Reassessing Gombrich’s Theory of Illusion for the 21st Century

Bogdan Chernyakevich

Research output: ThesisDoctoral ThesisMonograph


ERNST GOMBRICH produced a well-known classic of the so-called “theory of illusion” (Ziska, 2018, p. 2), aiming to tell “the story of art” through its relation with illusion and visual “schemata.” His famous work, Art and Illusion (1960/2014) gained wide popularity, first appearing in 1960 and continuing to be republished until today. This has created a paradox: on the one hand, readers and modern thinkers are interested in Gombrich’s writings (Hopkins, 2003; Lopes, 2005; Veldeman, 2008; Tullmann, 2016), but on the other, they do not use his concepts to evaluate the processes occurring in today’s social, ontological, and artistic domains. Indeed, the question of artistic skill has been significantly relegated to a secondary position in the modern debate, while the notions of ideas, manifests, and concepts have come to the fore (Haftmann et al., 1965, p. 203). Moreover, we have witnessed a transformation from “the human of skill” and limited capabilities into “the human of concepts” and expansion, where self-acting technologies work for our good (or bad). Take, for example, deepfakes, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), and Generative Adversarial Networks (GAN). For good reason, the contemporary philosopher Chiara Bottici (2019) warns us that there is a significant reliance on perception and image-type representations by public society, so much so that losing grasp of real things is apotential danger. In this regard, is it wise to set aside Gombrich’s ideas and perceive them exclusively as a relic of their time, or have we just not yet found the right place for them in the current debates? Did Gombrich detect some deeper meanings than just the reinterpretation of art history through the lens of the illusional and solving the “riddle of style”? In order to answer these questions, this research reassesses Gombrich’s Theory of Illusion with regard to the techno-social and political environment of today’s image-making. By detecting and building connections between the ideas of Gombrich and contemporary philosophers of mind, it is hoped that we will be better equipped to attend to the novel features of the art world and its practices which have emerged in a post-computational society. It appears that we may have already reached a world in which the gap between image and nature is collapsing, leaving us hanging in uncertainty. This is a world in which the differences between the imaginable, illusional, abstract, and real are significantly more complex and blurred. That is why it is essential and crucial to address this very question now, especially when any idea is dependent on representation and at the same time is complicated by imaginal spaces, imaginal objects, and imaginal politics.
Translated title of the contributionReassessing Gombrich’s Theory of Illusion for the 21st Century
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor's degree
Awarding Institution
  • Aalto University
  • El Baroni, Bassam, Supervising Professor
Award date12 May 2023
Print ISBNs978-952-64-1188-0
Electronic ISBNs978-952-64-1189-7
Publication statusPublished - 2023
MoE publication typeG4 Doctoral dissertation (monograph)


  • art
  • illusion


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