Achievement and failure. Andre Malraux arrayed all art beneath a soaring arch of philosophical vision…but the philosopher is left seekingsalvation in the aesthetic “World Beyond,” …
Thus Malraux. At this point he abruptly concludes La Metamorphose des Dieux. His account of the “immemorial pageant in which the gods march side by side with creative man” is a first rate achievement. It is not a book to be read so much as to be experienced, and it often has the air of something written-reflecting Malraux’s overpowering conversational abilities. The work seems designed not only to persuade the reader, but to take them by the shoulder and push them against the very special window through which Malraux saw the world.
The illustrative technique of the Imaginary Museum helped to accomplish this. It was a technique bitterly attacked by art critics and other professional aesthetes, on the ground that no work of art can really be judges on the basis of reproductions and photographs, no matter how excellent, particularly, as in the case of Malraux’s books, only details are shown. Charging that Malraux’s technique mutilates the original, one French critic accused him of causing a “Buchenwald of the plastic arts.”
Malraux admitted that in the world of the Imaginary Museum, “the fragment is king.” He even approved of lighting sculpture in certain ways, photographing it from certain angles, to make his points. It is in fact sometimes disturbing to compare the complete work of art with a face or hand that Malraux excised from it; almost invariably the total effect is utterly different. But as long as the Imaginary Museum is not taken as the only place in which to experience art, the technique remains valid and fascinating in that it offers, almost literally, a new sense of sight and in a sense re-emancipates the work of art into the realm of new possibilities hitherto unknown.
Derek Allan:This development took a further step forward with Botticelli. In its exploration of the newly discovered imaginary realm, Malraux argues, art began to call more and more frequently on the mythology of Antiquity whose heroes and goddesses seemed to represent an enduring, privileged world of the imaginary and to offer a ‘repertoire of exalted acts’ befitting such a world. For Botticelli—in his non-religious works at least—it was no longer a question, as it had been with Giotto, of ‘locating without sacrilege a sacred scene in a world resembling that of everyday life’ but instead of creating an earthly realm that rivalled that of the sacred. Thus, the admiration inspired by a painting such as Spring,Malraux writes, like that inspired by Antiquity (and which Antiquity legitimised), is addressed to a demiurge which, for the first time, rivals the Christian demiurge, because for the first time it gives exalted expression to a fiction drawn from the realms of the profane.
…These developments, Malraux contends, conferred on art—and them very word art—both a new function and an unprecedented prestige. The point is crucial to Malraux’s argument. The paintings and mosaics of Byzantium, like the art of other major religions, had given form to a sense of transcendence that preceded them and could be experienced without them. They had drawn their strength, their authority, and their very raison d’être from a faith in another world that pre-existed them.By the time of Botticelli, Malraux argues, there has emerged the first unambiguous depiction of a transcendent world that came into being solely through the artist’s achievement. Christian faith is not as yet under open attack (and Malraux argues that this did not occur until the eighteenth century). Yet through its newly discovered powers, art has now begun to construct an exalted ‘other world’ independent of any pre-existing absolute—a world, as Malraux writes, outside of which ‘man did not fully merit the name man’24 that came into being solely through the power of art itself.