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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 5 May 2019

“The Story of Art” by E H Gombrich

From cave paintings to Picasso, Gombrich endeavours to make us understand how “Artists of all periods have tried to put forward their solution of the essential paradox of painting, which is that it represents depth on a surface.” (C 27) To do this he tries to explain what was important to the artists of each period: “The Egyptians had largely drawn what they knew to exist, the Greeks what they saw; in the Middle Ages the artist also learned to express in his picture what he felt.” (C 8)

But Gombrich starts with the assertion that “There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.” (Introduction). So he charts the history of art by considering the masters and by showing the techniques they developed. In the end, he argues, you can only judge an artist in terms of what he (or she) is trying to achieve, by assessing to what extent they have achieved their goal. Thus one artist may be a master of perspective and another a master of foreshortening, a third may be a master of using light and shade and a fourth a master of arranging a composition so that it is pleasing while a fifth is concerned primarily with colour.

I learned that the Greeks more or less invented foreshortening; that Brunelleschi (his work on the Duomo of Florence is recorded in Brunelleschi's Dome) invented perspective; that Van Eyck invented painting with oils so he could “achieve smooth transitions by letting the colours shade off into each other” (C 12); that Leonardo invented sfumato, and many other things.

This book was an absolutely fascinating travel through the history of this topic. I feel I understood more about art than I have ever understood before although, as Gombrich quotes Picasso: ‘Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird?” (C 27)

Some great, often illuminating, quotes:
  • “There is no greater obstacle to the enjoyment of great works of art than our unwillingness to discard habits and prejudices. A painting which represents a familiar subject in an unexpected way is often condemned for no better reason than that it does not seem right.” (Introduction)
  • “Works of art ...  every one of their features is the result of a decision by the artist.” (Introduction)
  • “When it is a matter of matching forms or arranging colours an artist must always be ... fastidious to the extreme. He may see differences in shades and texture which we should hardly notice.” (Introduction)
  • "It is this balance between an adherence to rules and a freedom within the rules which has made Greek art so much admired in later centuries.” (C 3)
  • “Chinese ... artists were less fond of rigid angular forms than the Egyptians had been, and preferred swerving curves. When a Chinese artist had to represent a prancing horse, he seemed to fit it together out of a number of rounded shapes.” (C 7)
  • “We think of an artist as a person with a sketchbook who sits down and makes a drawing from life whenever he feels inclined. But we know that the whole training and upbringing of the medieval artist was very different ... Never in his career would he be faced with the necessity of taking a sketchbook and drawing something from life.” (C 10)
  • Byzantine art preserved Hellenistic discoveries: “How the face is modelled in light and shade and ... a correct understanding of the principles of foreshortening.” (C 10)
  • “Light not only helps to model the the forms of the figures, but is equal in importance to perspective in creating the illusion of depth.” (C 13)
  • “Only Leonardo found the true solution to the problem. The painter must leave the beholder something to guess. If the outlines are not quite so firmly drawn, if the form is left a little vague, as though disappearing into a shadow, this impression of dryness and stiffness will be avoided.” (C 15)
  • In the Mona Lisa: “Expression rests mainly in two features: the corners of the mouth, and the corners of the eyes. now it is precisely these parts which Leonardo has left deliberately indistinct, by letting them merge into a soft shadow.” (C 15) Furthermore the two sides don’t match so that “when we focus the left side of the picture, the woman looks somehow taller or more erect than if we focus the right side. And her face, too, seems to change.” (C 15)
  • “The sacred scenes from the Bible were crowded out by what appeared to be a training team of young athletes.” (C 189)
  • “Great innovators in art have often concentrated on the essential things and refused to worry about technical perfection in the usual sense.” (C 18)
  • “This is a common mistake which we are apt to make about artists. We are often inclined to confuse their work with their person.” (C 18)
  • “Goya asserted his Independence of the conventions of the past. ... The most striking fact about Goya's prints is that they are not illustrations of any known subject, either biblical, historical or genre. Most of them are fantastic visions of witches and uncanny apparitions.” (C 24)
  • “It really comes to this - that where there is no choice there is no expression.” (C 25)
  • “The word Art has acquired a different meaning for us ... the history of art and the nineteenth century can never become the history of the most successful and best paid masters of that time. We see it rather as the history of a handful of lonely men who had the courage and the persistence to think for themselves, to examine conventions fearlessly and critically and thus to create new possibilities for their art.” (C 25)
  • “The longing of Victorian masters for Innocence was too self-contradictory to succeed.” (C 25)
  • “Manet and his followers brought about a revolution in the rendering of colours which is almost comparable with the revolution in the representation of forms brought about by the Greeks. They discovered that, if we look at nature in the open, we do not see individual objects each with its own colour but rather a bright medley of tints which blend in our eye or really in her mind.” (C 25)
  • “We call ‘picturesque’ such motifs as we have seen in pictures before.” (C 25)
  • “The critics who had laughed has proved very fallible indeed. Had they bought these canvases rather than mocked them they would have become rich. Criticism therefore suffered a loss of prestige from which it never recovered. The struggle of the Impressionists became the treasured legend of all innovators in art.” (C 25)
  • “Ever since artists had become self-conscious about ‘style’ they felt distrustful of conventions and impatient of mere skill.” (C 26)
  • “Frank Lloyd Wright ... saw that what mattered in a house was the rooms, and not the facade.” (C 27)
  • “This search had revealed the conflict between pattern and solidity.” (C 26)
  • “The legend has sprung up that all great artists were always rejected and derided in their time and so the public now makes the laudable effort no longer to reject or deride anything.” (Postscript)
  • “Art differs from other forms of creation in being less dependent on intermediaries. Books must be printed and published, plays and compositions must be performed; and this need of an apparatus applies a certain break to extreme experiment.” (Postscript)

There are also a huge number of illustrations of wonderful art, some of which I had other appreciated before; others I had never even seen before.

An eye-opening read. April 2019; 501 pages

This is one of a selection of books I am reading to help me understand more about art. Others reviewed on this blog include:




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