malraux: not stung to austere ecstasy

Andre Malraux and his Metamorphosis of the Gods. Maybe more not what he said, but how it was delivered….

…What made Andre Malraux’s La Metamorphose an especially haunting work is not originality in the usual sense. Some of Malraux’s seemingly solitary positions were quite artificial; he sets up straw men- particularly straw critics- and obliterates them. A case in point is his repeated assertion that naturalistic representation is not art, and that changes in the development of style cannot be explained by changes in technique.

—Rogier van der Weyden,
Portrait of a Young Woman,
oil on wood, ca. 1435—Read More:

Who really disagrees? Despite a great deal of nonsense that is still being written on these subjects by those who reduce art- and life- to material terms, this is basically a nineteenth-century battle. Furthermore, a great many of Malraux’s observations can be found in standard art histories. Other writers have noted the slide from Egypt’s gods to Greece’s godlike men, the humanization of Christ, the pathetization of mary; in short, Andre Malraux did not discover the metamorphosis either of the gods or of the arts.

Clive Bell, who was one of the more illuminated critics, knew as well as Malraux that: “With Gothic architecture the descent began. Gothic architecture is juggling in stone and glass. It is the convoluted road that ends in a bridecake or a cucumber frame. A Gothic cathedral is a tour de force; it is also a melodrama. Enter, and you will be impressed by the incredible skill of the constructor; perhaps you will be impressed by a sense of dim mystery and might; you will not be moved by pure form. You may groan “A-a-h” and collapse: you will not be strung to austere ecstasy. Walk round it, and take your pleasure in subtleties of the builder’s craft, quaint corners, gargoyles, and flying buttresses, but do not expect the thrill that answers the perception of sheer rightness of form. In architecture the new spirit first came to birth; in architecture first it dies. ( from Project Gutenberg)

—Petrus Christus, St. Eligius, 1449
Oil on oak panel, approx. 38.5″ x 33.5″
Lehman Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Petrus Christus (c. 1420-1476) is in the pantheon of great Netherlandish painters, along with Rogier van der Weyden, Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling. This wonderful painting, A Goldsmith in His Shop, Possibly St. Eligius, stands out even among…Read More:

From Nietzsche to the present, the concept of an organic rise and fall in art, paralleling the rise and fall in civiklization, has been familiar. But it matters relatively little whether outline or detail of Malraux’s work can be found elsewhere. No one has ever looked at art in quite his way. ( to be continued)…


Derek Allan:In short a revolutionary change has taken place, which has altered the very function of painting and sculpture. Source of a ‘nobler’ world—a world peopled by men and women touched by a spark of the divine—art is no longer an object of veneration but of admiration—an admiration evoked by the transformative powers of art alone. Art such as that of Botticelli, Malraux writes, was in effect the ‘Declaration of the Rights of the Imaginary’ that will become the guiding light of the painting to follow. The creative task of the painter is henceforth ‘accomplished in a domain unknown till then by Christianity, because its prime objective will be the admiration it must evoke.’

—1514 Quentin Metsys The Money Changer and his Wife
Oil on Panel 71 x 68cm Louvre Museum, Paris—Read More:

…Thus began, in Europe, the reign of ‘art’, in the sense described, which was to last some four centuries. The domain opened up by Botticelli’s ‘Declaration of the Rights of the Imaginary’ was thenceforth explored and vastly enlarged, Malraux argues, by figures such as Michelangelo, Raphael, Tintoretto, Poussin, Rubens and Delacroix. Further advances were made in the techniques of illusionism—and Malraux credits Leonardo with certain decisive discoveries in this
regard—but in no case, he argues, was this the central aim. The goal was not a slavish copying of appearances but as always the creation of another, ‘rival’ world—in this case a world of God and man reconciled, a world outside

which ‘man did not fully merit the name man’, and which art alone could conjure up.

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2 Responses to malraux: not stung to austere ecstasy

  1. Derek Allan says:

    Malraux did not argue that “naturalistic representation is not art”. His point was that art is not fundamentally representation (naturalistic or otherwise) but the creation of another world – a “rival world” to borrow his phrase. Many of the artists he admired had a “naturalistic” style – eg Vermeer, Georges de la Tour, Rembrandt, and many more.

    • Dave says:

      That is a very good point!( the rival world) One that tends to get neglected, since the typical inclination is to relate it to the individual’s world, that exerts a sense of power over his vast domain. thnx

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