can evoke the responses of recall and recognition in the reader; we recognize that what he says is sensible because his style is predicated on an interplay between ''I'' and ''we.'' Furthermore, his scholarship is often a kind of autobiography. He tells us, for instance, how an abstract painting by the writer, artist and teacher Lawrence Gowing enabled Gombrich to see the pattern on his own kitchen floor for the first time and how observations made during the course of his habitual walks on Hampstead Heath, of everything from the vapor trails of jet airplanes to a child's balloon, afforded him fresh insights into theories of perception. And in his essay, ''Mirror and Map,'' which is about theories of pictorial representation, he cannot resist starting his discussion of visual information with childhood reminiscences of Vienna illustrated by maps, photographs and paintings of the Museums of Natural History and Art History in Vienna, which face each other across an imposing city square. Then he gives a lucid visual dimension to his discourse on problems of perspective and objectivity with photographs of views from an office window at the Warburg Institute, a tree in the institute's courtyard and the lecture theater at the Royal Society.
In essays on ritualized gesture and expression, and on experiment and experience, Gombrich calls up a very broad range of imagery, from photographs of Mars to posters by Kathe Kollwitz and advertisements for natural gas; and he seeks evidence too from studies of animal behavior by Nikko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz as well as from connections he finds between astronomy and esthetics.
The genius of Sir Ernst Gombrich is to make us aware, as few other historians of art can, of the intricate connections among the physical facts of life, the emotional and intellectual aspects of culture and the history of images made visible. To paraphrase E. E. Cummings -always the beautiful answer who asks the beautiful question.Continue reading the main story
Ernst Gombrich was one of the greatest and least conventional art historians of his age, achieving fame and distinction in three separate spheres: as a scholar, as a popularizer of art, and as a pioneer of the application of the psychology of perception to the study of art. His best-known book, The Story of Art - first published 50 years ago and now in its sixteenth edition - is one of the most influential books ever written about art. His books further include The Sense of Order (1979) and The Preference for the Primitive (2002), as well as a total of 11 volumes of collected essays and reviews. Gombrich was born in Vienna in 1909 and died in London in November 2001. He came to London in 1936 to work at the Warburg Institute, where he eventually became Director from 1959 until his retirement in 1976. He won numerous international honours, including a knighthood, the Order of Merit and the Goethe, Hegel and Erasmus prizes. Gifted with a powerful mind and prodigious memory, he was also an outstanding communicator, with a clear and forceful prose style. His works are models of good art-historical writing, and reflect his humanism and his deep and abiding concern with the standards and values of our cultural heritage.