Thoughts from Linda:
The Story of Art
16th Edition, 2020
I discovered E.H. Gombrich many years ago at an airport bookstore, where they profiled his book A Little History of the World. (We did a review of A Little History in September of 2020, and it is on our bookshelf.) I found it to be so delightful for children and enjoyable. And then, to my surprise, I discovered that A Little History was almost an ‘accidental book’ for him.
His reputation is as a world-class art historian and art author. This book was first published in 1950 and is into its 16th printing. Walter Isaacson quotes him in his book, also reviewed this month, on Leonardo da Vinci. This book serves as a textbook for many art classes worldwide.
Inspired by da Vinci’s curiosity for the sake of curiosity itself, we include this book in our summer selection for two main reasons. First, we are all curious creatures and know that ideas spring up in the most unlikely places. This book is a tour de force of the art of our world, and of course, represents things we should all know as a baseline for our lives. With one of our main values being ‘knowledge and life-long learning,’ this book seems to fit the bill for the curious reader! Secondly, so many of us have taken virtual tours of museums and art during the past year of COVID isolation. For many who have had the opportunity to see these pieces in person, this book provides a grounded summary with insights into the most famous works on the planet. It allows us to make up for that art class in high school or college that we missed.
Gombrich goes to great lengths to explain his approach to the book. He has a few self-imposed rules which he followed. First, he notes that the book was written for “all who feel in need of some first orientation in a strange and fascinating field.” So, he has committed to use plain language and take care of technical terms. Secondly, he takes great care to show each of the works he discusses. Most are on the writing pages or just opposite them, making it especially easy to read and comprehend. Further, he limited himself to real works of art and did not include anything, as he says, that might be “merely interesting as a specimen of taste or fashion.”
He notes he was careful to resist the temptation to crowd out the well-known masterpieces by his personal favorites. He also notes that he prefers to focus on pieces that he has personally seen. And finally, he says, “it was my final rule not to have any absolute rules whatever, but to break my own sometimes leaving to the reader the fun of finding me out.”
The book is organized by a historical timeline beginning with primitive art. Chapters include such titles as Art for Eternity, The Great Awakening, World Conquerors, The Church Militant, The Church Triumphant, Harmony Attained, Light and Colour, A Crisis of Art, The Age of Reason, and Experimental Art.
I loved his treatment of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. This explanation is a good illustration of how his simple explanations help the reader better understand and appreciate the piece of art. He begins by asking you to suspend all you know about the picture and try to view it as if you are seeing it for the first time. He continues, ”what strikes us first is the amazing degree to which she looks alive. She really seems to look at us and to have a mind of her own. Like a living being, she seems to change before our eyes and to look a little different every time we come back to her. In front of her in the Louvre this is uncanny. Sometimes she seems to mock us, and then again, we seem to catch something like sadness in her smile.” He continues, “Leonardo…knew more about the way we use our eyes than anybody who had ever lived before him. He realized that the painter must leave the beholder something to guess. If the outlines are not quite so firmly drawn, if the form is left a little vague, as though disappearing into a shadow, the impression of dryness and stiffness will be avoided.” This is his sfumato approach which he applied with great mastery to her mouth and the corners of the eyes. Gombrich goes into great depth to help us understand the almost magical impact of this work.
This book would be very useful for art professors as well as the casual reader. He includes 16 pages of finely typed references for the reader at the end of the book, delineating the advantages of each book mentioned by grouping. He also has a wonderful set of artistic timelines that show close relationships in an easy-to-read collection of illustrations. He includes maps of locations mentioned in the book along with a guide to the location of each piece of art discussed.
The book is 688 pages and is not so easily carted around a museum, but it would be an excellent way to prepare for a trip where museums are on the agenda. From Winston-Salem, North Carolina to Cracow, Poland, to all points in between, this book will highlight treasures that are there for us all to enjoy. This book is an easy to read and important addition to your library.