Saturday, November 20, 2010

E. H. Gombrich: Stories of History and Art

This is a very special blog, dedicated to Austrian art historian E. H. Gombrich. If this name is unfamiliar to you, don’t feel bad; it was only until very recently, while browsing through certain amazon book reviews, that I happened upon his name.

The man himself, people:

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Gombrich is internationally acclaimed for his revolutionary approach to writing about history and art. I’m currently making my way through his two most famous books, A Little History of the World and The Story of Art—and what a pleasant way that is! Both books are designed to serve as introductions to the exciting fields of world history and art history; however, unlike many historians, whose ‘introductions’ to these worlds bombard one with an endless array of fancy terms and lofty descriptions, Gombrich's main aim, in these two volumes, is to make the seemingly esoteric world of art history accessible to all. Art is for everyone, Gombrich seems to say, as he gazes below at the mass of pomp and pretension that has become synonymous with art-writing today. Let me, however, not speak of both books as if their respective aims were identical.

A Little History of the World (1935) is geared toward pre-teen readers, however there is much to be gained from it by readers of all ages.

“All stories begin with ‘once upon a time,’” Gombrich begins, “and that’s just what this story is all about: what happened, once upon a time.”

I urge you to get a copy of this book. It’s remarkably entertaining, and reminds one just how fascinating history can be (none of that academic pomp included). Beginning with the geological beginnings of our planet, Gombrich leads us through the ancient civilizations of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Babylonia all the way to the creation of the atomic bomb. (I’m by Alexander the Great now.) He makes history fun, while still managing to teach you many curious things along the way… and I’m not the only one who thinks so. This book has been translated into dozens of languages and has remained an international best-seller for quite some time now. (It briefly fell out of publication during WW2, when Nazi’s thought its tone and conclusion too pacifistic—go figure)

(Nicky, you’ll love this book! I know your keen on history.)

I just started The Story of Art this afternoon, so I don’t have as much to say, but just from reading his introduction “On Art and Artists,” one can tell one’s in for a treat!

In condemning the snobbery often encountered in the ‘world of fine Art’—note the capital ‘A’—Gombrich writes:

“It is infinitely better not to know anything about art than to have the kind of half-knowledge which makes for snobbishness.”

It’s a quick read for a 650-page art history book. But I’m telling you, he’s wonderfully entertaining, very knowledgeable, and a born teacher. This is the MOST HIGHLY REGARDED introduction to art history in THE WORLD. And it has loads of great pictures—as all art history books should!

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If you’re interested in art history, but have found more academically ambitious volumes a bit daunting at times (because of the sheer profusion of obscure terms and names), this is a great place to dive into the strange and marvelous world of art. --I'm just beginning to do so, and I can assure you that the water's warm and splendid.

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