Art and Illusion

A study in the psychology of pictorial representation
Born 1909, Vienna
Died 2001, Somewhere in Britain
Born into a sophisticated family, with close connections to Gustav
Mahler, Sigmund Freud et al
Studied at the University of Vienna
”Had a gift for explaining art to young people”
Fled to Britain in 1936, became research assistant at the Warburg
Institute (now a part of University of London)
”Story of Art” published in 1950, famously saying ”There really is no such
thing as art. There are only artists.”
Little sympathy for modern art, did not explore non-Western art
”Art and Illusion” published in 1960, based on a lecture series given in
Washington in 1956
The rest is history...
”Art and Illusion” divided into 4 parts
Each part covering a different part of the spectrum of art
(artist, viewer, creation, percerption)
Asks question ”Why is everything created differently
References to the psychology of association, projection,
gestalt and perception
Gombrich asks, ”Why is it that different ages and different
nations have represented the visible world in such different
 Gombrich explains how association works (cat example)
 ”Painting is science”, both in creation and appreciation
 Preface of schema: Light representation
A picture can never be ”true” or ”false”, only the caption can
be judged
 The Schema: ”The first approximate, loose category which is
gradually tightened to fit the form it is to reproduce”
 i.e., painting knowledge is accumulated and built upon in a
 ”You cannot create a faithful image out of nothing.”
 The artist is more likely to see what he/she paints, rather
than paint what he/she sees.
The artist’s aim is not to make likeness, but to create
something real
”chairness” (example)
Greek art, still to lifelike:
Gombrich takes this as proof for that a culture takes a
schemata (”canon”) and improves upon it
Basic geometric relationships, primitive perspective
Gombrich refers to medieval ”drawing books”, filled with
schematas; Gombrich compares them to basic vocabularies
It would be possible to portray with them, but ”effective
portrayal” is only possible if the artist goes beyond the basics
Gombrich describes the psychological phenomenon of
projection, and asserts that this happens for works of art too
 It is not the artist that projects, but the beholder (viewer),
while the artist merely creates
 Gombrich stresses that both are equally important in the
creation of meaning
Gombrich explains that knowledge and experiences add
onto what see or hear
 Sometimes we can choose to not listen purely by the choice
of words of another person
 Projection thus becomes perception
 For this same reason our minds can string together pieces of
art or narrative even if pieces are missing
 Artists can never represent every detail of reality
 Thus, art becomes an illusion, where the beholder fills in the
 Artworks become iconic, ”etc. Principle”
Gombrich also tackles the problem of three dimensions in a
painting: perspective
Gombrich argues that perspective is an equation that wants
the image to appear like the object, and the object like the
Perspective is dependent on the beholder’s expectations,
specifically the size-distance ambiguity
Gombrich challenges gestalt psychology in saying that
perspective is learned and not innate
Gombrich uses the example of the popularity of cubism as
proof, since it ”stamps out ambiguity and enforces one
reading of a picture – that of a colored canvas”
Gombrich makes a note on the history of perception
It has taken us from neolithic times to the nineteenth
century to paint what we see as what it is
 Gombrich argues that ”all thinking is sorting, classifying.”
 Gombrich opposes John Ruskin’s ”innocence of the eye”,
saying that no human eye can be ”innocent” (i.e., unaffected
by experience or attitude)
 A painting owes more to other paintings than it does to
direct observation
Tying in from the first part, Gombrich expands upon ”the
painter sees what he paints” with experimentation
 ”Only experimentation can show the artist a way out of the
prison of style toward a greater truth”
 Pure observation isn’t possible in neither science nor art
 All observation is predicated by hypotheses
‘‘The true miracle of the language of art is not that it enables
the artist to create the illusion of reality. It is that under the
hands of a great master the image becomes translucent.’’

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