Malraux's Theory of Art
all my books, those I’ve written about art are certainly the ones that
most seriously misunderstood.' André Malraux, 1973.*
on art, as one commentator writes, have been 'skimmed a lot but very
little read'. As a result, his theory of art is surrounded by a cluster
of simplistic and misleading myths which seem to be the
result of superficial readings or simply relying on someone else's
opinion. I have discussed most of these myths - often propagated by
quite eminent figures in the history of art or aesthetics - in my books
on Malraux's theory of art. Here are some of the common ones:
Myth 1. Malraux was an art historian.
This is said repeatedly. Malraux was an art theorist. The nature of his theory of art required frequent references to art
history (a welcome change,
one might say, from so many modern philosophies of art that shy away
from providing specific examples) but he was not,
and never sought to be, an art historian. Although always careful to
ensure that his facts were as accurate as possible, Malraux’s
aims were quite different from those
of an art historian and he said so quite explicitly on a
number of occasions. Much of the pointless hostility of art historians
towards him (see below) seems due to their
erroneous belief that he was somehow doing what they do.
Myth 2. Malraux wanted to isolate art from its
historical and cultural context.
One encounters this myth (oddly out of
keeping with Myth 1) quite frequently. In
reality, there are very few, if any, art theorists who place as
much emphasis on the historical and cultural context of works
of art, and one only has to glance through a work such as The
Voices of Silence to realize this. (Try comparing
it with a textbook in analytic aesthetics, for example.)
didn't regard art as completely explicable in terms
of historical context - which is perhaps what some art
struggled with - but the importance he places on it is,
quite obvious. This myth has been repeated over and over
by prominent art historians (e.g. Gombrich, Hans Belting).
variant of this idea is that Malraux believed that, as one writer puts
is, 'the very placement of the object within the museum
creates its importance and validity'. Malraux certainly believed - and
said so clearly in Les
Voix du Silence - that the placement of an object such as
a Romanesque crucifix in
an art museum fosters a change in
its significance; but he never suggests that placing such
objects in museums creates
'their importance and validity'. The latter claim would place
Malraux in the camp of 'institutionalist' art theorists (Danto, Dickie et al)
with whom he has nothing in common.
Myth 3. Malraux was not a systematic thinker and only
gives us an "emotional response" to art.
underestimation of the nature and value of Malraux's
theory of art. Malraux certainly does not write in the dry, clinical
mode of most textbooks on aesthetics – he often writes quite
evocatively – but it is an elementary error to conclude from
he doesn’t think clearly and profoundly. In reality, Malraux gives us a
carefully thought out, thoroughly coherent theory of art – and a
revolutionary one to boot, which escapes from the narrow, eighteenth
century view that art exists simply to provide so-called 'aesthetic
Myth 4. Malraux simply borrowed the ideas of other
sources are cited - Focillon, Elie Faure, Spengler, Benjamin, and so
on. The claims don't stand up to even mild scrutiny. In fact Malraux
was a highly original thinker. Even a daring one. That is perhaps
partly why he has met with so much resistance...
Myth 5. When it comes to matters of
art history, Malraux either gets his facts wrong or
resorts to outright falsification. He is not a "responsible scholar".
have examined this allegation in this
article which is extracted from a chapter of my first book.
fact, as I show, the boot is very much on the other foot: those who make these
claims have manifestly not bothered to read Malraux carefully. Their credibility
as 'responsible scholars' turns out to be in question. (Gombrich, for
example, doesn't even produce evidence; he simply makes his
accusations.) In fact, Malraux was very careful about these matters. No
one can claim infallibility where historical facts are concerned, and
Malraux didn't; but he was extremely well read in art history and
always strove to be as accurate as possible. There is ample evidence
Myth 6. Malraux despised art history and art historians.
seems largely responsible for this furphy. (One wonders if he
somewhat threatened by Malraux.) In fact Malraux read extensively in
art history, had a large personal library, and at times collaborated
with art historians (see for example his 'Universe of Forms' series).
He himself was doing something fundamentally different from art history
as he made clear more than once (see Myth 1 above), and art historians
who understood this often admired his work.
is a sad irony in all this. The basic aim of his writings on art,
Malraux explained on several occasions, was to increase people's love
of art - not just their knowledge, their love. One might have hoped
that art historians would have welcomed this. Instead, many have simply
heaped invective on him.
