Ernst Gombrich

In McLuhan’s decisive ‘art history’ period, 1958-1962, Ernst Gombrich played a central role along with Adolph Hildebrand, Heinrich Wölfflin and William Ivins.  Art and illusion, Gombrich’s retitled 1956 Mellon lectures, appeared in print in 1960 and was instantly and repeatedly, almost compulsively, cited by McLuhan in multiple publications that same year and continuing to 1962.  As with the other art historians, Hildebrand, Wölfflin and Ivins, McLuhan then returned to Gombrich only briefly thereafter.

Report on Project in Understanding New Media (1960)

  • In 1915 Heinrich Wolfflin published his Principles of Art History which has since then revolutionized the study of many matters besides art. His entire approach confirms what I discovered about media: “the effect is the thing that counts, not the sensuous facts“, (Dover Publications, p. 62). This is also the theme of E. H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion (Pantheon Books, 1960), in which be provides “a study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation,” bridging and fusing much recent perception study with the history of culture.
  • In his extensive survey and analysis of the illusion and ambiguities of perspective and the third dimension, E. H. Gombrich (Art and Illusion) again and again reverts to the Greek miracle: “the discovery of fore-shortening and the conquest of space early in the fifth century” (p. 116). The cause of this “miracle” was the phonetic alphabet. Again, let it be stressed, concern with the sensory data rather than effects has for many centuries concealed the operation of this cause.
  • At the end of his classic study of Art and Illusion, E. H. Gombrich says: “In investigating the growth of the language of representation we may have gained some insight into the articulation of other languages of equivalences. Indeed, 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.”
  • I am going to draw heavily on E. H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion (Pantheon Books, 1960) simply because (…) his ample use of current perception study will give comfort to the scientifically-minded. (…) He notes: “Now the historian knows that the information pictures were expected to provide differed widely in different periods. Not only were images scarce in the past, but so were the public’s opportunities to check their captions. …How many travelled widely enough to tell one city from another?” Low Definition images were merely take-off strips for private fantasy: “All they were expected to do was to bring home to the reader that these names stood for cities.” But to that very degree they elicited maximal effort on the part of the beholder. Of a sixteenth century picture of Rome, Gombrich says: “I am fond of this coarse woodcut because its very crudeness allows us to study the mechanism of portrayal as in a slow motion picture.” 
  • Its [television’s] mosaic has brought us back to the two-dimensional and to the fascination with tactile process. Gombrich writes: “It has become increasingly clear since the late nineteenth century that primitive art and child art use a language of symbols rather than ‘natural signs.’ To account for this fact it was postulated that there must be a special kind of art grounded not on seeing but rather on knowledge, an art which operates with ‘conceptual images.’ The child — it is argued — does not look at trees; he is satisfied with the ‘conceptual’ schema of a tree that fails to correspond to any reality since it does not embody the characteristics of say, birch or beech, let alone those of individual trees. This reliance on construction rather than on imitation was attributed to the peculiar mentality of children and primitives who live in a world of their own. But we have come to realize that the distinction is unreal. Gustaf Britsch and Rudolph Arnheim have stressed that there is no opposition between the crude map of the world made by a child and the richer map presented in naturalistic images. All art originates in the human mind, in our reactions to the world rather than in the visible world itself… “
  • The general principle that LD or Low Definition situations are especially evocative of participation of the beholders is illustrated many times in Gombrich. The correlative principle that HD or High Definition situations keep the public in an external, consumer role is likewise illustrated over and over again (…) For example he shows how we learn from over-simplified hypotheses rather than from the carefully elaborated ones: “In order to learn we must make mistakes, and the most fruitful mistake which nature could have implanted in us would be the assumption of even greater simplicities than we are likely to meet with in this bewildering world of ours.”
