Most people who have dabbled in art history have come across Sir Ernst Gombrich OM (1909-2001). The Austrian-born art historian, who became a naturalised British citizen during the Second World War and spent most of his life in the UK, grew to be one of the most important figures in his field. A prolific author and speaker, and an influential public intellectual, Gombrich’s most beloved books include ‘The Story of Art’, a beautiful introduction to Western art, and ‘Art and Illusion’, a thesis on the psychology of perception. There is no denying his importance in the humanities, so why did he choose to publish in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1966?
By the time Gombrich decided to get involved with the Royal Society, he had already started introducing the idea of a more ‘scientific’ approach to the study of artworks. Previously, art history had largely been based on the idea of connoisseurship, canons of great masterpieces, and the idea of the ‘zeitgeist’. Gombrich famously argued in ‘The Story of Art’: “There is really no such thing as Art. There are only artists.” His ideas were grounded in the theories of the philosopher of science Karl Popper FRS, and were thus also connected to the sciences.
The Philosophical Transactions have, throughout their more than 350-year long history, usually been a place for science and natural history. It is therefore odd that Gombrich, however well versed in the philosophy of science, should chose to publish anything with the Royal Society. His tone is, in this instance, extra casual, probably because the paper is a transcript of an oral presentation. Little information survives of the meeting, but an educated guess would be that Gombrich read his paper sometime during 1965 or 1966, before publishing an edited version with added bibliography in December 1966. No peer review reports survive in the Society’s archives.
The paper itself, ‘Ritualized Gesture and Expression in Art’, is symptomatic of the type of ideas that interested Gombrich at the time. The idea of ritual, expression and emotion was a large part of his understanding of schemes and styles in art and visual culture. The paper is richly illustrated with black and white images from the history of Western art, in order to illustrate his arguments about its use of stylised and ritualised expressions. His examples include the anti-war posters of Käthe Kollwitz, ‘God the Father’ by the van Eycks, and Russian Revolutionary propaganda posters.
This wide variety of art spanning decades all serves to underline the idea that artists copy each other (knowingly or not) and ritualize movements and emotions. Gombrich argues that although most viewers understand the emotion of a raised fist in a Russian Revolutionary propaganda poster, few of us would actually use that movement if pressed to act the same way. The illustration of the raised fist is thus both a symbol we understand with empathy, and an unrealistic representation of an imagined reality.
Gombrich thus proposed as his principle hypothesis that as far as gesture is concerned the schema used by artists is generally pre-formed in ritual, and that art and ritual cannot be separated. Gombrich used the example of applause (imagine here being in the audience of his lecture at the Royal Society!):
“We may be happy in the ritual of applause at the end of a lecture or concert, but when we stand face to face with the performer we are bothered to hear everyone say, ‘thank you for a most interesting lecture’. We are, precisely because it is a ritual and we know that it is performed after good and bad lectures alike. We try as we approach the lecturer to make our voice more charged with symptoms of sincere emotion, we press his hand in raptures, but even these tricks are quickly ritualized and most of us give up and lapse into inarticulacy.”
Here Gombrich was making a wider point about the dangers of ritual. The Judas Kiss, he reminded us, looks like a loving embrace, but is in fact an attack. Similarly, our smiling politicians are hard to read. In art history, such aesthetic problems had usually been treated as theoretical splits between ‘sincere’ versus ‘theatrical’ expressions. But Gombrich argued against this depoliticised view: “Both the rhetorical and the anti-rhetorical, the ritualistic and the anti-ritualistic are in a sense conventions.” Too much ritual makes it difficult to spot sincerity, as he underlined in his conclusion:
“The dilemmas that underlie this crisis are real enough, I believe. We cannot return to the anonymous ritual of mass emotion as we are enjoined to do on the other side of the Iron Curtain. But we can, I hope, face these issues and learn from behaviour that neither the total sacrifice of convention nor the revival of collective ritual can answer the needs of what we have come to mean by art.”
This is an edited version of a post that first appeared on https://arts.st-andrews.ac.uk/philosophicaltransactions/blog-posts/.