The Preference for the Primitive: Episodes in the History of Western Art and Taste by E H Gombrich - review by Charles Saumarez Smith

Charles Saumarez Smith

He Knew What He Liked

The Preference for the Primitive: Episodes in the History of Western Art and Taste


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By the time I registered as a postgraduate student at the Warburg Institute in 1977, its former Director, Sir Ernst Gombrich, had already retired some years before and was a slightly mysterious figure, occasionally to be spotted shuffling through the bookstacks, and rumoured to be working on a history of attitudes towards primitivism. In the intervening years, numerous volumes of his essays and a Festschrift have appeared, but I had long since forgotten the rumour and so was duly impressed that this book has now been published posthumously, forty years after he first lectured on the subject at Princeton.

The book is a remarkable one, demonstrating in full measure Gombrich’s extraordinary erudition, his intimate conversance with many aspects of European culture from antiquity to the late nineteenth century, his ability to relate the history of ideas to the history of artistic practice, and his particular interest in the psychology of perception. The central idea to which his book is dedicated is the belief in a number of cultures that early forms of art are better than later, because they are both purer and more authentic. He is both fascinated by this belief and interested in its manifestations in the work of an immense range of writers from antiquity onwards, but also ultimately unsympathetic to it as a kind of intellectual delusion, in particular when it manifests itself in the twentieth century as a preference for primitive styles of art and a turning away from the idea of art as a set of visual skills.

Like all good Warburgians, Gombrich begins his account with an exploration of the cult of the primitive in antiquity. He refers back to Plato’s belief that contemporary art might appeal to children, but that those who are older and wiser will look back to the art of the past; to

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