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Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation

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Described by Kenneth Clark as 'one of the most brilliant books of art criticism that I have ever read', Art and Illusion is a classic study of image-making. It seeks to answer a simple question: why is there such a thing as style? The question may be simple but there is no easy answer, and Professor Gombrich's brilliant and wide-ranging exploration of the history and psych Described by Kenneth Clark as 'one of the most brilliant books of art criticism that I have ever read', Art and Illusion is a classic study of image-making. It seeks to answer a simple question: why is there such a thing as style? The question may be simple but there is no easy answer, and Professor Gombrich's brilliant and wide-ranging exploration of the history and psychology of pictorial representation leads him into countless crucial areas. Gombrich examines, questions and re-evaluates old and new ideas on such matters as the imitation of nature, the function of tradition, the problem of abstraction, the validity of perspective and the interpretation of expression: all of which reveal that pictorial representation is far from being a straightforward matter. First published more than 40 years ago, Art and Illusion has lost none of its vitality and importance. In applying the findings of experimental science to a nuanced understanding of art and in tackling complex ideas and theoretical issues, Gombrich is rigorous. Yet he always retains a sense of wonder at the inexhaustible capacity of the human brain, and at the subtlety of the relationships involved in seeing the world and in making and seeing art. With profound knowledge and his exceptional gift for clear exposition, he advances each argument as an hypothesis to be tested. The problems of representation are forever fundamental to the history of art: Art and Illusion remains an essential text for anyone interested in understanding the complexities of art. For the sixth edition Professor Gombrich has written an entirely new 12-page preface, in which he makes use of the distinction between an image and a sign, so as to clarify his intentions in writing the book in the first place.


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Described by Kenneth Clark as 'one of the most brilliant books of art criticism that I have ever read', Art and Illusion is a classic study of image-making. It seeks to answer a simple question: why is there such a thing as style? The question may be simple but there is no easy answer, and Professor Gombrich's brilliant and wide-ranging exploration of the history and psych Described by Kenneth Clark as 'one of the most brilliant books of art criticism that I have ever read', Art and Illusion is a classic study of image-making. It seeks to answer a simple question: why is there such a thing as style? The question may be simple but there is no easy answer, and Professor Gombrich's brilliant and wide-ranging exploration of the history and psychology of pictorial representation leads him into countless crucial areas. Gombrich examines, questions and re-evaluates old and new ideas on such matters as the imitation of nature, the function of tradition, the problem of abstraction, the validity of perspective and the interpretation of expression: all of which reveal that pictorial representation is far from being a straightforward matter. First published more than 40 years ago, Art and Illusion has lost none of its vitality and importance. In applying the findings of experimental science to a nuanced understanding of art and in tackling complex ideas and theoretical issues, Gombrich is rigorous. Yet he always retains a sense of wonder at the inexhaustible capacity of the human brain, and at the subtlety of the relationships involved in seeing the world and in making and seeing art. With profound knowledge and his exceptional gift for clear exposition, he advances each argument as an hypothesis to be tested. The problems of representation are forever fundamental to the history of art: Art and Illusion remains an essential text for anyone interested in understanding the complexities of art. For the sixth edition Professor Gombrich has written an entirely new 12-page preface, in which he makes use of the distinction between an image and a sign, so as to clarify his intentions in writing the book in the first place.

30 review for Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

    This book attempts to answer the question, if artists throughout time have attempted to portray the world 'realistically', why are there so many different styles? Why, for example, did the Egyptians portray people as partially sideways and partially frontward? Must we assume that they literally saw people like that? Gombrich argues that the Greeks fundamentally changed the course of art. Under them, it became more casual, art for art's sake, instead of magical images filled with power. Over time, This book attempts to answer the question, if artists throughout time have attempted to portray the world 'realistically', why are there so many different styles? Why, for example, did the Egyptians portray people as partially sideways and partially frontward? Must we assume that they literally saw people like that? Gombrich argues that the Greeks fundamentally changed the course of art. Under them, it became more casual, art for art's sake, instead of magical images filled with power. Over time, with each new generation, experiments with art allowed artists to discover new tricks to make us believe in the 'reality' of what they painted. This does not mean that artists are painting what they literally see; instead, they have a repertoire of conventions that we as viewers have learned to interpret as a real represenation of the thing painted. Gombrich emphasizes both the role of the artist as the presenter of a painting, and even more, the role of the beholder in interpreting what is painted. This is primarily based on Western art, though Gombrich does also investigate Asian art and it's differing philosophy. Both add to his hypothesis that seeing is interpreting; that there is no way to portray exactly what is seen with no interpretation; and that art has developed the way it has to give us a possible interpretation that a paintin is realistic, and it does so through a series of tricks. An excellent book for someone interested in the theory of visual images, and it is pretty accessible, though a knowledge of art history is certainly helpful.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Afshi