Myth 7. Malraux was a "late Romantic".
silly myth also seems to owe its origin to Gombrich. Not surprisingly,
it is never supported by relevant evidence. Malraux has some very
interesting things to say about Romanticism, but to confuse his own
thinking with Romanticism is an elementary mistake.
The myth dies hard, however. In
his book The Adventure of French
Alain Badiou describes Malraux’s
stance as 'romantic individualism'. Malraux was neither a romantic nor
an individualist. To describe as an individualist someone whose early
novels placed such a strong emphasis on fraternity, (cf. La Condition Humaine)
and whose later works focused so strongly on an evocation of the
(i.e. not simply the individual), is
plainly inaccurate and suggests that, once again, Malraux has been skim
read. An important aspect of Malraux's thought, as a number of
scholars have recognised, is precisely
his reaction against
8. Malraux regarded art as a religion (or a replacement for
This misinterpretation appears to result, once again, from
skim-reading. Nothing in Malraux's theory of art supports the claim,
and he rejects it
explicitly on numerous
occasions. Malraux certainly believes that art responds to the same
fundamental dimension of human experience that religion addresses. (So
art is not, for example, merely a source of 'aesthetic' delectation.)
But art, he argues, responds in a quite different way.
that he equates art and religion only
serve to mislead.
Myth 9. The musée
imaginaire is simply a vast collection
of photographic reproductions of works of art.
widespread. The concept of the musée imaginaire is
the aspect of Malraux's thinking with which his name is most frequently
linked but, unfortunately, critics who discuss it rarely seem
to have read
him carefully, leaping to the facile conclusion that he is
simply talking about photographic
reproduction. Typical comments are:
- The “rich display of reproduced images,
open to us on page and screen, [is what] Malraux called ‘the imaginary
museum’” (Alberto Manguel, 2000)
- 'In a way we are already within Malraux’s
imaginary museum. There is no end of beautifully produced art works in
monographs on particular artists, movements or epochs'. (Matthew
Comments such as
these trivialize Malraux's thinking. The concept of the musée
imaginaire is much more substantial and far more
Myth 10. Malraux wanted to eliminate art museums and
replace them with reproductions.
remotely familiar with Malraux's work as France's Minister for Cultural
Affairs, where he showed such strong interest in the conservation of
art, and of art sites, would know that this proposition is quite
Malraux believed photographic reproductions play an important role in
familiarizing us with visual art, but nowhere does he
suggest that they could or should replace the original. The suggestion
that he wanted to eliminate art museums is simply bizarre. (However, he
did not subscribe to Benjamin's notion about the 'aura' of the
original. I suspect he would have regarded the idea as somewhat
is formulated in a variety of ways. Witness this comment in a
2011 issue of the New
York Observer: 'André Malraux’s adage that an art book is a
without walls" displeased those who believed art must be seen in
First, Malraux never simply equated the musée imaginaire
with images in
art books (see Myth 9 above) but more importantly here, he
never suggested that it is no longer necesssary to
see the originals. Many of his initiatives as
Minister for Cultural Affairs were directed precisely at
increasing people's opportunities to
see works of
Myth 11. Malraux was
a "formalist" or (alternatively) a "subjectivist".
These notoriously vague terms are often thrown around. Merleau-Ponty, for
example called Malraux a 'subjectivist'. He was neither that nor a
'formalist'. I examine these misleading claims in my books.
Myth 12. Malraux is a "modernist".
term 'modernist' has about twenty different definitions at a
conservative estimate so it's not always clear what this
myth is about.
One intended implication seems to be that Malraux is somehow passé
- a very odd proposition since in all kinds of ways his thinking
is well ahead of
many contemporary thinkers. He is the only one, for example, who
addresses the pressing question of the relationship between art and
time (i.e. the capacity of art to 'live on'). He is the only one who
substantive link between the theory (philosophy) of art
and art history. (Compare 'analytic' aesthetics, for example.) He is
the only one who deals squarely and convincingly with the fact that
past cultures had no concept of art. And, above all, he is the only one
who offers a persuasive alternative to the tired, eighteenth century
notion that art equals beauty and exists simply to provide 'aesthetic
pleasure' (an idea which, ironically enough, still crops up in
'post-modernist' accounts of art.).
Myth 13. Malraux believed in the
idea of "art for art's sake".
