A preference for the primitive: Gombrich’s legacy

A preference for the primitive: Gombrich’s legacy

Wilkin, Karen

FOR THOSE OF US OF A CERTAIN AGE EDUCATED IN A CERTAIN WAY, the name Ernst Gombrich immediately conjures up The Story of Art, a journey from Paleolithic to Picasso that for many us was our first art history textbook. Frankly intended for novices-“for all who feel in need of some orientation in a strange and fascinating field,” Gombrich announces in his preface-the book in its original form is a useful synopsis of the evolution of Western painting and sculpture, with a cursory glance at Chinese and Islamic art. It’s like a tour led by a chatty, informed, only slightly condescending guide of an encyclopedic museum that miraculously houses every paradigmatic work of art from ancient Egypt to the early twentieth century, located in a city full of the paradigms of architecture. Yet despite Gombrich’s avowed intention of simply showing “the newcomer the lie of the land without confusing him with details,” The Story of Art is not simply a dispassionate, tidy recounting of what happened when. As Gombrich presents it, the story is definitely “conceived and told in terms of a technical progress toward the imitation of nature.” The history of that “progress,” for the author, is not a sequence of “isms” driven by some inevitable force, but instead a complicated account of the efforts and serendipitous achievements of individuals. No surprise then, that as adults many of us discovered another Gombrich, one whose books revealed him to be more an inquisitive observer who endlessly sought the “why” behind any manifestation than a traditional art historian concerned with specifics of influence and attribution, style and dating, norms and aberrations-although he was also a master of that approach.

Gombrich called his project a search for “an explanatory science of artistic representation,” a notion that probably owed a good deal to his close association with the multivalent Warburg Institute, London’s legendary pressure cooker of displaced German-speaking humanism cum Wissenschaft, where he found refuge after fleeing Vienna in the mid-1980s. In practice, over Gombrich’s long and productive career, this high-minded idea translated into a series of publications that chart his continuing engagement with what I suppose must be called the psychology of art. Gombrich’s books, essays, and lectures document his endless curiosity (and speculation) about how we think about everything from decorative ornament to narrative painting and a lot in between, both as perceivers of works of art and as makers. He saw it all primarily in terms of individuals, rejecting utterly the idea of a Zeitgeist, in The Story of Art, he even suggested that there was no such thing as Art (with a capital A), only artists. He remained attached to the tacit assumption underlying The Story of Art that the history of art was driven by a basic human desire for some kind of perceptual truth; and, as a result, most twentieth-century art eluded him. He was never really at ease with anything but illusionistic painting and sculpture, apparently convinced at some fundamental level that the aim of art was to reproduce the visible more or less faithfully; he discussed Cubist paintings, for example, as though they were visual puzzles intended to be mentally reconstructed-but that’s a quibble. When Gombrich died in 2001 at ninety-two, he left an impressive body of provocative and illuminating works, the fruit of a lifetime’s probing of attitudes toward art and artifacts that amounts to a history of taste.

The most recent addition to this legacy, published posthumously, is The Preference for the Primitive: Episodes in the History of Western Taste and Art,1 an exploration of what Gombrich sees as a pattern repeated throughout much of the history of Western art: a sequence of changing taste in which the belief that aesthetic value is commensurate with the degree of skill, refinement, and fidelity to nature exhibited by a work of art is supplanted by an appreciation for simplicity, intensity, and even crudeness. Or, as Gombrich describes it, even though he continued to attach a great deal of importance to the notion that the history of art could be seen “in terms of progress towards the imitation of nature”-and, it must be added, in terms of a search for a kind of perfection-he began to find it “exciting and relevant to explore another psychological principle that ran counter to this dominant theme: the revulsion from that very perfection that art had been said to aim at. The historian of art, in other words, had to be aware of this duality and the tensions it created.” It’s not the most insightful or surprising of revelations, but in keeping with his lifelong preoccupation with the reasons for alterations in taste, that awareness led Gombrich to attempt not only to outline the characteristics of this duality, but also to examine its origins, ramifications, and meaning, both in the past and in more recent times. The result is The Preference for the Primitive, a fascinating, exasperating, catchall of a book that swings between over-generalization and a relentless marshalling of detailed source material, between rapier perception and wooliness, between exhaustive probing and expedient references to previously published discussions by the author and his colleagues, as it sums up many of Gombrich’s preoccupations of the past half-century; the illustrations that accompany the text seem rather arbitrary, or at least, to be a less than ideal or definitive selection of images. (While the official word is that the book had reached its final form before the author’s death, there’s an untidiness and shapelessness to The Preference for the Primitive that suggest that Gombrich might have wanted to give his text a final polish, had he lived; I suspect that he might also have chosen different illustrations than the ones included in the present publication.)

