The Story of Art
A Great Introduction, Heavy on the Medieval Ages and Renaissance
Just a dozen or so pages into this book, I knew that it was one I wish I would have had access to when I was first seriously exposed to art. While in many respects, it is a conservative textbook (being first published in 1950), it is fundamentally
Just a dozen or so pages into this book, I knew that it was one I wish I would have had access to when I was first seriously exposed to art. While in many respects, it is a conservative textbook (being first published in 1950), it is fundamentally meant for someone who has little to no previous formal contact with art history. Of course, if you have some, this can make you seriously engage some of your previously held assumptions about what you like and why you like it, but I got the distinct impression while reading that it was meant to initiate a teenager - a teenager who very much reminded of me of myself - into a whole new world.
The inclusions and exclusions of certain artists are, of course, always arbitrary. However, Gombrich's choices do not deviate too much from a standard art history text. What particularly drew me to the book was what I perceived to be its inordinate focus on medieval and especially Renaissance art. Of the twenty-eight chapters included in the book, about five mostly focus on Western medieval images (6 and 8-11). Another six chapters (13-18) focus on the art of the Western Renaissance. Most surveys of art history to which I had been previously exposed paid scant attention to medieval art and they sometimes did not give the Renaissance the space that I felt it deserved. There is no doubt the medieval and Renaissance art Gombrich's pet periods here (and, admittedly, they're mine, too.)
What makes it so special is that, instead of spending the first chapter in an abstract exercise of thinking about what "Art" is, he forces you over and over again to take the art on its own terms. While discussing the various visual perspectives painted by the artist of "The Garden of Nebamun," he says: "To us reliefs and wall-paintings provide an extraordinarily vivid picture of life as it was lived in Egypt thousands of years ago. And yet, looking at them for the first time, one may find them rather bewildering. The reason is that the Egyptian painters had a very different way from ours of representing real life. Perhaps this is connected with the different purpose their paintings had to serve. What mattered most was not prettiness but completeness. It was the artists' task to preserve everything as clearly and permanently as possible. So they did not set out to sketch nature as it appeared to them from any fortuitous angle" (p. 60). It is the occasional insight like this that makes the book most worthwhile for a neophyte. After all, how many of us have measured something we saw by the standards of our particular narrow time and place? He really drives home the point that thinking about art seriously means thinking about other perspectives (both literally and figuratively), other preoccupations, and other aesthetic modus operandi. This is a lesson that should be lost on none of us, about art, or about anything else.