When we ask upon what the survival of culture depends, we immediately think of those individuals whose careers exemplify the commitment to the values of high culture. It is curious to what extent the health and vibrancy of a culture depends upon the leavening activity of a few individuals. An institution, Emerson said, is but the lengthened shadow of a man. The death last month of the great art historian E. H. Gombrich provided a melancholy reminder not only of how thin the ranks of genuinely cultivated individuals have become but also to what extent the pulse of cultural life is bound up with the contributions of particular talents.

A transplanted Viennese who had lived in Britain since 1933, Gombrich was one of those individuals who become an institution. As director of the Warburg Institute in London, a post he held from 1959 to 1976, Gombrich was in the best sense what T. S. Eliot (somewhat disparagingly) had accused Matthew Arnold of being: an impresario for culture. Gombrich understood that art was indissolubly linked with the larger humanist enterprise. Hence his insistence on understanding art in the context of that rich and elusive concept: style. Style named not the external appurtenances of art but that network of inherited visual conventions in terms of which a culture pictured the world to itself. Style is not a garment that can be put on or off: it is a lens through which the visible becomes visible.

Gombrich was the author of many books, including such classics as Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (1960) and Meditations on a Hobby Horse and other Essays on the Theories of Art (1968). His abiding interest in questions of scientific methodology led him down many byways, some more profitable than others. (His fondness for the theories of Karl Popper was, we think, particularly unfortunate.) But Gombrich never lost the sense of wonder in the face of art. His most popular book was undoubtedly The Story of Art (1950), which sold some two million copies. Commissioned as a children’s book, this five-hundred-page survey of Western art manages to be plainspoken but serious, simple without simplification.

What was novel about The Story of Art was not the tale it told. As a contribution to art history, it is essentially a rehearsal of familiar monuments. What distinguishes the book is Gombrich’s passionate plea for direct, first-hand experience of works of art. “One never finishes learning about art,” he wrote. “There are always new things to discover. Great works of art seem to look different each time one stands before them. They seem to be as inexhaustible and unpredictable as real human beings.”

Gombrich was above all the enemy of ready-made labels and canned opinions. “There really is no such thing as Art,” he wrote with provocative overstatement. “There are only artists.” Like most people who are genuinely serious about art, Gombrich was quick to warn against exaggerating art’s claims. “Art with a capital A,” he noted, “has come to be something of a bogey and a fetish.” Making too much of art has the effect of occluding, not illuminating, the work it pretends to celebrate. It was in this context that Gombrich repeatedly warned against the habit of retreating from experience through the hatch of abstraction and “long high-sounding words.” Half-knowledge and snobbery, he pointed out, often brought people to the neighborhood of art while denying them admission to its riches. He speaks of people who walk through a gallery, catalogue in hand, but who look at paintings only to corroborate what is written in their trot.

Every time they stop in front of a picture they eagerly search for its number. We can watch them thumbing their book, and as soon as they have found the title or name they walk on. They might just as well have stayed at home, for they have hardly looked at the painting. They have only checked the catalogue.

What, we wonder, would Gombrich have had to say about that recent, and powerfully effective prophylactic against first-hand aesthetic experience, the “audio tour”?

In fact, Gombrich’s interest in questions of perception and optical illusion often took him quite far from the particular works of art with which he began. But his impressive learning never became a substitute for direct experience. The journeys he embarked upon were always journeys of discovery, not reference. Gombrich once wrote that he hoped to “open eyes, not loosen tongues.” This he did for countless readers. His passing diminishes the culture he adorned.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 4, on page 2
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