Andre Malraux wrote his Metamorphosis of the Gods over a half century ago, essentially showing how the spiritual in art was slowly transformd into the truncating and commodifying of eternity, idolatry, and the cult of celebrity and the man-centered universe we know today that defines the nakedness and desperation of exile between competing forces within the same soul…
…It is still not a question of complete realism. “Like the movie makers, these artists use only certain selected, isolated, controlled parts of a reality which is not yet the despotic model it will later become. …The Flemish primitives are realists like Kafka.” Painters of Van Eyck’s time and after do paint pictures that resemble actual scenes, but it is not that likeness we admire most, but the difference from the scenes they resemble. “The painters show their skill by the resemblance, their genius by the difference.”
In Jan van Eyck’s “The Virgin and the Chancellor Rollin” the artist does not add the Virgin to a picture of the chancellor at home; he introduces the chancellor into a picture of the Virgin. “Our familiarity with fifteenth-century painting hides from us how really extraordinary is the world in which a contemporary of the painter kneels, in his own house or in a church that could be his own house, before a Virgin being crowned by angels, while peacocks walk in the lanes, and while two careless subsidiary characters watch the afternoon draw to a close over the town….But while this world is not Giotto’s, it is not the chancellor’s either: it is a world of painting. It is the heir of the Italian pictorial fiction-become independent of the place of worship…The chancellor and the Virgin meet in the world of painting, just as macbeth and the witches meet in the world of poetry.”
Derek Allen:Fundamentally, therefore, art for Malraux, like the reality it addresses, has a metaphysical significance. Art creates a rival world that affirms man’s presence in the face of the vast indifference of the uncharted scheme of things’. At its deepest level, art does not exist simply for psychological or ideological purposes, such as providing an avenue for self-expression, communicating feelings, representing the world, affording ‘aesthetic pleasure’, providing a form of ‘cognition’, or interpreting social or political experience (to mention some familiar explanations). Art is a response to man’s incipient sense of insignificance in the face of a scheme of things in which his presence seems to count for nothing. Whether visual art, literature or music, art is, Malraux writes, one of the ways in which man ‘denies his nothingness’.