This long-awaited book is a study of a recurring phenomenon in the history of Western art, namely the feeling that older and less sophisticated (i.e. 'primitive') works of art are somehow superior to later and more refined ones. In a closely argued and richly documented narrative Professor Gombrich traces the history of the debates on this subject from classical antiquity to the radical primitivism of modern times, attempting at the same time to provide a psychological explanation of the phenomenon.
This book is a documentary study of a recurring phenomenon in the history of changing taste in the visual arts, namely the feeling that older and less sophisticated (i.e. 'primitive') works are somehow morally and aesthetically superior to later works that have become refined, soft and decadent. Gombrich traces the existence of such feelings right back to classical antiquity, and he links them with a crucial psychological observation made by Cicero to the effect that over-indulgence of the senses leads to a feeling of disgust. He also demonstrates the importance of the profoundly influential metaphor, first articulated in antiquity and taken over by Vasari, that compares the history of art to the growth of an organism: like a living organism, art is born and grows to maturity (and therefore perfection), then decays and finally dies. Successive generations of artists and critics, believing the art of their own time to be past maturity, have interpreted the smooth refinement and sensual appeal of contemporary works as symptoms of decline and corruption, and have come to admire earlier works, despite their 'immaturity', as possessing superior qualities of sincerity, innocence and ruggedstrength. With the advent of modernism at the turn of the twentieth century this admiration took a radically regressive new twist as artists turned their backs on tradition altogether and found inspiration in the art of exotic cultures and in the works of children and the insane.
Summing up more than forty years of study and reflection, the book presents a closely argued narrative supported by extensive quotation of key passages that document with precision the role of authors, critics and artists in shaping and changing opinion. After reviewing the classical authors whose writings largely set the terms of the debate, Gombrich then charts its progress from its revival in the eighteenth century, documenting the often subtle shifts of taste and judgement that frequently focus on the pivotal role of Raphael as a touchstone in the history of taste. In the final chapters he turns to the truly revolutionary primitivism of the twentieth century, to much of which he has himself been an eyewitness.
Important both as a personal testament and as a documentary anthology, this long-awaited new book from one of the world's most distinguished art historians provides a deep and revealing insight into the history and psychology of taste.