E. M. Gombrich and the history of art

I have some amount of catching up to do. I realise that more than two months have elapsed between the last post and the one before that. It's not as if I haven't read anything or been anywhere: I just lacked a little bit of motivation, milord. So here goes again, this with E. M. Gombrich's "History of art":

It must have taken almost a year for me to read this book, but then I started it at the same time as Pynchon's 1000-page "Against the day" and both of them are weighty tomes. The Gombrich was actually written in English, but I read the French translation, all five hundred pages of it. Another no mean feat in itself.

Gombrich's book comes in many editions. There is the heavy coffee-table version, with colour reproductions of famous artworks interleaved with the text. I had bought the "edition de poche" which I carried with me during many months. In this edition, the plates are all at the back, and there are two bookmarks so one can find one's way easily from the text to the illustrations. The green paper cover on my copy is now pretty worn, but all the pages are still there. The illustrations are a judicious selection of works of art spanning thousands of years of human civilization, from the caves in Lascaux to David Hockney. Deep underneath Paris, wedged between three other people in the tiny narrow seats of the line four metro, I felt more than a bit relieved to gaze at reproductions of Vermeer, Carvaggio, El Greco, Piero della Francesca, or to stare at pictures of famous buildings from Rome or Naples. I'm kind of disappointed to have finished the book, to no longer have those images with me wherever I go.

Gombrich is "old school": he believes, unfashionably for today I suppose, that there is such a thing as art, that there are absolute standards of excellence which can be divined by any intelligent person and which endure over the centuries. Every plate is discussed and placed into context. I learned more than a little about each painter and architect but what was most interesting was the historical context. You see, at the start, thousands of years ago, there was not even the notion of "the artist": there were artisans, who created objects on commission. Monuments for tombs, sculptures for public buildings. The renaissance in Italy, in Rome, in Florence: frescos for altars, paintings for churches. The best artists, like Caravaggio (I've just read a recent biography of him, maybe I will find time to write about it) could became very wealthy from their work. The next century, however, everything had changed. The commissions dried up; the reform in Northern Europe meant that displaying images in churches was proscribed. Artists could paint whatever they liked, but they lived a poverty-stricken existence; the best might be able to make a living from drawing portraits.

Fast-foward to the early 20th century. The impressionists: Paris is the world centre of art and culture. What I didn't really appreciate was how much the impressionists were completely rejected by the critical press of the time before being accepted, famous and even rich. All this in the space of a few short years. It's interesting to note that the term "impressionist" was derisory in intent -- as was "gothic", "baroque", and "mannerist". (As was Fred Hoyle's "Big Bang", too.)

In the last chapter, Gombrich makes some interesting comments about art and creation today. In our time, he says, it may be too early to distinguish between fashion and real movements in art which will still be talked about in a hundred years. But the initial rejection of the impressionists by the critics of their epoch has led to a gross overcorrection. Today, the most important aspect of any work of art is if it's new; the search for novelty has become the most important aspect of creation. The public suffers from the same malady: the tradition of the new has rendered irrelevant all other traditions. This, added to the fact that artists today have an incredible freedom which has never existed in any time in history has led to some very strange effects indeed. Everyone is a revolutionary these days.

I'm not sure I completely agree with this. After all I spend more time at Beaubourg than I do at the Louvre; perhaps I am a sufferer as well. But it's interesting to realise to what extent attitudes have changed over the centuries. I think after reading Gombrich's book I do have a better appreciation of what constitutes a work of art, although it is not easy to put into words; the excellence with which the work has been executed perhaps, or the purity of the form, whatever that means. In the end it is perhaps better to look at the plates. Especially whilst making journeys through subterranean Paris, staring out the window from time to time at the utter blackness.