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222 LEONARDO, Vol. 51, No. 3, p. 000, 2018    doi:10.1162/LEON_e_01618    © ISAST Ernst Gombrich, the most famous art historian of the twentieth century, had a significant role in the life of Leo­ nardo. Because of his lifelong interest in the relationship between art history and psychology, he became a member of Leonardo’s editorial board. When I was a graduate student in philosophy at Columbia University, my doctoral thesis dealt in part with Gombrich’s writings; he kindly gave me advice. Somewhat later, two portions of that work were published in this journal [1,2]. Then, toward the end of Gombrich’s life, I published an interview with him [3]. Gombrich believed that a proper theory of representation had to appeal to the results of scientific research. This claim may seem so obvious as to hardly need any defense. Psychology explains how we perceive, and so it seems selfevident that psychology is relevant to one special branch of perceptual experience, the making and viewing of visual art. Art historians need to understand how a flat pictorial image can represent, they must comprehend the ways that representation evolved, and they have to know why some repetitive patterns are pleasing. But since traditionally the interests of art historians have been rather different from those of scientists, it hasn’t always been obvious how psychology might be relevant to answering these questions about art. Gombrich was most interested in examining why, in the early twentieth century, many artists were turning away from making figurative images to doing abstractions. How could psychology help explain that radical—seemingly irreversible—development? That question, too, has been difficult to answer. The details of Gombrich’s claims have been much discussed . In particular, there have been extensive debates, in Leonardo and elsewhere, about the status of perspective. What interests me here, however, is the decline within art history, at least in the English-speaking world during the very late twentieth century, of references to scientific psychology. This change in ways of thinking in the worldview of art historians is hard to explain in purely rational terms. In the 1980s, Gombrich’s attempts to link art history with scientific research were often critiqued. Feminists wanted to open up on the canon, which had focused almost entirely on male artists; and leftists of many sorts wanted to politicize art history, which in their judgment had become politically complacent. My essay with Norman Bryson, “An Introduction to the Semantic Theory of Art,” provides one modest record of these developments [4]. Now, I admit, I hesitate to subscribe to the claims of this commentary. Why did Gombrich’s ways of thinking become unfashionable ? Not, I think, because they were found to be limited. Rather it was for political reasons that the very idea of linking art history to experimental psychology was rejected. That was an unfortunate development, for Gombrich’s ideas deserve proper critical analysis. Now, however, interest in his work may well be reviving. In 2009 the Austrian art historian Professor Sybille Moser-Ernst organized a conference in Greifswald, Germany—“E.H. Gombrich auf dem Weg zu einer Bildwissenschaft des 21.Jahrhunderts”—to honor his 100th birthday. Since at this writing the proceedings of the conference are forthcoming in a book edited by Moser-Ernst [5], this is an opportune moment to reconsider what Gombrich’s work can offer to the study of visual art. Much remains to be learned from his ways of thinking. david carrier Leonardo International Co-Editor Email: . References 1 David Carrier, “Perspective as a Convention: On the Views of Nelson Goodman and Ernst Gombrich,” Leonardo 13, No. 4, 283–287 (1980). 2 David Carrier, “Gombrich on Art Historical Explanations,” Leonardo 16, No. 2, 91–96 (1983). 3 David Carrier, “The Big Picture: David Carrier Talks with Sir Ernst Gombrich,” Artforum (February 1996) pp. 66–69, 106, 109. 4 David Carrier and Norman Bryson, “An Introduction to the Semantic Theory of Art,” Leonardo 17, No. 4, 288–294 (1984). 5 Sybille Moser-Ernst, ed., Art and the Mind—Ernst H. Gombrich (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2018). editorial E.H. Gombrich and Leonardo: The Role of Scientific Psychology in Art History ...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-9282
Print ISSN
0024-094X
Launched on MUSE
2018-03-26
Open Access
No
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