Book review of: THE STORY OF ART.

Book review of:  THE STORY OF ART. E.H. Gombrich. (1972) United States of America. Phaidon Press Limited This would be the best art related book I have read and would recommend it to all art students, artist or really anybody who has an interest in history (not just from an arts perspective - interesting to note is that the book started of as art history for kids, but Gombrich refused to do it for kids, but was happy to write it for a more adult audience - see youtube clips on his interview) The book, and especially the introduction, contained for me many refreshing comments and thoughts, but had also many statements that reinforced my own thinking. While I had the time on my recent holiday I read chapters that related to my work and approach. For this blog entry I am only commenting on the introduction, as this is a book that you have to read and re-read many times over to help reinforce how history in art affects what we make today. I quote many of the passage from the book, as I believe, they are so complete that I could not write them better, so here goes; The introduction starts with saying; “There really is no such thing as art, there are only artist.” (pg 4). This is a very thought provoking way to start a book about the history of art. In many ways I feel the author is right, because what is really art? According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary it is: “The conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects”. The earliest ‘art’ was created where men took coloured earth to ‘draw’ a bison on a wall, now we buy paints to ‘draw’ on paper or ‘draw’ on a computer screen.  All of this can be considered art, because something was created consciously. It still leaves for me a gap, because I can consciously draw a tree on paper, but that does not necessarily make an art work (lately I have started every morning with left hand drawing of plants - what a challenge, am creating something consciously, but do I see it as art?). As Gombrich says “There is no harm in calling these activities art, but we have to keep in mind that this word may mean different things in different context, times and places”. (pg 4) So true, as in my practice I research a lot of historical plant documentation, at the time of creating those they were not considered art, but now many centuries later they are, why I often ask? According to Gombrich what we enjoy in a work is not Art, but something else. This I believe is absolutely true, as we are all influenced by our own experiences or memories when we view a work, this includes our likes and dislikes of things and activities and our culture/heritage. These influences will often cause us to prejudice a work negatively. (Coming from Dutch heritage it was interesting to read that the Dutch have always hung art on their walls for adornment. I know that my home has always been different to a regular kiwi house) What is interesting to note is that many people prefer realism in art work (me included, I struggle often with abstract, but admire those who can make ‘great abstract works), reflecting what they see naturally. But this enjoying of realism is often tinged with a ‘perceived beauty’ - where we prefer an image of a beautiful child to an old woman. In today’s world that is very much strengthened by the advertising images of tanned young people, selling us a product/life that we could all have if only we used/bought/tried..... “What is important to understand is that the beauty of a picture does not really lie in the beauty of its subject matter” (pg 5). I have been playing with this approach in my own work, by using dead or dying plant material, and am finding that it is the way you present the content that influences how ‘beautiful’ or otherwise the work looks. Tastes and standards of what makes something beautiful is influenced by time, culture and beliefs (but to name a few). (pg 6) Good art has great expression, no matter what the content is - “it is often the expression of a figure/scene which make us like or loath what we are looking at” (pg 6). I too have been guilty of judging a work that I did not understand, not taking the time to learn more about the artist and the era of creation. Often this has seem to be too hard, too much work, as art work needs to have an instant connection with many of us, before we are willing to dig deeper. But upon learning about the work, you end up creating a new level of understanding and appreciation. This is also true for work this is less obvious, that has room for “guessing/gap filling left in the work, it provides the viewer with something to ponder about or to add their own interpretation/experiences to it”. (pg 7) This type of work has the ability to show the viewer something different each time they see it, making it very powerful. Gombrich also raises the question of “more or less detail in a work - Which is better? Which has more skill?” (pg 7). Less detail is hard for many people to grasp, as it seems this makes the picture less ‘real’ and often this ‘unreal’ representation of things appears to make things less Art. “Think of Mickey mouse, a caricature character with many recognizable features, but he is not a ‘real’ mouse, hence qualifying this not as Art”. (pg 9) This to is an interesting observation and comment, but often true. We appreciate work that has lots of detail, like adding a ‘value’ to the time the artist has taken to depict the content and if the artist has done this with a realistic approach, than it has even more ‘value’. Because if an artist draws something in his own way, less realistic, it is seen as child like or a bungler, many people comment that their child could have done the same. The question they then have is - how can that be Art? Going back to the definition above; the artist has drawn something with great consciousness, because he/she has consciously drawn the object to be less real, less perfect. This type of ‘unrealistic’ art challenges our real world, how we see and experience life. According to Gombrich there are 2 things we should ask when we find fault with an Art work:

  1. Did the artist have his/her reasons to change the appearance of what he saw?
  2. We should never condemn a work for being incorrectly drawn, unless you have made sure of this. As the question will arise; incorrect by who’s standards? (pg 9)

As Gombrich says “we are quick to judge that something is not correct, as we tend to judge it with what we know and what we think we see in nature. (pg 10) For example grass can only be green and the sky only sky? But on what day is that, as many moments within a day will reveal subtle variations of not only green and blue, but red’s, orange’s and yellow. The summer we have just had would all most make the initial statement true. I love the following statement from this introduction “To truly enjoy and appreciate art, try and behave as if you have just arrived from another planet and are on a journey of discovery. Artist who are getting away from many preconceived ideas about the way the world ‘looks’, often produce the most exciting works. They teach us to see the world in a new/different way, opening our eyes and if we follow them, then we too will be on a ride of discoveries”. (pg 11) As mentioned above it is challenging to view any work without any prejudices, old habits or stubborn beliefs, but to really enjoy or experience any work of art you have to try and approach it with a fresh mind, a clear mind. This would be the hardest to do, but I believe this is also relevant to life. The only way to really enjoy anything, whether this is art or a meal, is to actually be a kid again. I am trying to adopt this attitude to life & my arts practice (hence the left hand drawings) and see how it will affect my ability to also enjoy/view/create art. My passion has been, and still is, botany/plants. As a landscape designer I manipulated them to create enjoyable spaces and also reinvigorate memories. I am totally captivated by the plant world, it’s magic, it’s resilience, as I see beauty in dried up leaves or seed pods, just like newly fomred leaves or flowers. With my work I have been trying to put myself into the shoes of the explorer’s. Trying to imagine how precious each new plant find was and using this understanding I am hoping to capture this. As Gombrich mentions that “it is the artist who reads something with the greatest devotion and attention, one who discards all preconceived ideas and tries to build up in their mind a totally new image of the incidents. They imagine what it must have been like if they are representing a past action or event”.(pg 12) Most art work is created by an artist without much conscious thought, we create much work with the emotion  ‘does it feel right’. This emotion/approach is something that cannot be taught, technical aspects of art are easy to teach, great artist use this knowledge and stretch it, bend it or manipulate the ‘rules’ to create great work. Gombrich points out that rules were created many centuries ago to try and give all the ability to create great art, but it was found that this did not happen. As great artist took these ’rules’ to a new level, while those who had no ‘ability’ could not. (pg 17) “Every artist ponders over each feature that is in a work”, but “ideas such as expression and beauty are rarely things an artist concerns themselves with, but those who view it often do”. (pg 13) It is interesting to create art and then have others view it. There are times both me/you and the viewer get the same emotional response, but there are many times this does not happen. I believe this is influenced as mentioned before by our own experiences and culture, likes and dislikes, comfort with the subject or otherwise etc. What I enjoyed of this introduction is the last few pages (pg 14 - 17), where Gombrich really talks about how an artist ‘feels’ their way through a work, being fussy about details, trying to ensure all aspects within the work flow and connect. Doing all of this through many trials, lots of ‘mistakes’ and often in isolation from the world. Once an artist emerges from this isolation, often making something very autobiographical, their work is judged by those who ‘know a lot about art’. According to Gombrich “nobody knows all about art, and if they think they do, then they do not look at each work with a fresh mind, one that is ready to enjoy every hint and hidden harmonies. (pg 17 ) “A mind that approaches each work like that is not cluttered with long high-sounding words and ready-made phrases” (pg 18). This has made me rethink my approach for critiques, whether formal or informal. Approaching any work without ready-made phrases will not be a challenge for me, as I have not been in the art world long enough to have a list of this on hand. It is making me excited to go to critiques now and be honest and open with my responses. The rest of the chapters of this book goes through the history of picture-making and statue-making and tries to explain the thinking of the artist in that period, hoping to help sharpen our eyes for particular characteristics of the works and the time periods. To finish with the last couple of sentences from this introduction - “To look at a picture with fresh eyes and to venture on a voyage of discovery into it is a far more difficult, but also much more rewarding task. There is no telling what one might bring home from such a journey”.(pg 18) This introduction/book has opened my eyes to many more possibilities for my practice and for enjoying art and I will need to re-read this a few more times to ensure I do not forget the lessons.

Posted by Elle Anderson

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