A Study in the Psychology

of Pictorial Representation

By E.H. Gombrich

Phaidon. 2004 reissue. $24.95.

Ihave this vacation fantasy I've yet to make happen: I get a few weeks in a cabin in the remote woods, with nothing to do but read a great book in some field I've never studied. I imagine working through "Das Kapital" one summer, "The Origin of Species" the next, then maybe "The Wealth of Nations." If you can make this fantasy come true and haven't studied art, then I'd suggest "Art and Illusion" (Phaidon, 2004 reissue, $24.95 paperback) by E.H. Gombrich as your holiday companion. I can't think of a more important book on how pictures work.

The book got its start back in 1956, when Gombrich was in Washington to give the Mellon lectures at the National Gallery. He set out to answer a few simple questions: Why are some pictures more "realistic" than others? What does it mean to say they are? Why did only some artists, in some places, at some times, learn to make them so?

Since much of the world's art represents reality, it's hard to think of questions that are more in need of being asked. And it's amazing to think that they hadn't really been addressed before -- and haven't had that much attention since. (Lots of art historians do lip service to Gombrich, but mostly he's either read and then ignored, or read and misunderstood.)

I won't go into Gombrich's answers here. That's why you've rented that lakeside retreat. Anyway, some of his ideas are a touch out of date, and others seem to skirt the crucial issues. (Sure, you sometimes want to say, that might explain why one picture's more realistic than another -- but does that make it a decent work of art?)

It's the way that Gombrich asks his questions that's the wondrous thing. In gorgeously lucid prose -- English was his second language, so I'd hate to think how well he wrote in German -- Gombrich makes clear that it's possible to approach the mysteries of art like any other problem. Rather than waxing lyrical about ineffable ineffables, you roll your sleeves up, make a claim as clearly as you can, and back it up with the hard evidence of what pictures look like.

-- Blake Gopnik, art critic