  • The age-old clash between walking and marching is the clash between LD [Low Definition] art in which there is much participation in the creative process, and HD  [High Definition] art which tends towards (…) pictorial [realism]1There are few civilizations that even made the change from walking to marching, and only where the image has been developed to a high degree of articulation does that systematic process of comparison set in which results in illusionist art.” (Gombrich) But HD art and technology speeds the process of change and transformation. It is an absolute principle that to the degree that any situation is put in HD by a flow of much information, that situation is at the point of drastic change and of the manifestation of opposite characteristics. “An artist of our own day, Georges Braque, has recently spoken of the thrill and awe with which he discovered the fluidity of our categories, the ease with which a file can become a shoehorn, a bucket, a brazier. We have seen that this faculty for finding and making underlies the child’s discoveries no less than the artist’s.” (Gombrich).
  • Chiasmus is indispensable to understanding media since all information flow (…) operates simultaneously in opposite modes. (…) One more illustration from Gombrich illustrates the above point: “I believe the student of these inventions will generally find a double rhythm which is familiar from the history of technical progress but which has never yet been described in detail in the history of art — I mean the rhythm of lumbering advance and subsequent simplification. Most technical inventions carry with them a number of superstitions, unnecessary detours which are gradually eliminated through shortcuts and a refinement of means. In the history of art we know this process mainly in the work of the great masters. Even the greatest of them began their careers with a very circumspect and even heavy technique, leaving nothing to chance.”
  • Gombrich provides (…) illustration of how SI-SC [Sensory Impression/Subjective Completion] merge with HD-LD [High Definition/Low Definition]. He is speaking of how the impressionists exploited “the charm and challenge of incomplete representation”: “But where the earlier masters prepared the beholder for this artifice and facilitated the projection, the impressionists wanted him to enjoy the challenge of a visual shock. (…) The amount of information reaching us from the visible world is incalculably large, and the artist’s medium is inevitably restricted and granular…. in the end he will always have to rely on suggestions when it comes to representing the infinitely small.”
  • SI is not SC. The impression is not the experience. The beholder must collaborate in creating the illusions of space, as of time. The receiver of a structured impression, such as any medium offers, must be attuned to that structure. It must be for him a sort of familiar keyboard on which he can play a great variety of melodiesSuch, for us all, is our native tongue. Such is the written and the printed word. Such are the impressions from all our technology. “Psychologists have long recognized that our reaction to images also transforms what we ‘see’ in a much more radical way than we usually notice”. (…). The fact that the area of the mirror that reflects the face is always exactly half the size of the face is so startling as to meet with skepticism on the part of most people who have looked into mirrors all their lives. Obviously, therefore, that is not what they see. They see the face in the distance behind the mirror surface, and thus they see it correspondingly larger” (Gombrich). SI and SC, or impression and response, are much like the old pair of “seeing” and “knowing”: “What we see when we respond to moistness or smoothness is the ‘global’ quality itself, not the elements of local color and reflection” (Gombrich). That is, the SC of many visual presentations is not visual at all any more than the SC of radio’s SI is auditory. What I’m trying to do (…) in the questions and suggestions that go with them is to discover the dynamic symmetries and contours of the media. There is no point in being apologetic since the entire effort is experimental. As Gombrich puts it again, in a sentence that also seems to me to illustrate the relations between SI-SC: “Not even the most skillful artist should claim to be able to plan a single stroke with the pen in all its details. What he can do is to adjust the subsequent stroke to the effect observed in the previous one. (…) In this new process of schema and modification, the artist is one controlling fact, the public another (Gombrich).

