The Story of Art – E.H. Gombrich

I am currently in the midst of a crash course on the whole of art (which may or may not continue indefinitely as there is a lot to learn…) and at times I have wished for a book which could provide a clear and concise overview of everything. While I was aware this was unrealistic, I hadn’t realised how close I could come to my goal with a pocket edition of The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich. I expect that this book is already very familiar to those who have studied art in the past but I was amazed with how accessible but informative the writing was, especially since the book was written over 50 years ago. Gombrich opens with an explanation of his aims, such as only discussing books which can be included as illustrations and not avoiding paintings which have suffered from overexposure, as well as acknowledging the inevitable failings which the book must create, due to omission, oversight or new discoveries. Nevertheless, the next chapter immediately ambitiously dives into the beginnings of art, discussing cave painting and how contemporaries might have related to it, and the chapters roll on until the present is reached, several times with additional postscripts as the book was updated. The different styles, techniques and forms of art are woven into an overwhelmingly rich tapestry of stories and observations, aided at every turn by luminous illustrations.

A criticism which is often levelled at Gombrich is the lack of female artists in his depiction of the history of art. The ‘artist’ that he depicts is consistent in gender throughout the centuries despite changes in style, ambition and medium but this is suggested to be more related to the opportunities given to men, just as other circumstances also affect them, rather than an innate skill which women lack. Moreover, Gombrich admits early on that he neither expects nor wishes The Story of Art to become the definitive guide to art but instead should encourage readers to explore further on their own. I also wished for greater coverage of Eastern and African art, which are only covered briefly as they touch on the Western narrative of art, but will settle for hopefully discovering similarly comprehensive books for each area. (Any suggestions just let me know!)

I was particularly fascinated by the comparison of how art was expected to represent reality across the millennia. Although Ancient Egyptian and Cubist art appears very different, they both aimed to imitate the most representative facet of each object rather than a ‘realistic’ portrayal of the whole. Therefore, feet are seen from the side in Ancient Egyptian paintings but torsos face the viewer and the face is a similar mismatch of angles from the side and the front. This piecemeal approach is again experienced thousands of years later when Picasso began painting in a Cubist style, motivated by a desire to move away from the technical perfection of the Old Masters and solve the conundrum of representing life through art using (what appeared to be) new interpretations.

I thought I would close The Story of Art with a great certainty as to which my favourite ‘period’ of art is so that I could then turn and research it in greater detail. Instead I was left impatient to learn more about each period and also to see many of the paintings in person which I have so far only had the chance to see in reproduction. However, I now feel I am turning back to my continuous gallery visiting with a firmer understanding to learn and grow my knowledge further.

Next reading: Modern Times, Modern Places: Life and Art in the Twentieth Century