    Really interesting, and easy to read (although a little too wordy at times). Also kind of fun. The book spans through the history of art, and even though the author highlights some of the major artists in each period and analyzes their art using different theories in visual psychology, he also does an in depth analysis of the viewer. I was especially interested in the sections about Klee and Durer. Kind of brings new insight to traditional ideas about looking at art.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    There's no way I can do this book justice in a synopsis. But here goes... It's art history examined through the lens of cognitive science: what we see, how we process what we see, how we engage with what we see, and how that engagement becomes a language. Gombrich doesn't discuss every single art movement. (That book would go on forever.) But I really wish he had! His insights are fascinating and—more often than not—hit upon much deeper truths. One of those rare instances of a book that's both en There's no way I can do this book justice in a synopsis. But here goes... It's art history examined through the lens of cognitive science: what we see, how we process what we see, how we engage with what we see, and how that engagement becomes a language. Gombrich doesn't discuss every single art movement. (That book would go on forever.) But I really wish he had! His insights are fascinating and—more often than not—hit upon much deeper truths. One of those rare instances of a book that's both enlightening and a lot of fun to read.

  4. 4 out of 5

    E. G.

    Preface Preface to the Second Edition Preface to the Third Edition Preface to the Fourth Edition Preface to the Fifth Edition --Art and Illusion Retrospect Notes List of Illustrations Index

  5. 5 out of 5

    Leandro Oliveira

    One of the most courageous and intellectually exploratory art study I had the opportunity to read. Written on 1960's, is a groundbreaking publication on a very intriguing subject. Don't think psychology and visual art could find a more rigorous and charming writer.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Eleanor

    I cannot say enough good about this book. Think of sitting down with a learned but accessible expert, someone who is both eloquent and down-to-earth. That feeling, and the knowledge shared, is this book. EH Gombrich must have been an amazing and mesmerizing lecturer. I am now seeking his other classic, The Story of Art. This book is for anyone, artist or not, who has ever contemplated a great painting or sculpture and wondered if art imitates life or vice versa or even found themselves curious a I cannot say enough good about this book. Think of sitting down with a learned but accessible expert, someone who is both eloquent and down-to-earth. That feeling, and the knowledge shared, is this book. EH Gombrich must have been an amazing and mesmerizing lecturer. I am now seeking his other classic, The Story of Art. This book is for anyone, artist or not, who has ever contemplated a great painting or sculpture and wondered if art imitates life or vice versa or even found themselves curious as to the compulsion man has to create art. A favorite quote (p. 310), "That power of holding on to an image that Ruskin describes so admirably is not the power of the eidetic; it is that faculty of keeping a large number of relationships present in one's mind that distinguishes all mental achievement, be it that of the chess player, the composer, or the great artist." As low key and "all hail, well met" as it is, this book is hard. It requires attention and thought, and it pulls from every category of learning: history, anthropology, science, math, language, even politics. Well worth the effort.