Technology, the Media, and Culture (1960)

  • E.H. Gombrich, in his recent Art and Illusion, regards cubism as “the most radical attempt to stamp out ambiguity and to enforce one reading of the picture — that of a man-made construction, a colored canvas. Cubism, the means of seeing all aspects of an object from numerous points of view, at the same moment, is the near-equivalent of the telegraph press, which provides an inclusive global snapshot from hour to hour. Gombrich is right, however, in suggesting that when the ambiguities of perspective or the third dimension are pushed far enough they yield suddenly a reverse set of characteristics. Instead of pictorial space, we are suddenly confronted with formal space. Instead of a visual world that contains objects, we meet a world in which each object creates its own space, and imposes its own assumptions like a melody. There is one passage in Gombrich’s Art and Illusion which has instant appeal to a literary man. He is discussing the ambiguities of the third dimension as they are rendered in the Adelbert Ames perception laboratory. He wants to pin down (…) why (…) [we] think of the third or perspective dimension as non-illusory: “It is important to be quite clear at this point wherein the illusion consists. lt consists, I believe, in the conviction that there is only one way of interpreting the visual pattern in front of us.” This was also the most cherished illusion of the print reader. For reasons never yet investigated, the notion of the “one plain meaning” never “bugged“ the manuscript reader, ancient or medieval. Possibly the higher definition of print created the expectation of exclusive rather than inclusive meaning. But it was only a generation ago that the literary world was startled by the rediscovery of multiple levels of statement in the simplest words and syntax. As we move deeper into the electronic galaxy the pressure to reconfigure age-old patterns in the alphabetic and Gutenberg galaxy becomes overwhelming. It is therefore with ready understanding that we can nowadays confront the disturbance felt in the ancient world when the alphabet was new. The growth of the Euclidean fictions in the patterns of human sensibility were as upsetting then as the return of nuclear non-Euclidean modalities of experience today. Gombrich, writing of the  rise of pictorial space and illusion in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., says: “The very violence with which Plato denounces this trickery reminds us of the momentous fact that at the time he wrote, mimesis was a recent invention.“  And again: “There is finally the history of Greek painting, as we can follow it in painted pottery, which tells of the discovery of foreshortening and the conquest of space early in the fifth century and of light in the fourth.“ What we today can see very easily is that the departure of the Greek world into pictorial and Euclidean space was anything but natural.

The Electronic Age – The Age of Implosion (1962)

  • Today the hypnotized and somnambulistic citizen [is] percussed by the electronic implosion in general and the TV image in particular (…) A fixed position from which to gaze at the current plasma of super-heated events is consistent with the old technology of “single vision and Newton’s sleep”. A fixed point of view yields what E. H. Gombrich calls “the anguish of the third dimension.” It is based on the isolation of the visual sense from the interplay of the other senses, and it never seeks nor finds insight into the actual structure of any situation. By substituting point of view for insight we trap ourselves in a single isolated sense as is shown at length in The Gutenberg Galaxy.

The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)

