malraux: thundering cliches on the trail of Eternity

Andre Malraux and his Metamorphosis of the Gods. Original and redundant, simultaeneously brilliant and a mass of contradictions…

…It must be that Malraux is misled by his basic notion of art as an antidestiny, a comfort against the thought of death, a defence against nothingness. He senses that here his ground was shaky when he wrote in The Voices of Silence: “Feeble indeed may seem that brief survival of an artist,s work which does not last long enough to see the light die out from stars already dead.” Yet in the next breath he insisted on the beauty of “the thought that this animal who knows that he must die can wrest from the disdainful splendor of the nebulae the music of the spheres and broadcast it across the years to come.”; insisted again that in the “house of shadows where Rembrandt still plies his brush,” the artist can find survival and a kind of eternity. It is, however, not eternity at all, only “immortality.” Malraux himself in another context had pointed out the difference. Stripped of Malraux’s special and compelling eloquence, the statement reduces itself to the thundering cliche that man can leave behind him “footprints on the sands of time.”

—In one of Rouault’s crucifixion scenes, painted around 1920, the dark is one again a fundamental feature. The Crucifixion could almost be taking place at night. The sky is dark, the land is dark and the outline of the Cross is black. This serves to focus the eye of the viewer on the unearthly light of Christ’s body and the face of those by the Cross. The one shown here however, has streaks of light in the sky and all the figures are illuminated.—Read More:

Judged in the light of the Eternal, which Malraux himself constantly evoked, these footprints are the puniest sort of survival-indeed no survival at all. From the human point of view, the difference in the shapes of the footprints matters. it matters not at all in the light of Eternity ( “God does not seem interested in creative paintings.”) From a human point of view, there is meaningful and fascinating difference between a pyramid and a skyscraper, between the Christ image of Moissac, the Christ image of Rouault, and a sugar coated picture-postcard Jesus. In the light of Eternity, the difference is negligible. ( to be continued)…

Moissac.—There are 3 tiers of figures on the tympanum, consisting of 24 Elders of the Apocalpse holding chalices and musical instruments. They are looking at the central figure of a seated Christ blessing with his right hand and holding a book in the other. He is surrounded by a curve of figures: the four Evangelistic symbols and more laterally a winged seraph on each side. This tympanum was such a success that similar ones were immediately added to numerous other Cluniac portals such as at Toulouse and Conques..Read More:


Derek Allan:From the Renaissance onwards, as we have discussed, that creative impulse sought to reveal ‘another world’ of God and man reconciled, a world that endowed the term art with a special, privileged meaning because art alone could conjure it into existence. In today’s agnostic culture—a culture in which, for the time being at least, all avenues to the transcendent seem closed off—that creative impulse has been left, as it were, to its own devices. It has responded by discovering an art in which, as Malraux writes, the desire to build up ‘a world apart and self-contained’ has become for the first time the ‘be-all and end-all of the artist’. In doing so, it has created not only a new art of the present but also a new art of the past—a past now peopled not simply by the works of Europe since the Renaissance and selected works of Greece and Rome but also by those from the temples and grottoes of South-East Asia, from the islands of the Pacific, from as far back as the early civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and even from Palaeolithic times.

Not that we, today, see any of these works as they were originally seen. Indeed, if we did, Malraux points out, we would immediately remove many of them from our art museums. But the presence within them of that same ‘immemorial impulse’ to which modern art has so successfully drawn our attention has enabled them to foregather in a world of art of a kind hitherto unknown. No longer relegated to the scrapheap, no longer heathen idols, ‘queer’ outlandish landscapes, botched attempts to be art, or ‘monstrosities’, they have become ‘works of art’, not in the sense that phrase possessed from the Renaissance down to the end of the nineteenth century, but in the new sense it has acquired today. Just as the world of art initiated by Giotto revived the works of Greece and Rome that Byzantium had so decisively spurned, so our new world of art, dating from the closing years of the nineteenth century, has brought about another Renaissance—but on a much larger scale. The result is, in Malraux’s words, ‘the first universal world of art’—a world in which, as he writes, ‘a Mexican god becomes a statue, not a mere fetish, and Chardin’s still lifes join the Chartres Kings and the gods at Elephanta on equal footing’….

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4 Responses to malraux: thundering cliches on the trail of Eternity

  1. Derek Allan says:

    If one reads the quoted passage from “The Voices of Silence” carefully, one will see that he is saying something very different from a mere claim that “man can leave behind him “footprints on the sands of time.” Malraux always thinks and writes with great care. To skim read him is almost inevitably to misread him.

  2. Derek Allan says:

    I was very pleased to discover your entries on Malraux. He is almost completely ignored in books and courses on the philosophy of art (aesthetics),especially in English-speaking countries. Which is a great pity because he has an enormous amount to offer. So, the more exposure he can get the better, in my view.

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