PRINT February 1965


Meditations on a Hobby Horse

Meditations On A Hobby Horse by E. H. Gombrich, Phaidon, London 1963: E. H. Gombrich is a remarkable art historian who has increasingly concerned himself with the reciprocal relationships between art and perception. Or more precisely, he is interested in what happens when we look at pictures and how our eyes and minds are set to work by objects which are mental and sensuous amalgams in their own right. This has led him, in his famous “Art and Illusion,” to discuss such matters as the theory of representation, the psychological conditions of sight, and the nature of visual communication. One of the major theses of that book was that “expression” in art is always the result of an unvoiced covenant between artist and beholder, an agreement within a common background that certain forms speak or stand for qualities of reality, thought or emotion, but that the agreement tends to alter or be reassociated by experiences outside individual control. (Such as the passage of time, and differences of societies.)

Thus, while admitting that he does not know what boogie-woogie is, Gombrich supposes that Mondrian’s staccato, busy “Broadway Boogie-Woogie,” contrasting so much with his austerely structured early works, can give the impression of a gay popular dance. But when he then juxtaposes the Mondrian with Severini’s Futurist, wildly swooshing “Dynamic Hieroglyphics of the Bal Tabarin,” might not the Dutch painting be more like the First Brandenburg Concerto? Conversely, one may not make such connections when they are not solicited: “any pencil drawing of an apple,” he says, when speaking of two well known conventions, “looks most unlike the real thing, but we do not find the grey tone of the medium expressive of gloom.”

Actually, this last statement comes from his new book, “Meditations on a Hobby Horse,” and it is no accident that it fits into his earlier line of enquiry. For the present work is a collection of essays, reviews and lectures that pre- and post date “Art and Illusion,” and are part of a continuing, and more intense because concentrated, interrogation of the Gombrichian theme. The title essay stresses the collaborational aspect of image making and receiving, and the creative role of the spectator, especially in those works where, as he says, there are layers of “suggestive veiling,” e.g. Rembrandt. Overall, the accent has shifted from explanations of art historical change to the individual reactions of the spectator, and, as a result, it internalizes and yet multiplies issues quite challengingly.

From the viewpoint simply of their content, I applaud the relevance of these essays (especially to the criticism of modern art), but wince at their final implications. If only because they will inevitably sharpen terminology and force an awareness of the mutability of the esthetic experience, their example is therapeutic. More than that, they drive home the importance of contexts as the critical element in judging, and sometimes even, in apprehending works of art. All this they accomplish with a witty and limpid style, swimming with occasionally scholarly, but always graphic illustrations. On the other hand, Gombrich’s method of discussion is frequently simplistic, and his points obvious, however unexpected his interdisciplinary perspective. Often, in fact, the latter is a mere smokescreen for platitudes. If the penciled apple furnished a surprising observation, the Mondrian-Severini contrast said nothing new. All through the book there runs a most delicate borderline, frequently transgressed, between illumination of the mechanics by which we see, and reiteration of the well-known fact that vision is variable.

One necessary, and topical chore, however, Gombrich dispatches with great aplomb: the destruction of the expressionist theory in interpreting art. That is, the idea that there are set correspondences between formal elements—colors, brushstrokes etc.—and psychological responses, which artists such as Kandinsky invented to legitimize their art, can no longer be taken as viable (although this hardly invalidates their accomplishment). Already known is the fact that a work does not “express” what the artist feels at the moment; that art cannot guarantee the transmission of any specific feeling through any specific form—each is too disparately readable—should now be equally obvious. The myth, say, that a certain kind of agitated brushstroke connotes spontaneity has been exploded by Rauschenberg; the notion that stable patterns imply a tranquil mental state is denied by Kenneth Noland, or dozens of other young painters. Contemporary art makes a laughingstock out of such traditional equivalences.

