Faculty of ArtsAustralian Institute of Art History

Professor Richard Woodfield

Art History and the Diaspora: Ernst Gombrich and the problem of being a Viennese art historian in London 

Elisabeth Murdoch Theatre,
The University of Melbourne
Friday 13th August,  5-6.15 pm


Professor Richard Woodfield


Although Ernst Gombrich attained great eminence through his publications The  Story of Art (1950) and Art and Illusion (1960), the precise nature of his  work as a commentator on the academic practice of art history never really  found a home in British art history. Unlike Erwin Panofsky, who adjusted to  the American scene by dropping his commitment to abstract theory, Gombrich's  theoretical commitments were always at the front of his mind. Two of the great  English art historians, Lord Clark and Francis Haskell, admitted that they  never properly understood him. Norman Bryson, Gombrich's arch-critic, failed  even to recognise his involvement with semiotics decades before it became fashionable.  Gombrich's approach to art history was deeply Viennese, as were his theoretical  commitments, but as an outsider he was probably more sympathetic to the distinctive  qualities of British art than the Brits themselves.

As a student and collaborator  of Freud's disciple Ernst Kris he pursued masterly work on the topic of caricature  and as a student of Julius von Schlosser he was a critic of British insularism  and emphasised the need to look at the development of English art within a  European context. Thus although he worked as a Viennese 'provincial' in a major  international capital city, which was also one of the most advanced scientific  centres in the world, he demonstrated that it remained parochial in its attitudes  to both its own art and its own study of its history.

After retiring  from his role as Research Professor in the School of Art and Design at Nottingham  Trent University, Professor Woodfield was appointed Honorary Senior Research  Fellow in Art History at the University of Glasgow. With Glasgow's support  he created the online Open Access  Journal of Art Historiography, and  will also publish a book series, Glasgow Monographs in Art Historiography.  Since first working with Professor Gombrich in 1970 as a research student,  he maintained his involvement with him to produce Gombrich's Reflections on  the History of Art in 1986, The Essential Gombrich in 1996 and create the online  Gombrich Archive. He has also produced many other books and articles related  to art historiography and the theory of the image and has played a prominent  role in the international development of aesthetics.

See a dossier of quotations on his website

top of page