29 October 2011

Gombrich comes to me via Jura!

By chance I came across Ernst Gombrich's The Story of Art 12th edition (1972) for $2 at Jura Books, a great bookstore and social space with anarchist tendencies in Petersham, Sydney. [Pic below is part of the 'Gnome Rebellion', inspired by Noam Chomsky! See the Facebook page for more.]

Gombrich was included in an Art History course I did recently, and we discussed his methodology from an art historiographical perspective in our seminars, though to be honest I didn't actually get around to reading any of his writing!

It's funny how the world works. I'm of the persuasion that letting books, ideas, people and theories come into your life somewhat au hasard, by these chance encounters, is much more conducive to an 'academia' than being forced to read or pursue or consult Theory by external imperatives (such as the aforementioned course, for example, though I admit the book wouldn't have meant much to me were it not for this very same course making it significant!). Not only does the latter mode imbue all findings with a kind of obligation, it inhibits the kind of personal investment or story that can produce and encourage intellectual stimulation and exchange.

In any case, upon reading the first few pages of Gombrich's most famous book, I realise it is indeed a very useful reference and his approach is really interesting in terms of thinking art history as it was posited in the mid-twentieth century (the book was first published in 1950). I can't say for sure, but I'd suggest his work has relevance for thinking contemporary art as well.

A particularly charming paragraph that grabbed my attention follows:

'We are all inclined to accept conventional forms or colours as the only correct ones. Children sometimes think that stars must be star-shaped, though naturally they are not. The people who insist that in a picture the sky must be blue, and the grass green, are not very different from these children. They get indignant if they see other colours in a picture, but if we try to forget all we have heard about green grass and blue skies, and look at the world as if we had just arrived from another planet on a voyage of discovery and were seeing it for the first time, we may find that things are apt to have the most surprising colours.'

Quite surprisingly appropriate to find this phrase in an old art history book in a counter-cultural space, just down the road from The University of Sydney - who demanded I read it in the first place!


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