Myth 15. André Malraux’s theory
of art is a “grand narrative”.
narratives', as we know, are not à
la mode – although it’s arguable, I
think, that the postmodernist climate of thought that has given them
down often simply masks grand narratives of another
kind - made up of many small narratives. However that may be,
the suggestion that
theory of art is a 'grand narrative' is misleading. The archetypical
narrative' – such as the Marxist theory of history – offers an
integrated account of whatever it is trying to explain – that is, an
involving a beginning, an intelligible direction, and an
in Marxism, for example, we get the gradual, staged progression to a
Now as I explain in my books, Malraux has
no narrative of this kind. He certainly relates his thinking
about art to
the history of art, and he certainly offers explanations of major
have occurred so far (such as the Renaissance), but he has no unified,
overarching theory of history (or art history), and quite deliberately
from offering one. The history of art, for Malraux, is a certain kind
adventure': one can trace where it has been, and explain to a large
it has done, but, like an adventure, its future is always unknown and
This narrative, in other words, has chapters but no
unifying plot, and no conclusion.
Like many superficial readings of Malraux,
the claim that his theory of art is a 'grand narrative'
(or, more pejoratively,
a 'modernist grand
narrative') is yet another myth.
about Malraux's life.
While on the subject of myths,
it is perhaps worth mentioning the mythology that has grown up around
life. I have discussed this matter briefly in my Letter to Quadrant on this
site. The extracts below from my book (which, however, is principally
about Malraux's thought,
not his life) are also relevant. In general, the fascination
with Malraux's life, understandable though it perhaps is, has
the unfortunate effect of distracting attention from his thought, which
is far more important.
Extracts from Art and the
Human Adventure: André Malraux’s Theory of Art:
… Although he seems to have seen himself first
and foremost as a writer, Malraux’s biography bears little resemblance
to the stereotype of the French intellectual whose life is confined
mainly to his or her study, or to a Left Bank café. His remarkably
eventful life included an ill-starred expedition to Indochina in his
early twenties in search of bas-reliefs from lost Khmer temples, active
involvement in the anti-Fascist Popular Front in the 1930s and then in
the Spanish Civil War, service in the French army at the outbreak of
World War II, participation in the French Resistance ending in arrest
by the Gestapo, action in a French armoured brigade in the latter
stages of the war, and ministerial posts in de Gaulle’s governments,
most importantly as a very active Minister for Cultural Affairs.
attention of some writers whose interest in Malraux lies more in what
he did than in what he wrote, and biographies have become something of
a minor industry... [Moreover] involved as he was in some of the major
events of his times, Malraux acquired both strong supporters and
determined adversaries, and the resultant polarisation of opinion has
inevitably coloured much of what has been written about his political
commitments and his life generally. As one writer pithily puts it,
Malraux can appear, depending on what one reads, as “a Communist, an
Existentialist, a neo-Fascist at heart, an aesthete who has turned his
back on reality, [or] an unofficial Catholic”
– and this list by no means exhausts the descriptions that have been
applied to him. Predictably enough, it has now become quite difficult
in many instances to separate fact from speculation – and sometimes
from sheer invention – and much of what purports to be accurate
biographical information about Malraux is of very doubtful reliability.
The principal events of his life, such as those mentioned above, are
not in doubt, but there is much that is uncertain, and
possibly likely to remain so...
(PS: A good summary - in French - of key events
in Malraux's life can be found here.)
A common myth about Malraux's
life is that "after
the war, he gave up a life of action and devoted himself
to writing books about art".
Unfortunately, this conflicts with the facts. Malraux began writing
his books on
art in the second half of the 1930s,
not after the war. And given his energetic and innovative work as
first Minister for Cultural Affairs after the war, it hardly seems
accurate to suggest
that he “gave up a life of action”. Morever, his literary
after the war included his very substantial
"antimemoirs". There is more to say, but
this is perhaps enough to dispel this hoary old myth.
Malraux made this remark in a personal letter to a friend. He never
engaged in polemics about his work even when, as with critics such as
Georges Duthuit and E. H. Gombrich, the attacks were highly inaccurate
and offensive (e.g. Duthuit's intemperate book doesn't shrink from
calling Malraux a 'fraud'; Gombrich is only slightly less abusive.) I
discuss Gombrich's and Duthuit's comments in my book.
(1953) with images from Le
Musée imaginaire de la sculpture
(Translated as Picasso's Mask)