From the outset, the very typography of The Preference for the Primitive should alert us to the fact that “primitive” in Gombrich’s title has little to do with the more usual and more loaded art historical sense of the word; especially since the Museum of Modern Art’s ambitious 1984 exhibition, “‘Primitivism’ in 20 Century Art,” “primitive” is now always rendered in disclaiming quotation marks to avoid any aura of disparagement. But instead of using the word-with or without the ironic punctuation-to designate works produced by non-industrialized cultures in remote parts of the world, Gombrich employs it variously to indicate any way of working that, whatever its intentions, either fails to reach the highest standards of mimetic, highly illusionism-which is to say, “perfection”-ignores or is ignorant of them, or deliberately flouts them. Gombrich’s notion of a preference for the primitive is manifested, for example, by finding an archaic Greek kouros more compelling than a Hellenistic deity, preferring Romanesque to Gothic, or liking Giotto more than Raphael; it can also be demonstrated by finding tribal or folk art more interesting than-say-a sculpture by Canova. In other words, the preference for the primitive has to do with valuing a formative, early, unsophisticated approach more highly than a polished, technically accomplished one. (Reading the book, I kept thinking of a restaurateur friend’s recent disquisition on the difference between ingredient-based cuisines and process-based cuisines, the former depending on selecting excellent raw materials and doing as little to them as possible, and the latter placing less emphasis on ingredients than on elaborate preparation and complex combinations; Gombrich’s notion of the primitive is ingredient-, rather than process-based, even to the point of emphasizing the raw over the cooked.)

It goes without saying that this shift in aesthetic values is intimately bound up with the way modernism is usually discussed, but Gombrich demonstrates that for all the undeniable importance of such pivotal moments in the history of art as adventurous nineteenth-century artists’ discovery of the visual provocativeness of Japanese prints or the twentieth-century vanguard’s acknowledgement of the power and aesthetic challenge of African sculpture, such events are not aberrations or even aesthetic coups de foudre, but part of a continuing series of reactions, occurring over a long period of time and fueled by a variety of motives.

While frequently illuminating, The Preference for the Primitive is also hard work. The book is a series of disjunctive jottings, often compelling in themselves, but not always smoothly related. Gombrich ruminates on everything from rhetoric to anthropology, often causing you to retrace your steps to pick up the threads of his reasoning as he struggles not only to explore the myriad permutations of his unwieldy subject, but to determine just what the protean beast “primitivism” means in the first place. He meticulously assembles what seems to be every shred of evidence, from the ancient world to the twentieth century, of declarations or even oblique suggestions of preference for seemingly less “accomplished” work at the expense of (relatively) more rough-hewn efforts. As an early, albeit imperfect precedent, we are offered Plato’s advocacy of simplicity and his horror of innovation in the arts, although Gombrich, typically, is quick to point out that this apparent enthusiasm for “the primitive” had less to do with a real taste for early styles than it did with a fear of the moral effects of sensuality in the arts on citizens and a desire for the established canon to be generally maintained. In the same way, Cicero’s declared preference for austerity and what might be called “plain style” in painting and sculpture is invoked, with the reminder that this pronouncement was a way of bolstering an argument for similar characteristics in the renowned orator’s own art-rhetoric. Gombrich adds the caveat that Cicero’s presumed preference was not absolute, since, in drawing distinctions between the function of rhetoric, which was intended to persuade, and poetry, which was more like art for art’s or at least the Muses’ sake, he both implied that the main reason for adopting a plain style was to reach a wide audience and suggested that rhetorical style could vary, according to what was appropriate to the occasion and the audience.

Much of Gombrich’s discussion assumes the continued currency of the notion that throughout the history of art, artists, both individually and collectively, have always aspired not merely to achieve a heightened fidelity to appearances in their work, but also to create a more harmonious, refined version of those appearances-thereby, as the celebrated phrase goes, perfecting nature’s imperfections by her perfections. Yet at various times from the eighteenth century on, enthusiasm has burgeoned for works of art recognized as not being wholly achieved efforts, but no less valued as witnesses to an early, formative struggle in the quest for harmony and perfection. In his ruminations on why this should be so, Gombrich tracks the growth of interest in the “Italian primitives”-the painters of the trecento and quattrocento-at the expense of the more “perfect” practitioners of the High Renaissance, such as Raphael. Gombrich is careful to point out that Raphael’s work was itself subject to the same kind of fluctuations in taste. Those who saw virtue in the “primitive” ranked his early works fresh and vital and praised them at the expense of his later paintings, which were seen as slightly decadent.

In the same vein, Gombrich examines the documentation-including an early effort of Goethe-that records a growing appetite for the intricacies of the Gothic and for the enameled brilliance and hard, searching drawing of the German and Netherlandish Renaissance, at a time when a sleekly elegant Neoclassicism vied with an utterly frivolous Rococo as an “official” style. He probes, as well, the history of later enthusiasms for medieval art and architecture, always alerting the reader along the way not only to changing taste, but also to how conceptions of what could be defined as primitive or the unsophisticated shifted over time.

