Published five years after Sir Ernst Gombrich’s death, this book is a restyled reprint of the revised and expanded 16th edition of 1995. Phaidon has chosen a pocket-sized format for this series, and in this case, with its ribbon page markers and wafer-thin paper, The Story of Art takes on the physical properties of a bible. Not before time, according to one of the testimonials on the dust jacket; a Birmingham Post reviewer declaims that the author is as authoritative as God and wonders why Gombrich doesn’t upstage Gideon in hotel rooms.
First published in 1950, The Story of Art has sold more than eight million copies and has been translated into more than 30 languages. For some rearguard postmodern evangelists, however, this success is evidence of the satanic crime of ‘authoring the metanarrative’. The accusation is that Gombrich, by dint of his simplification of the complex story of world art, has produced a partial and populist account which colours the true (sic) narrative with dyed-in-the-wool Western presumptions.
Some of this criticism seems to stick: Gombrich is still used as whipping boy in opening lectures on New Art History. His approach was indeed to respect accepted masterworks and to exclude anything which he considered ‘to be without a peculiar merit of its own’. The result is a famously conservative series of case studies which occasionally sees Gombrich and his taste overpower the work he presents. But what this type of faux-ethical denigration overlooks in its inverse partiality is Gombrich’s passionate (and, yes, erudite) lifelong attempt to account for the ‘mental set’ of the viewer of art, the ‘beholder’s share’. In this he was clear that art is not resonant until the cultural settings of historical context and contemporary reception are explored. To this end he was a crucial exponent of ‘outward looking’ iconology in contrast to ‘inward looking’ iconography. Along with goliaths like Panofsky, Gombrich can be seen as a cornerstone of the more anthropologically orientated approaches to the study of the history of art.
As many postmodern theories now read like anxious millenarianism, a return to this version of the history of art might be timely as a reminder of how to balance due care for the formal properties of artworks with due care for cultural contexts. To avoid reproach, make sure you consult the postmodern sage before drawing up your own list of quasi-master/ mistress-works.
Ken Neil is head of critical studies at Glasgow School of Art.