This summer I’ve been slowly digesting Gombrich’s The Story of Art. I had my fair share of art history in the classroom. But even the most inspired teachers had not got me as excited to the extent this book has (to my surprise, I admit.) What I find so compelling about this telling of art history is that it unfolds like a detective story. Not quite – but kind of. What Gombrich presents is: the art as the solution to the problems/inquiries at hand. So, the ancient Egyptians’ art looks like it does because they were meant as simple indicators of religious messages. Their image of the foot was not what the foot looked like according to how a person stood. It was “a foot” symbolically. As time passed, the actual appearance of the foot relative to the body began to be noticed, to matter. It was those inquiring minds of ancient Greece. And on it goes. Through lengthy medieval times which carried rich influence from Islam. On and on…the impressionist painters stepped outside into “plein air” and painted that light for the first time, with all its highlights and less distinct details… Issues of what art meant echo through time and are felt today. Art has been built on what came before. But it’s always affected by what matters at that time.
And to step back a bit, and even expand outside the realm of art, isn’t each person doing that with the “art” of their lives? A person is born into a set of circumstances. Innocent. But those circumstances, that historic situation is the setting. It carries in it the problems for the individual to carve out a life.
A dear friend of mine is dealing with an older parent who is difficult. Very difficult. And, without knowing this person myself, I wondered to myself about her: she was born into pre Second World War England. Food was uncertain. High tension politically. Military training and guns all around. What would matter most then? Getting the next meal? Staying alive? Her problems would have been so different from any I can imagine at this time. How to appreciate the art of that life?
I was born in a time of relative ease. Not war. Not deprivation. I was blind to how much I was shaped by my times. And now here comes Gombrich’s book. I see how interwoven time is with what’s created. Each artist/artistic era is part of the evolution of the medium. And only in retrospect can one connect all the intricacies of that journey.