Ernst Gombrich

1985 Balzan Prize for History of Western Art

For his outstanding contribution to the historical, aesthetic, and psychological interpretation of classical and modern Western art. For the new perspectives opened by his “iconology” in the study of symbolic images. For the promotion of humanistic studies as director of the Warburg Institute.

After studying the history of art at the University of Vienna (1328-1933) Ernst Gombrich (1909 – 2001) was invited to cooperate with Ernst Kris, Keeper of the Collection of applied art at the Kunsthistorisches Museum of that city. Kris, a member of Sigmund Freud circle, involved him also in work on the history of caricature, an experience which left its mark on Gombrich’s work.

In 1936 Ernst Gombrich accepted the invitation of Fritz Saxl to come to London, where the Warburg Institute had just been transferred from Hamburg. Ernst Gombrich was here charged with editing the literary remains of Aby Warburg. This activity was interrupted by the war, during which Gombrich worked for the British Broadcasting Corporation service. From this experience he drew profound conclusions on the nature and the «mythology» of Nazi propaganda.

In 1945 he again joined the Warburg Institute, of which he was the director from 1959 to 1975, holding at the same time the chair of the History of the Classical Tradition at the University of London. He devoted this time particularly to the defence and illustration of iconology as adumbriated by Warburg and Panofsky. In the capacity of visiting professor at numerous universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Cornell and Chicago, as well as at the Institut de France and other learned societies, Sir Ernst Gombrich wields, by his gifts as speacher and teacher, as well as by his written works, a great influence over a much wider audience than that of specialists.

An example of this achievement is his Story of Art, published in 1950, which has appeared by now in fourteen editions and has been translated into seventeen languages. «In writing it» — be explains — «I thought first and foremost of readers in their teens who had just discovered the world of art for themselves». That is why he uses «plain language even at the risk of sounding casual or unprofessional… For is it not rather those who misure scientific language, not to enlighten, but to impress the reader, who are talking down to us?».

The influence and effect of Sir Ernst Gombrich’s work are precisely due to his ability to enlighten the reader and the hearer, to involve him in an almost effortless way in reflections of the theory of art, to educate him without overwhelming him by erudition, to guide him without pedantry in thinking about what Gombrich calls — according to the title of a collection of his essays published in 1983 by Flammarion — «the ecology of images».

His comprehension of occidental art, upon which his interest is focussed, embraces its history, its origins (The Heritage of Apelles), its most varied manifestations (Art and Illusion; The Sense of Order), its continuity and variety and its historical dimension, as well as its relations with society and with the social sciences.

By his unity of purpose, by the diversity of his approach and insight into the history of occidental art, by his studies of visual perception in general and of aesthetic perception in particular Ernst Gombrich has erected a monument of learning to which the Balzan Foundation is delighted to pay homage.

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