  7. 4 out of 5

    L

    E H Gombrich on Art and illusion This book could be defined as art criticism. It explores why there is such a thing as style and what Gombrich believes to be the extraordinarily complex riddle of style. It also explores the history and psychology of pictorial representation. In this book, one looks at the imitation of nature, the function of tradition, the problem of abstraction, the validity of perspective and the interpretation of expression. It covers theoretical issues as well as using scien E H Gombrich on Art and illusion This book could be defined as art criticism. It explores why there is such a thing as style and what Gombrich believes to be the extraordinarily complex riddle of style. It also explores the history and psychology of pictorial representation. In this book, one looks at the imitation of nature, the function of tradition, the problem of abstraction, the validity of perspective and the interpretation of expression. It covers theoretical issues as well as using science to find answers. In this book you will also discover the limits of likeness, function and form, invention and discovery. It goes into depth about a field of inquiry that extends beyond the frontiers of art to the study of perception and optical illusion. Looking at mysterious ways in which shapes and marks can be made to suggest and signify other things. The difference between ‘knowing’ and ‘seeing’, which I would hasten to add that one should refer to Berger’s ‘ways of seeing’. This book looks at the visible world and the language of art in relation to it. “Art being a thing of the mind, it follows that any scientific study of art will be psychology” –Max J Friedländer, Von Kunst Und Kennerschaft In this book one considers the question of what subjective imitations of nature tells us of truth. It looks at introspection, and how this relates to one’s imagination, interpretation, style and uniqueness. Art moves by innovation of technique rather than increase in ‘realism’, and this book explores what ‘tools’ the tradition enables the artist –in order to see changes. Gombrich’s riddle of style is a common topic at university study for artists and writers alike, and so I would highly recommend reading this enlightening book.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jimmy Ele

    An erudite journey through the history of artistic representation. The focus is on how artists have perceived the world and how they have strode to embody their perceptions. Deeply philosophical when elaborating on the illusory nature of art. It argues that the representation of the artist of the world will never match the infinite amount of information actually reaching the artist. It touches on many subjects and time periods ranging from the art of Ancient Egypt to the Renaissance to Escher an An erudite journey through the history of artistic representation. The focus is on how artists have perceived the world and how they have strode to embody their perceptions. Deeply philosophical when elaborating on the illusory nature of art. It argues that the representation of the artist of the world will never match the infinite amount of information actually reaching the artist. It touches on many subjects and time periods ranging from the art of Ancient Egypt to the Renaissance to Escher and Severini. I highly recommend it for students of perception and illusion and the psychology behind art and how humans "see" the world.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Mogg Morgan

    On every thinking person's bookshelf, or should be

  10. 5 out of 5

    Yair Martinez

    It's a interestant book

  11. 5 out of 5

    Will

    "For Reynolds, Gainsborough's frequently unfinished and rather vague indications are little more than those schemata which serve as a support for our memory images; in other words, they are screens onto which the sitter’s relatives and friends could project a beloved image, but which remain blank to those who cannot contribute from their own experience. The role which projection plays, and is intended to play, in works of this kind could not be brought out more sharply. As a matter of fact by th "For Reynolds, Gainsborough's frequently unfinished and rather vague indications are little more than those schemata which serve as a support for our memory images; in other words, they are screens onto which the sitter’s relatives and friends could project a beloved image, but which remain blank to those who cannot contribute from their own experience. The role which projection plays, and is intended to play, in works of this kind could not be brought out more sharply. As a matter of fact by the time Reynolds wrote, the pleasure in this game of reading brushstrokes had become so popular that J. E. Liotard wrote his treatise on painting mainly to combat the prejudice according to which 'all good painting must be facile, freely painted and with fine touches.' He is prepared to admit that such a painting will look better from afar, but better, he thinks, is in this case only 'less ugly.' To read his polemics against the loaded brush, written as it was in 1781, one wonders why the technique of the impressionists struck the public as such a daring innovation. But impressionism demanded more than a reading of brushstrokes. It demanded, if one may so put it, a reading across brushstrokes. There were a good many painters among the fashionable virtuosos of the nineteenth century, men like Boldini and Sargent, who drew more or less with a loaded brush and made the game of projecting sufficiently easy to be attractive. Among the great masters, Daumier’s technique is of this kind [29], the brush following the form firmly and boldly. It is the point of impressionist painting that the direction of the brushstroke is no longer an aid to the reading of forms. It is without any support from structure that the beholder must mobilize his memory of the visible world and project it into the mosaic of strokes and dabs on the canvas before him. It is here, therefore, that the principle of guided projection reaches its climax. The image, it might be said, has no firm anchorage left on the canvas [25] -it is only 'conjured up' in our minds. The willing beholder responds to the artist’s suggestion because he enjoys the transformation that occurs in front of his eyes. It was in this enjoyment that a new function of art emerged gradually and all but unnoticed during the period we have discussed. The artist gives the beholder increasingly 'more to do,' he draws him into the magic circle of creation and allows him to experience something of the thrill of “making” which had once been the privilege of the artist. It is the turning point which leads to those visual conundrums of twentieth-century art that challenge our ingenuity and make us search our own minds for the unexpressed and inarticulate. It may seem paradoxical to link impressionism with this appeal to subjectivity, for the advocates of impressionism talked otherwise. Impressionism was to them the triumph of objective truth. The implications of this claim will engage our attention in a subsequent chapter."

