Art and Illusion by E.H. Gombrich: An Overview

Sir. Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich (1909-2001) is primarily an art critic but his writings on art have many implications for literary criticism. The issue raised by him surrounds around he conception of imitation. Thus, his idea appears to be a far echo of Platonic ideas. He does include the idea of imitation but retains the term substitution. Where the latter is as important as the former.

Sir. Ernst Hans Joseph Gombrich

He, in fact, takes substitution as more important than imitation. He talks about the synesthesia i.e. the relation between sound and sight. Regarding literary criticism, Gombrich discusses two error frequently made by critics. (i) the assumption that a “representation” is a copy of “external form” of an object rather than a substitution of some sort. (ii) The assumption that a representation copies a “motif in the artists’ inner world.”

He talks about art more than about literature. Art is not the blind imitation but making of images of the reality. It is, therefore, substitution, not the mere imitation. The art simply creates an image that corresponds the reality, not the total exactness. This representation in art can be made equivalent to the language in literature. The real artistic effect is brought out due to the unity in creator and viewer (writer and reader). For him, all art is fundamentally the making of images. The making of images is based psychologically on the making of substitutions. This view leads him to emphasize the matter of artistic conventions.

Art is also the interpretation of real. When it is interpretation, it is substitution, not the reality. It is not necessary for an image to resemble the real; the real may not be similar to the image we perceive because there is always possibility of perceiving something differently; by different persons. When we utter the sound “book”, the concept or image of book appears to us, and that is only through convention, tradition and interpretation. The onomatopoeic words are also the part of tradition and the artists who use such symbols to signify thins are good. So imitation is largely related to the tradition. There is the relation between the physical representation and the meaning they represent. His examples are related to the onomatopoeic words. The meaning is somewhat triggered by the sounds (traditionally). The onomatopoeic words are only the approximation. Everything is an interpretation just as the sound of a cock differs in different countries.

Every art is therefore, the interpretation of reality brought by the artist. He acknowledges that there can be the anxiety of influence of the predecessors. But his will not be diverted from the reality. There might be dominance of society but the production of the artist is something his won (about style). Style, therefore, differs from a person to person.

In the second part, he talks how the representation is done. He talks about Synasthesia i.e. the relationship between the sight and sound. In art, artist can use certain sense. But it simply means the sight and sound. Synthesia is a device of art. Some words remind us the action of their meaning (blinking). This way, then, the artist represents the reality. Language can create some sense of visual action and vice-versa. Artists work with system. There are three aspects of representing art. They are:

  1. Medium
  2. Mental
  3. Equivalence

In a nutshell according to Gombrich the art simply creates an image that corresponds to the reality, not the total exactness, and the representation is not the copy of external form but substitution. He asserts that all art is fundamentally the making of image that is based psychologically on the making of substitutes and the meaning are related to the tradition. Imitation is always done with a system. Sound of cock can be uttered only by system. So, every imitation is mediation.

Gombrich Study Center

Biography of E. H. Gombrich

Mimetic Theory: Introduction