E.H. Gombrich (1)

Last night I went to a seminar/discussion on the life and work of Ernst Gombrich, the Director of the Warburg Institute from 1959 to 1976, by his two grandchildren, Leonie, who looks after his literary estate, and Carl, who is himself an interdisciplinary historian crossing the boundaries of the arts and sciences.

Two things stick in my mind. The first was Gombrich’s determination not to be described as an art historian, but as a historian tout court. This was a Warburg tradition, the belief that art was only one part of a broader cultural tradition; and he was certainly not, in any way, a connoisseur, the dominant characteristic of art history in the 1950s.

The second was his determination not to be regarded as a refugee, having arrived in London in 1936 of his own volition before the anschluss to join the staff of the Warburg Institute as a research assistant, working on Warburg’s papers, which led ultimately to the publication of Gombrich’s intellectual biography of Warburg, written in spite of Gombrich’s own dislike of biography as a genre.

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7 thoughts on “E.H. Gombrich (1)

  1. Ivan Gaskell says:

    I can confirm the first of your two points about Gombrich. When I was working in the Photographic Collection in the early 1980s, I remember him saying to me in his inimitable Viennese accent, “You and me, we are HISTORRRIANS!” His student, Michael Baxandall, called himself an antiquarian. I follow in that Warburg tradition of steering clear of the art historian label. In conscious emulation of another fine scholar in the Warburg Institute circle (although he was never a formal member), Peter Burke, I asked that my chair be designated Cultural History, not Art History. Art (whatever that might be) constitutes, after all, just a tiny fraction of the material world.

  2. Ivan Gaskell says:

    I think you are probably right about Michael’s term for himself having been “antiquary” rather than “antiquarian”–I remember him mentioning his passport. Either way, it was a wonderful example of his marvelous, gentle perversity. I still miss him.

  3. edward chaney says:

    yes quite, preferring plain ‘method’ to the oh-so-overdone: ‘methodology.’ You mention his ”determination not to be regarded as a refugee’ but he seemed more determined not to be defined as a Jew (unlike Freud and indeed Warburg himself). Where the concept of Jewishness in anything other than a religious context was concerned, Gombrich articulated his views in a lecture he delivered in November 1996 after being invited by the Austrian Cultural Institute in London to speak about Jewish influences on the visual arts at a seminar on ‘Fin de Siècle Vienna and its Jewish Cultural Influences.’ He responded to this request, according to his host Emil Brix, with ‘restrained fury’, but eventually agreed to participate with an essay-cum-manifesto which included the sentence: ‘Of course I know many very cultured Jews, but, briefly, I am of the opinion that the notion of Jewish Culture was, and is, an invention of Hitler and his fore-runners and after-runners.’ I quoted this in an article on Kitaj originally done for the Jewish Museum in Berlin, which reproduces the fine pastel portrait of Gombrich that the sitter and his wife nevertheless disliked (as confirmed by Charles). https://emajartjournal.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/chaney-rb-kitaj-warburgian-artist.pdf

  4. edward chaney says:

    He certainly was. In 1975 i chose to divert to the wonderful Warburg Institute (instead of going to the Courtauld) because i heard that he would be teaching on its amazing MPhil it for one more year…

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