  12. 5 out of 5

    Victoria Zabuzova

    Profound humanitarian work on painted art. Wordy, repeating, urges to dig out the meaning. In a way like classical German philosophy. I personally cannot say I enjoyed it, although no doubt it is a must read for people talking about art and painting.

  13. 4 out of 5

    r. Bentinck

    This text gave me a solid foundation in understanding the psychology of art

  14. 4 out of 5

    Daniel

    Bit long-winded and I'm not sure if it was too groundbreaking or enlightening But as far as I know it's pretty correct Liked the bits on perspective/illusions and the math behind drawing 3d into 2d

  15. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan Clement

    essential reading for any production designer, painter, photographer, and museum cats

  16. 5 out of 5

    Ietrio

    Gombrich is certainly an erudite. But he is not a very intelligent man. He is trying hard to do what he was educated to do and nothing more. Memory yes, reason no. It is funny how the poor man knows for certain how things were some two millennia before his parents began a sex life. That was how things were taught to him, that is the way it is, no doubt about it. The reasoning of this book is how to bring "the classics" and translate them into "a contemporan" key? Of course, his rudimentary intelle Gombrich is certainly an erudite. But he is not a very intelligent man. He is trying hard to do what he was educated to do and nothing more. Memory yes, reason no. It is funny how the poor man knows for certain how things were some two millennia before his parents began a sex life. That was how things were taught to him, that is the way it is, no doubt about it. The reasoning of this book is how to bring "the classics" and translate them into "a contemporan" key? Of course, his rudimentary intellect believes the ancient were as perfect as a human can be in the failible status of a less than god being. I found interesting Gombrich's wonder why the Egyptians were drawing like that and not realist. But rehashing his school days rote learning leads to nowhere. He shows no sign of understanding that only some works were preserved. And the selection process was two fold. First only some works were kept well by the Egyptians. Second only some works have endured some one thousand years burried somewhere. The materials were quite fragile. And than there is religion. Even the seemingly daily life representations are seeped into religious dogma. After the introduction the author does some mental gymnastics to serve his preset goal. Page 12. Pliny was a savage by our standards. Zero understanding of anatomy. Zero understanding of how the body works. He writes about "the mind" in the sense of Reason - the abstraction which set the Man (and not the woman) apart from Beast in the days before the christian invention of the separate days of creation argument. Gombrich takes that and conveniently uses "the mind" as "the brain" thus modern medicine supports the mumblings of the enlightened savage. Of course, the grasp of science by Gombrich is a mere scientism, but who cares? He is a man of art. For him psychology does not mean a science that can help people understand why humans go to war. For him psychology is in the most vulgare of senses meaning a mystic fuzzy concept that justifies his school master to be right and aestetics and his plumber an ignorant. Page 13 continues the pseudo reasoning along the same lines. Art has developed in the 19th century because useless aristocrats wrote about aestetics, not because the industrial development. Pages 58-59 show his willingness to cheat any way to prove his dubious points. There you have perspective corrected works of art next to execrable photos. Bla bla bla