Unfortunately, Gombrich has not arrived at his healthy skepticism by looking at current art, but by resort to information theory and behavioral science. Unwittingly up-to-date, his objection to Expressionist theories such as Malraux’s, or by extension Harold Rosenberg’s, is not only that they are a form of self-projection into the given object, but that they ignore the problem of structure. Leaving aside the fact that such a highly structured artist as Seurat subscribed to a form of Expressionist theory, leaving aside Gombrich’s own aversion to formalist criticism, what still remains is his relentless desire to uncover artistic intention. And this intention is revealed only by a method which weighs alternatives accruing to that coded structure, the work of art—a thing which now has every resemblance to a logical puzzle. After exposing much fruitful doubt, “Meditations on a Hobby Horse” reveals credulity exactly by its faith in such a method. Throughout various pictures, the author will pick his way between the expected and the unexpected, the conventional and the break with convention, and will allow these aspects to be arranged in liberal, if not radical combinations. But he will always opt for a critical system in which these oscillations or signals of “meaning” can be comprehended as choices within a known pattern. This may be the voice of Anglo-Saxon empiricism, of the epistemology of such as Karl Popper, triumphing over the Hegelian or Crocean approach to art, but it does not thereby convince by its perceptual accuracy, nor will even art history bear much of it out.

Nothing can be more incriminating on this count than the chapter called “The Vogue of Abstract Art.” For an historian like Gombrich to have used such a title is as scandalous as a writer of the late seventeenth century who could have spoken of the vogue of Baroque art: there is a difference between a passing fad and an established concept. His argument is that “experiments” like Abstract-Expressionism abandon even the minimum kind of formal restraint (or contextualism), which permit intelligibility, that a situation in which limitless freedom is possible can only produce trivial, chance effects. To what extent we can achieve the totally unexpected (which he decries) I don’t know, nor care, but it should be obvious by now how restrictive Abstract Expressionism was. Far from being random and “irresponsible,” it embodied a highly compressed new species of order. Gombrich’s, like his colleague Edgar Wind’s, unwillingness to penetrate this order perhaps springs from a belated urge for security. Certainly it arises from rationalistic prejudices. Always disturbed by the inability of abstract art to communicate something human to him as a person (at best it is decorative or pleasing), he must needs explain this by abstraction’s supposed absence of cues to meaning. Had he followed or participated more intimately in the sensibility of modern art, he would have discovered, not only that imaginative response rather than scientistic deciphering was more appropriate to its criticism, but he might have understood the historical bases, that is, the missing signals of the art of his time.

Much more important is the question of what precisely artistic “meaning” is to Gombrich. So astute in debunking the pretensions of moral judgments to esthetic truth, so concerned with outlining the limitations of psychoanalysis as a guide to content, so aware of the artifices of learning, Gombrich leaves one not a leg to stand on in coming to terms with works of art. Or perhaps too many. Indeed, he gives provisional credence to any one of these activities when it suits his purpose, as in his unintentionally funny analysis of the origin of “chewy” Cubist form as a masked need for oral gratification (insofar as art can metaphorically provide it) reacting against the marmoreal style of Bouguereau. What disturbs me is the limitless sophistication and erudition that facetiously expands itself in preference to coming to any decision about a painting or a sculpture. I am trying hard not to be absolutist or anti-intellectual, but this book swarms with examples of what works of art (or parts of them) may signify in certain circumstances, but contains no illustration of what any single work of art or artist means to E. H. Gombrich. It can be argued that such was not the point of a volume concerned with proposing a methodology rather than engaging in “appreciation.” Unfortunately, this does not save even his most particular insights from slipping into a burdensome abstraction. In the end, he is so critical about critical method,—all possibilities of interpretation are hedged or covered, and hence weakened—that he can never become a critic. These essays, then, reveal a spectacular immobilization, or, if you will, a form of enlightenment which can give no greater status to art than that of an elegant fiction. Do a multitude of signals add up to “intention?”. When, in any separate instance, is “intention” relevant as a critical instrument, and when not? We never really learn. At one point he says: “we must not confuse response with understanding, expression with communication.” Unless he, or any writer risks the discomfort of personally encountering a new work, he will never experience a certain invaluable pleasure, nor avoid or ever clarify this confusion. It is a peculiarly modern dilemma.

Max Kozloff


INDIAN ART IN MIDDLE AMERICA, by Frederick J. Dockstader. New York Graphic Society, 1964. 221 pages, illus., $25.00.

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF MODERN ARCHITECTURE, edited by Wolfgang Pehnt. Abrams, New York, 1964. Illus., 336 pages.

PICASSO, by Han J. Jaffe. Abrams, New York, 1964. 160 pages, illus.

TOMB SCULPTURE, by Erwin Panofsky. Abrams, New York, 1964. 318 pages, illus.