The importance of being Ernst

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The National's new show reveals the strengths of Sir Ernst Gombrich. But

an updated edition of 'The Story of Art' shows he still has his blind spots

PROFESSOR Sir Ernst Gombrich is 86 this year and is still an active writer on art. He has selected an exhibition at the National Gallery and in June there will be a new edition of his book, The Story of Art. The show is unusual. It is called "Shadows" and is subtitled "The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art". The book is of course familiar, for it is the most popular introduction to art ever written. This edition is its 16th, and four million copies have been sold since it first appeared in 1950.

Successive new editions, however, have never brought The Story of Art up to date. That could hardly be done. It is one of those post-war books, more common in Germany than England, that wished to return to the values of European culture before Hitler came to power. Such values were within Gombrich's personal experience, for he was formed by Austrian and German academic life as it existed around 1930. We revere him today as one of the last and most distinguished members of that intellectual society. And yet I, for one, cannot read The Story of Art without feeling irritated and excluded. It's as though Gombrich's "story" was written for Gombrich alone.

So cowed are we by Gombrich's general authority that no one reports that The Story of Art is a strange and flawed book. I interpret it as the self- portrait of the future art historian at the age of 12 or 13. Gombrich was born in Vienna in 1909, the son of a lawyer father and a musician mother who counted Freud, Schoenberg and Mahler among her close acquaintances. As he grew up, Gombrich was familiar with new music but not with contemporary art.

Gombrich wrote extensively on Ger-man literature while still in his teens. He was interested in science and natural history. Languages learnt as a boy included English, Latin, Greek and Swedish. He then found his central interest as an art historian. Initially he studied late- Renaissance architecture. Characterist-ically, though, his mind ranged beyond the study of 17th-century buildings. He thought about medieval artefacts, or psychoanalysis, and wondered how the history of art might be combined with "interests in more general questions".

He was a scholar, but soon became a popular historian. The Vienna publisher Walter Neurath asked him to translate a history of the world written for children. Gombrich replied that he would rather write such a book himself, took down some encyclopaedias and finished the task in six weeks. This was in 1935 and the book sold well. It was of value because "it should be possible to explain anything in language that can be understood by a child". A precociously wise child, that is, such as Gombrich himself had been not long before.

Both the scope and style of this early book had an effect on The Story of Art which was also written to a publisher's commission and with literally encyclo-paedic knowledge. The significant kinship, however, is that Gombrich ad-dresses the reader as though he or she were the most studious child in a kindergarten. Though the book is pedagogic, it also has the tone of soliloquy. Perhaps this is because Gombrich dictated the text to a secretary. So we hear his voice and suspect that the author had an ideal reader in mind: himself at an early age.

What might have been the result if Gombrich had rewritten The Story of Art for educated adults? I think he could have produced a great book, which his bestseller is not. Such a book would necessarily have been tragic. It would have dealt with the classical tradition and European art, the fragile existence of such culture, its death, and the futile attempts of a few 20th-century intellectuals to preserve such a tradition, or rather its memory, within a few universities. It would have had to present a critique of modern art, beginning perhaps at the period of the French Revolution.

That would not be a book for children, yet its themes are implicit in Gom-brich's own career. He came to England in 1936 to look after Aby Warburg's papers and library, rescued from Nazi Germany, and from 1959-76 was director of the Warburg Institute. In these years he was in effect the great guardian of Renaissance and classical studies. However, apart from a biography of Warburg he has never produced another narrative book. All his many published volumes are collections of his lectures.

He was a powerful professor. For all his love of learning, Gombrich has never been a friend of 20th-century art-historical studies. Modern art in general arouses in him little more than curiosity. The thought occurs that he would be happy to be in as much ignorance of the modern movement now as he was during his Viennese adolescence. Alas, the latest edition of The Story of Art still suffers from ignorance. Its last section, en- titled as always "Experimental Art", is distressing. Matisse is commended for decorative qualities that, for Gombrich, ally him to Beardsley and Whistler. Picasso's Cubism is discussed without men- tioning Braque. He thinks that Jackson Pollock and his critics were influenced by Far Eastern mysticism. And so on.

All these misconceptions could have been corrected by study. But it's too late now. One turns with some relief to "Shadows". Here is Gombrich at his most genial. The exhibition in the Sunley Room is accompanied by a nicely produced book (£8.50) and a video (£10.95) and really one needs to look at the pictures while reading Gombrich's text. This is as erudite as one would expect and has a subtle and illuminating way of changing the subject from one painting to the next. "Shadows" is part of the National Gallery's series of exhibitions called "The Artist's Eye". People often just choose their favourite pictures. But Gombrich (whose favourite artist, incidentally, is Pissarro) wants to make us reflect on "the intriguing problem of how and why cast shadows were included and again excluded from the repertory of Western painters".

Wisely, he avoids the key moments when shadows were most deliberately excluded from early modern art, for instance in Matisse's Fauvism. Though the exhibition is wide-ranging, its emphasis is on the 17th century, perhaps because the painting of that period was itself so emphatic. More delicate effects are not forgotten. Gombrich points to the beautiful Portrait of a Gentleman by Giovanni Battista Mor-oni, to the fresh and dappled effects of Guardi and Tiepolo and the architectural, dignified shadows of such Dutch masters as Gerrit Berckheyde.

Most of the paintings are taken from the National Gallery's collection. One or two works are added, notably David Allan's The Origin of Painting from Edinburgh and William Collins' Coming Events from Chatsworth. Nineteenth- century British naturalism ought to have been given a more prominent role, I feel. It produced some intense shadow painting and the best of all modern writing on shadows, not noticed by Gombrich, in the fourth volume of Ruskin's Modern Painters.

! 'Shadows': National, WC2 (0171 839 3321), to 18 June. 'The Story of Art' is re-published on 24 Aug (Phaidon, £29.99).