  17. 5 out of 5

    Adriano Bulla

    Professor Gombrich's lesser known 'Art and Illusion' is, in my opinion, as seminal as his 'The Story of Art'; unlike its bigger sister, this text focusses on how perception of the physical world has been influenced, over the centuries, though I would say it zooms in on the last millennium of our civilisation, by our metaphysical understanding of existence. In this respect, it is academically more praiseworthy if less encyclopaedic than 'The Story'. From how a Medieval mind perceived a rhinoceros Professor Gombrich's lesser known 'Art and Illusion' is, in my opinion, as seminal as his 'The Story of Art'; unlike its bigger sister, this text focusses on how perception of the physical world has been influenced, over the centuries, though I would say it zooms in on the last millennium of our civilisation, by our metaphysical understanding of existence. In this respect, it is academically more praiseworthy if less encyclopaedic than 'The Story'. From how a Medieval mind perceived a rhinoceros or a grasshopper to the influence of Claude's study of clouds on Western Art, this study is a real eye-opener, and a must-read for anyone with an interest in the discipline, that is, if one can find it and afford it; I had to get my copy shipped in from the USA at the not-so-friendly price of about £50 in the 1980s, but those were the times before globalisation, when our mindset set us on quests for rare treasures from lands afar, I wonder how the Art Professor par excellence would read the world of instant availability's effects on our aesthetic sensibility.

  18. 4 out of 5

    G

    p. 90 "language does not give name to pre-existing things or concepts so much as it articulates the world of our experience. The images of art, we suspect, do the same. But this difference in styles or languages need not stand in the way of correct answers and descriptions. The world may be approached from a different angle and the information given may yet be the same." p. 359 "The history of art, as we have interpreted it so far, may be described as the forging of master keys for opening the my p. 90 "language does not give name to pre-existing things or concepts so much as it articulates the world of our experience. The images of art, we suspect, do the same. But this difference in styles or languages need not stand in the way of correct answers and descriptions. The world may be approached from a different angle and the information given may yet be the same." p. 359 "The history of art, as we have interpreted it so far, may be described as the forging of master keys for opening the mysterious locks of our senses to which only nature herself originally held the key." need to re-read

  19. 5 out of 5

    Nepo

    A nice and sincere attempt, but Gombrich does not quite solve the issue he raises. Okay, he attacks and succeeds in relativizing (naive) realism. Styles and tactics of representation change from one period to another. Sure. But the real question is why a given system of representation changes to another--and this mechanism of switching is something I assume Gombrich himself recognized, struggled, but could not articulate well. At least not here. That is why this book fails in the end to account A nice and sincere attempt, but Gombrich does not quite solve the issue he raises. Okay, he attacks and succeeds in relativizing (naive) realism. Styles and tactics of representation change from one period to another. Sure. But the real question is why a given system of representation changes to another--and this mechanism of switching is something I assume Gombrich himself recognized, struggled, but could not articulate well. At least not here. That is why this book fails in the end to account for history.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Erik Graff

    This was one of many books left behind when my girlfriend/roommate in Union Theological Seminary moved out. She had been a student at Barnard College and I imagine this was one of their texts. Likely, it constituted my introduction to theories of visual perception and may have been read in conjunction with Neale's course in psychology.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Mary Karpel-Jergic

    I was instructed to read this when struggling with visual perception in my psychology degree. It illuminated visual perception but it went on to do so much more - gave me a much deeper understanding of art.

  22. 4 out of 5

    John

    The most amazing art book ever. Gombrich is a brilliant man and every artist should read it, especially those working with representational imagery.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Frightful_elk

    Not Gombrich at his finest, some exciting bits of writing, but as a whole he's a bit unclear about the whole thing.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Karen Tannenbaum

    In my opinion, the greatest book on psychology and art. Ernst Gombrich was a genius. Read this at University and I still refer to it.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Lori

    1/27/13 Book Review interview with Alain de Botton

  26. 4 out of 5

    Luke Penkett

    Read this a long time ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. It helped to widen my mind.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Thelim Kr

    Good

  28. 5 out of 5

    Sue

    Phew! Making my way slowly through. I do like it, but I'm not very consistent with it!

  29. 5 out of 5

    scherzo♫

    Over 300 illustrations, most reproductions of painting, but only about a dozen in color in this edition. Most of them are just illegible smears of grays.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Kevin Fitzpatrick

    An incredibly stimulating exploration of the theme of representation, Art and Illusion, mimesis, symbolism, caricature, beauty and truth. I really enjoyed and gained greater knowledge from an author who is obviously a master in his field. Two thumbs up!

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