Art historian Ernst Gombrich, in his essays relating to expression and communication, ‘Meditations on a Hobby Horse and Other Essays on the Theory of Art,’ examines an expressionist theory that art and music are the natural language of emotion.

According to this theory, the resonance theory, a natural equivalence exists between emotional states and sensations, sights and sounds. We experience, for example, sensations such as ‘warm, light, bright, red, fast, high,’ as ‘friendly,’ while sensations such as ‘cold, heavy, dark, blue, slow, deep,’ are experienced as ‘hostile.’ Gombrich uses an analogy from wireless to describe the resonance theory, ‘the artist as transmitter, the work as medium, and the spectator as receiver,’ the artist broadcasting his message in the hope of reaching a mind that will vibrate in unison with his own. Say, sounds romantic don’t it? (p 56.)

While Ernst Gombrich accepts that there is some inborn disposition in all of us to equate certain sensations with certain feeling tones, he argues that whatever message an unstructured canvas of blue paint conveys to the applauding critic is not inherent in the blue paint itself but relies on its meaning within a context. Gombrich argues that expression and communication do not function in a void but take place within an evolving traditional art form and genre. Without such shaping, messages would die on route from transmitter to receiver, ‘not because we fail to be ‘attuned’, but simply because there is nothing to relate them to.’ (p 68.) Without acquaintance with the potentialities of the artist’s medium and tradition in which he works, the natural equivalence which interests the expressionist could not come in to play. What strikes us as dissonance in a Haydn symphony, for instance, would pass unnoticed in a post Wagnerian context, and even the fortissimo of a string quartette may have fewer decibels than the pianissimo of a symphony orchestra.

Gombrich explores form and function in the visual arts, which, though they play no part in the resonance theory, are the great divide between traditional conceptual art and the illusionist styles of China, ancient Greece and the Renaissance. Concerning form and function in the evolution of art, Gombrich observes that substitution may precede portrayal. Meditating on a child’s creation of a hobby horse, Gombrich identifies two conditions needed to turn a stick into a hobby horse, firstly, that its form makes it possible to ride on, and secondly, that riding is something that matters. For the child creating a hobby horse, as for the conceptual artist creating his image, the creation does not need to be a faithful imitation of an object’s external form, it needs only those relevant aspects that function as a key that fits some biological or psychological lock. A baby sucks its thumb as a substitute for the breast, a child rides a stick as if it were a horse. The stick, in another setting might function as a sword, or in the context of ancestor worship act as a fetish for a dead king. (p 7.)

Keeping in mind that representation is originally substitution, the greater a child’s wish to ride, the fewer may be the features that will do for his hobby horse. But at a certain stage a horse will need eyes for how else can it see? In Egyptian funerary art, the man- made image must be complete, the servant for the grave will need hands and feet, but must not be dangerously life-like to take on, perhaps, a life beyond strict conventions. (p 8.)


H.Wolfflin makes the observation in ‘Principles of Art History,’ (New York, 1932.) that all pictures owe more to other pictures than they do to nature. All art is image-making and even the ‘illusionist’ artists made the ‘conceptual’ image of convention their starting point and trial and error process of schema and correction.

Archaic art starts from the schema, the symmetrical frontal figure conceived from one aspect only. The conquest of naturalism is a gradual process of corrections, based on observation of reality. The witty Alain cartoon encapsulates the problems of style, of function, schema and correction.


Once the idea develops that an image need not exist in its own right, but may refer to something outside itself, as Gombrich argues, the basic rules of archaic art can be transgressed. The image of the man on the Greek vase no longer needs an arm or a leg in full view and when medieval art broke away from the narrative symbolism into which the formulas of classical art had frozen, Giotto made particular use of the figure viewed from behind. The idea of the picture as a reality outside itself leads us to a rationalization of space, the filling in and development of perspective as the picture becomes a window into the world the artist creates for us there. ( p10.)



And once we think of the artist and public less as minds mysteriously attuned to one another, and more as people ready to appreciate a choice of alternatives within an organized medium, we recognize the firm guidance which tradition and experience give us. As Gombrich notes, ‘we are all marvelously adept at playing the game of ‘classifiers’ and ‘modifiers’. Our ability to separate what is called the local colour of things from the colour of illumination is based on this skill. We easily recognize the difference between a white wall in the shade and a grey wall in sunlight.’ ( p66.)

In traditional art forms, genre offers the first pointer. Without this context, a grim scherzo or a melancholy waltz would not deliver its ‘resonance.’ In the visual arts as well as music and literature, the artist’s breach of decorum and the ‘receptor’s’ readiness to receive hints create the fizz. Contrasts in tempo and meter, tone and key, intensity of colour or volume, even breaches in form may strike the artist’s audience with expressive force.

A dissonant splash of red in a green canvas in a painting by Judith Alexandrovics.


In a Rembrandt’s self portrait, the light focused on unimportant details while the eyes are in shadow, inviting the viewer’s co-operation in reading expression.


