Thursday, November 3, 2011

Kenneth Clark on Gombrich

Erwin Panofsky offered a cheeky summary of the difference between two approaches to art scholarship: "The connoisseur might be defined as a laconic art historian, and the art historian as a loquacious connoisseur." Below are a few comments by Sir Kenneth Clark on the predominance of connoisseurship in 19th-century art historical studies and the rise of iconographical studies in 20th-century art history. The passage is from "Stories of Art", an article in the November 24, 1977 New York Review of Books.

From about 1864, the year of the publication of Crowe and Cavaleaselle’s New History of Italian Painting, the study of Italian art turned from the imaginative interpretations of Ruskin to the task of amassing information. Ruskin foresaw the change and recommended Crowe and Cavaleaselle as “a book which they have called A History of Painting in Italy, but which is in fact only a dictionary of details relating to that history.” In the 1870s, writers on art, from Morelli downward, set out to discover who painted what pictures, the occupation to which they gave the rather pretentious title of “the science of connoisseurship.”
This new direction of art history was overdue. No one can study an artist’s work without having a fairly correct idea of what he painted, and the accretions that had grown around well-known artists’ names were fantastic. Charles Lamb, writing from Blenheim, says that of the nine pictures by Leonardo da Vinci only two pleased him: needless to say there were no pictures by Leonardo da Vinci at all at Blenheim. The movement totally dominated art historical teaching and produced a vast number of monographs and a few syntheses, of which Berenson’s Drawings of the Florentine Painters was the most intelligent and Van Marle’s History of Italian Painting the most dismal. Although Berenson allowed himself some value judgments his fame and fortune rested on his famous “lists,” which aimed at authenticating the works of Italian painters, and I can testify that the young critic of the 1920s thought this was the only respectable course open to him.
This activity had one serious defect: it did not begin to look at works of art in their historical context. Berenson and Bode never considered what contemporary patrons, guilds, princes, or ecclesiastical bodies wanted from their artists. And one reason for this was that Renaissance patrons of all sorts wanted something almost incredibly different from what we want today. Instead of an aesthetic specimen in a glass case they wanted a symbol, or complex of symbols, which should express their thoughts and aspirations. By the mid-nineteenth century no one (except Ruskin) thought symbolically, and it required a man of wholly original mind to do so. Such a man appeared in the person of Aby Warburg. He was a genius. His approach to art history produced a revolution that has lasted till the present day. Since he was also the senior member of a large banking house he was able to found in Hamburg a library and an institution in which his approach to art history could be developed.

Sir Ernst Gombrich has been for many years the head of the Warburg Institute, now fortunately located in London, and most people interested in the subject would agree that he is the most intelligent, the most learned, and the wittiest of English art historians. He is also one of the most prolific. Eight of his volumes stand on my shelves. I have read them all, but owing to my pitiful inability to follow philosophical arguments, I cannot claim that I have always understood them. Fortunately I do not need to write about this aspect of his work since this has been done already by the philosopher Richard Wollheim. [...]
I hope I have made clear my enormous admiration for Sir Ernst Gombrich's writings, and that I may be allowed to end this review with one criticism, not so much of Gombrich himself as of all Warburgian critics. It seems to me that the chief aim of the art historian is to give the reader some idea of why great artists are great. I know that in the eighteenth century, when various critics allocated marks to painters as if they were examiners, Giulio Romano often came out top of the class. But we all know that, compared to Titian, the industrious Giulio Romano was a second-rate artist. The first duty of criticism is to try to describe why Titian was superior to Giulio Romano. This may be almost impossible, but Berenson, and even Wölfflin (who takes a beating in Norm and Form), tried to do so.
Perhaps I am only saying that criticism should be more concerned with values than with symbols, and Gombrich is well aware of that; but sometimes the Warburgian approach seems to obsess him, and is worked out in such great detail that we begin to grow a little impatient.

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