In his discussion of “the mirror and the map,” Sir Ernst Gombrich recites his memories of his native city Vienna and the Kunsthistorisches Museum and Naturhistorishes Museum facing each other with the monument to Maria Theresia in between. His fondness for art grew in the priceless collection of art in the Kunsthistorisches Museum with the Rembrandts, Titians, Rubens, and Bruegel, etc. Perhaps for the first time after many years, he traveled back to Vienna in his late years especially to talk to young art historians in his favorite setting speaking in his native German.
Usually writing in crystal clear Anglican prose, Gombrich’s chapter in The Image and the Eyeat begins for about the first dozen pages winding through complexities of very difficult thoughts, and one gains the sense he had lost his usual facility with the English language. The psychological conflict evident surely was triggered by the myth of art history the place represented. One immediately senses the rich history of this landmark of Vienna both aroused tremendous fond interest and clearly a mind of expansive breadth and profundity.
The traumatic difficulty with Gombrich’s chapter is the impossibility of reconciling a disproportionate relationship between the ideas he developed and the place where he first found them. He was faced with an illogical ground.
He describes of this setting the supplementary use of words to images. Words and pictures work interchangeably, one completing what the other cannot express. The most important association we have today with this understanding of representation has to do with technology. Yet, the overall psychology of people in the advanced world processes information in the very same way.
Just like our map of the Museums Platz represents a map in our minds, embodying a cultural myth, so too do we today universally think of systems of knowledge as mythical forms. Our thinking of any kind of knowledge required of us in any profession – a biotech scientist, engineer, physician, educator, wealth management adviser or financial analyist, lawyer, etc. – is at its basis mythical. Mythical thinking is the combination of images supplemented by the words we associate.
Photographs are myths. Our minds, which work to map our thoughts, are also like photographs. Roland Barthes writes in Mythologies, interchangeably our thoughts are served self-indulgence by utilizing photographs and maps as a means of consumption and social usage. The same may be said for the Museums Platz in Vienna. Our minds work upon a myth or map of reality.
We can all experience a slightly similar situation in our everyday or working lives. For example, professionals working with any knowledge base all know what it’s like to arrive at a position, which is somehow reliant upon but by necessity of the individual and circumstance becomes very different. Scientists speak of those shifts in paradigms in inventions, sudden and unanticipated breaks from the past. Barthes writes that the ground upon which we all work with myths is somehow emptied of its meaning, always asking for supplementary “nourishments;” it is a “death with reprieve.”
The mind works motivationally to supplement meaning to the ground of a map or model. Environmental engineers use soil science, biology and chemistry to solve environmental problems. The issues they face for public health and pollution control, for example, require censoring any distortions they perceive of the environment at stake and critical awareness of any prejudices, desires, or conceptions of history they carry within themselves. Anyone is predisposed to automatically filling in the meaning of a picture of something they have in mind.
Viewing photographs is probably the easiest way for us to learn about our myths deriving from perceptions and the mental maps we carry. Barthes tells us to ask ourselves of the way we are assuming things when we read into a photograph. In supplementing the meaning, we are filling in and completing an incomplete. We need to learn how we are appropriating an image for some particular use, and that use connects to any social situation.
In his excursis on maps, Gombrich’s essay transitions momentarily with this awareness of the myth of the map. About half way through his chapter or the mirror and the map, Gombrich gets to this point about “appearances” and the difference between objectivity and subjectivity in cartography. Perhaps it was that Gombrich came to the realization albeit not consciously that sometimes the old myths we embrace early in life can die. His situation as Holocaust emigre to Britain with a group of German speaking scholars at the Warburg Institute perhaps was in some ways a new beginning. Still, like the others there, including Aby Warburg, he looked back even while it brought upon a kind of personal and intellectual crisis. The man adhered to a great tradition his entire life and even claims at the end of the chapter:
“This is a pardonable over-simplification, but images may indeed teach us to recognize and specify a visual and emotional effect which has always been present in our experience. The search for these effects is much older than the science of psychology. It is known as the history of art.”