Gombrich’s speculations about just what prompted such fluctuations are as varied as his examples. He sometimes ties the ascendancy of simplicity and austerity-as opposed to virtuosity and elaboration-to a desire to express authentic piety, even to the growth of Protestantism itself; the frontality, patterning, and graphic qualities of Romanesque and early Gothic paintings, for example, were at times viewed not as evidence of the artist’s inability to produce more conventionally naturalistic images, but as testimony to intensity of feeling and spirituality. Simplicity was equated with purity of purpose. Gombrich posits more complex reasons for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’ periodically renewed interest in Medieval art (and in romanticized notions of the seamlessness of spirituality, art, and life in the Middle Ages, as exemplified by the anonymous artisan making-inadvertently-great art for the glory of God). For those in the nineteenth century who equated the spread of the Industrial Revolution with debasement of design, the superiority of traditional craftsmanship was self-evident. Yet as Gombrich reminds us, there were also less benign reasons for such preferences. For eighteenth-century Northerners, such as the Germans, praising the Gothic at the expense of the Neoclassical or the Rococo was an act of nationalism, a refusal to acknowledge the domination of France in defining stylistic excellence of all kinds. This declaration of national pride carried over into the twentieth century with deplorable results, although then, ironically, a stripped-down version of the Classical became the official style.

The last sections of The Preference for the Primitive are generally the least convincing. Gombrich addresses such themes as “the emancipation of formal values” and addresses ideas related to modernism, with varying degrees of pertinence. Still, there are rewarding moments. While it’s hardly news to learn that modernism’s looking to tribal and archaic art for formal precedents was a reaction against “the meretricious art of successful virtuosos,” it is provocative to be made to think about the role of photography in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries in disseminating images of the architecture and art of farflung cultures, in relation to Gombrich’s notion of the primitive. (This leads to one of the book’s many tangential discussions-often the most interesting parts of The Preference for the Primitive-here, on the way photographs can alter perceptions; in other such digressions Gombrich settles old scores and revives old disagreements, such as his long-standing quarrel with Worringer’s ideas about the Zeitgeist and a time- and place-based “will to form.”)

Other forays into twentieth-century territory are less fortunate, partly because Gombrich seems to have continued to harbor suspicions about modernism’s merits, even at the end of his life. For him, Surrealism’s interest in the operation of the unconscious, as manifested by unwilled, unedited associations, is a symptom of “regression,” which he equates with his concept of the “primitive,” but the issue seems more semantic than substantial. A final chapter, “Primitivism-in what Sense?” scrupulously dissects a problem that you wouldn’t think needed addressing: the possibility that “primitivism” in art might be an indication of a lack of sophistication or an inability to do better or simply sheer childishness on the part of the artist. Not so, Gombrich reassures us. Artists are not primitive, even if they make images that could be described that way. That’s good news, even if he does not admit that frequently they could be described that way only if they were being measured against the standard of traditional Western illusionism, but at least he insists that even the most apparently reductive twentieth-century art appears the way it does not because the artist lacked the skill to reproduce the visible accurately, but because he or she didn’t wish to do so. “Primitivism,” then, is a perhaps inevitable choice, a state of mind, a psychological phenomenon, not an indication that the barbarians have wiped out the traces of civilization.

Clement Greenberg used to maintain that modernism was not a rejection of tradition, but a rejection of the debasement of tradition; he called it “a holding action for quality.” Manet and Cezanne didn’t paint the way they did because they were unable to modulate tones from dark to light, or incapable of drawing according to the “rules” of perspective. But since they found the work of their own time that adhered to traditional skills empty, sentimental, and conventional, they were forced to ignore convention in an effort to make work that was as intense, immediate, and just plain excellent as the art they admired most from the past-which, for the record, included such acclaimed masters as Velazquez, Titian, Poussin, and the relative newcomer, the recently rediscovered Vermeer, among others. Gombrich’s view of primitivism is not entirely unrelated, but what was for Greenberg the starting point for a formulation of the nature of modernism was for his London-based colleague-at least in the published form of his final book-a conclusion. In the last section of The Preference for the Primitive, Gombrich declares his belief in the existence of standards and in the ability to discern that one work of art is better than another. Implying that artists also make such distinctions in relation to their own work, as well as to that of others, he adds that “it is human to want to transcend . . . limitations and to improve the language of art, the instruments of expression, towards ever more subtle articulation.” So far, so good. Nothing to take exception to here. But he continues, “This is, I think, what the twentieth century attempted to achieve by absorbing into its resources the modes and methods of primitive image-making.” Well, yes. That’s a more or less universally accepted truism, these days. The really interesting question, the question that you would have thought Gombrich would have wanted to address, is why. Why, when Matisse and Picasso first started paying attention to tribal art, did they see it as a source of formal inspiration instead of as an ethnic curiosity? Much of what is to be found in the earlier sections of The Preference for the Primitive raises expectations that the venerable scholar, in a book that sums up and revisits ideas that preoccupied him for a lifetime, might offer a plausible explanation for such challenging questions. It’s sad to see such a provocative thinker go out with a whimper instead of a bang. But since Gombrich’s entire working life was devoted to what Greenberg might have called “a holding action for civilization,” we should judge him not by this disappointing last volume, but by the best of his legacy. It’s the least he deserves.

1 THE PREFERENCE FOR THE PRIMITIVE: Episodes in the History of Western Taste and Art, by Sir Ernst Gombrich. Phaidon Press. $59.95.

KAREN WILKIN is the curator of the Hans Hofmann retrospective opening at the Naples Museum of Art, Florida, in November.

Copyright Hudson Review Spring 2003

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