Wordsworth writes in his poem ‘The Prelude,’

‘Like harmony in music, there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society.’

In reference to artistic form he’s not wrong. So introducing a deus ex machina dramatic element in a play, you might say is a no-no. When Greek dramatist Euripides, makes Medea the hero of his tragedy, ‘Medea,’ her violent actions and deus ex machina rescue by the gods likely challenged his Athenian audience as a breach of artistic decorum.

But Euripides’ puzzling play needs to be understood in terms of its context. When Athens’ three tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides wrote their plays, Athens was experiencing a period of political and social experiment. Their plays were presented at the annual Athenian Festival, in an outdoor theatre accommodating around 1700 spectators. These festivals were considered more than mere entertainment. The dramas of the festival, E.F Watling tells us, were expected to ‘touch the deepest centers of a man’s individual and corporate consciousness.’ ( Preface to Penguin translation of Medea.)

When Euripides wrote his tragedy, he had many variants of the Medea myth to draw on but chose to create a more shocking version than any of the old stories. By the version he presented, and by Medea’s heroic language and his surprise ending, Euripides was certainly challenging his audience’s individual and corporate consciousness.

When Jason dismisses his oath breaking as insufficient cause for Medea’s act of vengeance, she replies:

‘And is that injury
A slight on, do you imagine, to a woman?’

Medea does not doubt that the gods do not find it a slight injury and by the deus ex machine ending where the gods rescue Medea, they show that it is not. Euripides is posing a challenging question to his audience. ‘Should a society where men have the power to carelessly break a marriage vow with impunity be surprised if moral chaos and social disintegration follow?’

Some more fizz from Shakespearean tragedy. Hamlet, Macbeth ,Othello and their kin are among the most charismatic speakers in the world of drama. The language of these Shakespearean tragic heroes owes much to the development of a poetic language suitable for tragedy.

Russ McDonald in ‘The Language of Tragedy’ looks at this development through Christopher Marlow’s break from the monotony of an earlier fourteen syllable line to explore the rhythmic possibilities of the iambic pentameter. Following Marlow, Shakespeare further exploited the possibilities of the iambic pentameter to create the eloquent language of his tragic heroes. In all of Shakespeare’s tragedies he manipulates word patterns and modifications of the expected forms to express the visionary propensities of the hero and to signal or underscore the emotional and psychological moods that move the audience. Shakespeare’s control of meter, in addition to employing other dramatic devices, is revealed in the tragedy of ‘Othello,’ by the contrast in its protagonist’s early sonorous language with its later deterioration.

Here in Act 1, Scene 2 Othello’s poetic lines:

‘Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them,
Good signior, you shall more command with years …’ (Act 1 Scene 2.)

His speech to the senate in the same scene, a maneuver in defence of his marriage, is the language of an accomplished story teller, romantic, poetically powerful and commanding:

‘My very noble and approv’d good masters,
That I have ta’en away this old man’s daughter,
It is most true; true, I have married her:
The very head and front of my offending
Hath this extent, no more. Rude am I in my speech,
And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace;
For since these arms of mine had seven years pith,
Till now some nine moons wasted, they have us’d
Their dearest action in the tented field;
And little of this great world can I speak,
More than pertains to feats of broil and battle;
And therefore little shall I grace my cause
In speaking for myself. Yet by your gracious patience,
I will a round unvarnished tale deliver
Of my whole course of love; what drugs, what charms,
What conjurations and what mighty magic,
For such proceeding I am charged withal,
I won his daughter.’

Contrast the above with Othello’s abuse of his innocent wife in Act 3, Scene 3, an outburst that depends for its force on its triply repeated verb and the spondee, ‘lewd-minx.’ ‘Damn her, lewd minx! O damn her! Damn her.’

And now as a finale let’s hear that dark inscrutable workmanshop of harmony in music. No one does it better than Bach, here the Brandenburg Concerto No 5 in G Major.

Some context. Within the classical tradition of the sonata, the symphony and the concerto, the Brandenburg Number 5 conforms to their three movement structure, first movement exposition in the dominant key and ending in the tonic chord, second movement of development and digression, and third movement of recapitulation that returns us to the opening key and theme once more. That’s the form. But lots of surprises along the way.

In his Brandenburg Concertos Bach adopted the concerto grosso orchestration of the Italian composers like Vivaldi, in which a large ensemble alternates with a soloist or solo group. Bach uses this orchestration to create oh so lovely contrasts in texture, dynamics and melody. Listen at 3.07 – 4.22 to the fugue between violin and flute with its heavenly bird piping and trills. OMG! Then there’s the harpsichord, usually a supporting, unifying part of the ensemble, but not here at 6.38 – (really hotting up by 8.40,) surprising us with a pounding virtuoso performance , tempo furioso. Lots of fizz in this!


  1. I don’t know why I have to link this here, but it seems to belong. Let’s just say one good youtube clip deserves another. I think people were blubbering because he was between breakdowns. Or maybe Russians just blubber a lot.

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