  • In his Art and Illusion, E.H. Gombrich writes (p. 116) : “If I had to reduce the last chapter to a brief formula it would be ‘making comes before matching’. Before the artist ever wanted to match the sights of the visible world he wanted to create things in their own right. (…) The very violence with which Plato denounces this trickery reminds us of the momentous fact that at the time he wrote, mimesis was a recent invention. There are many critics now who share his distaste, for one reason or another, but even they would admit there are few more exciting spectacles in the whole history of art than the great awakening of Greek sculpture and painting between the sixth century and the time of Plato’s youth toward the end of the fifth century B.C.” Etienne Gilson makes much of the distinction between making and matching in his Painting and Reality. And whereas till Giotto a painting was a thing, from Giotto till Cezanne painting became the representation of things. (GG 51)
  • Gombrich begins his tenth chapter of Art and Illusion with further observations on visual mimesis: “The last chapter has led this inquiry back to the old truth that the discovery of appearances was not due so much to a careful observation of nature as to the invention of pictorial effects. I believe indeed that the ancient writers who were still filled with a sense of wonder at man’s capacity to fool the eye came closer to an understanding of this achievement than many later critics … but if we discard Berkeley’s theory of vision, according to which we “see” a flat field but “construct” a tactile space, we can perhaps rid art history of its obsession with space and bring other achievements into focus, the suggestion of light and of texture, for instance, or the mastery of physiognomic expression.” Berkeley’s New Theory of Vision ( 1709) (…)  was concerned to refute Descartes and Newton, who had wholly abstracted the visual sense from the interaction of the other senses. On the other hand, the suppression of the visual sense in favour of the audile-tactile complex, produces the distortions of tribal society2 (…) Gombrich not only has all the most relevant information about the rise of the pictorial mode; he has all the right difficulties. He ends his Art and Illusion by commenting: “There is finally the history of Greek painting as we can follow it in painted pottery, which tells of the discovery of foreshortening and the conquest of space early in the fifth century and of light in the fourth (…) Emanuel Loewy at the turn of the century first developed his theories about the rendering of nature in Greek art that stressed the priority of conceptual modes and their gradual adjustment to natural appearances … But in itself it explains very little. For why was it that this process started comparatively so late in the history of mankind? In this respect our perspective has very much changed. To the Greeks the archaic period represented the dawn of history, and classical scholarship has not always shaken off this inheritance. From this point of view it appeared quite natural that the awakening of art from primitive modes should have coincided with the rise of all those other activities, that, for the humanist, belong to civilization: the development of philosophy, of science, and of dramatic poetry.” (GG 52-53)
  • The relation of tactility to the visual, so necessary to an understanding of the fortunes of the phonetic alphabet, only became starkly defined after Cezanne. Thus Gombrich makes tactility a central theme of Art and Illusion, as does Heinrich Wölfflin in his Principles of Art History. And the reason for this new stress was that in an age of photography the divorce of the visual from the interplay of the other senses was pushed all the way into reaction. Gombrich records the stages of nineteenth-century discussion and analysis of “sense data” leading to the Helmholtz case for “unconscious inference” or mental action even in the most basic sense experience. “Tactility” or interplay among all the senses was felt to be the very mode of this “inference” and led at once to the disintegration of the idea of the “imitation of nature” as a [merely] visual affair. Gombrich writes: “Two German thinkers are prominent in this story. One is the critic Konrad Fiedler, who insisted, in opposition to the impressionists, that “even the simplest sense impression that looks like merely the raw material for the operations of the mind is already a mental fact, and what we call the external world is really the result of a complex psychological process.” But it was Fiedler’s friend, the neoclassical sculptor Adolf von Hildebrand, who set out to analyze this process in a little book called The Problem of Form in the Figurative Arts, which came out in 1893 and gained the ear of a whole generation. Hildebrand, too, challenged the ideals of scientific naturalism by an appeal to the psychology of perception: if we attempt to analyze our mental images to discover their primary constituents, we will find them composed of sense data derived from vision and from memories of touch and movement. A sphere, for instance, appears to the eye as a flat disk; it is touch which informs us of the properties of space and form. Any attempt on the part of the artist to eliminate this knowledge is futile, for without it he would not perceive the world at all. His task is, on the contrary, to compensate for the absence of movement in his work by clarifying his image and thus conveying not only visual sensations but also those memories of touch which enable us to reconstitute the three-dimensional form in our minds. It is hardly an accident that the period when these ideas were so eagerly debated was also the period when the history of art emancipated itself from antiquarianism, biography, and aesthetics. Issues which had been taken for granted so long suddenly looked problematic and required reassessment. When Bernard Berenson wrote his brilliant essay on the Florentine painters, which came out in 1896, he formulated his aesthetic creed in terms of Hildebrand’s analysis. With his gift for the pregnant phrase, he summed up almost the whole of the sculptor’s somewhat turgid book in the sentence “The painter can accomplish his task only by giving tactile value to retinal impressions.” (GG 81-82)
  1. McLuhan has “illusion” here instead of “realism”. He meant, of course, the “illusion” of realism, “where (as Gombrich has it, the image has been developed to a high degree of articulation”.
  2. McLuhan has note here: “Georg von Bekesy’s article on “Similarities between Hearing and Skin Sensations” (Psychological Review, Jan., 1959, pp. 1-22), provides a means of understanding why no sense can function in isolation nor can be unmodified by the operation and diet of the other senses.