Museum and virtuality: Malraux, Picasso, Malevich

Pascale CAMUS-WALTER Ph.D. IN ART HISTORY / Strasbourg / France



This text is a paper written for "CULTURE AND VIRTUALITY", the 7th Annual Interdisciplinary Graduate Symposium of the University of South Florida held at 19th march 1999.




Malraux with his collections. Left, Hopi dolls. Below, the blue prints of the books about the Imaginary Museum.





 Kazimir Malevich in front of his collection of work at school Unovis, Vitebsk.





When the Foundation Maeght (1) attempted in 1973 to recreate the famous " Musée Imaginaire (2) " of Malraux (3) in a great exhibition of rare and significant works of art, Malraux was terribly disappointed and said :
" It is not the Musée Imaginaire ", since the Musée Imaginaire only exists in the mind of the artist. "
In his discussions with Picasso reported in " La Tête d'Obsidienne (4) ", Malraux said to Picasso that the actual place of the Musée Imaginaire was necessary a mental place, applying to the museum the assertion of Leonardo da Vinci about painting as cosa mentale. So, is it Malraux, the theorician, or Picasso, the painter, who, the first, stated that in the museum, the works of art seem to choose us rather than to be choosen by us ?
" Picasso knew that it was not a question of a museum of the favorites of anyone, but of a museum which seem to choose us rather to be choosen. (5) "
In fact, a museum is never constituted by one work of art, but by several works of art. Malraux believed that the gathering of these works in the museum created a community and that the contact between works of art make them enter in interaction. If this community may create some " excessive fraternities ", it also permits to great works to enlighten from a new light the other works of art and to metamorphose them.:
" Each great art modifies that one of its forerunners. (6) "
Thus, it is new art which calls ancien arts to a so-called " resurrection ", id est, which calls them to restructure themself according to the new member which enter their community. Thus, our gaze on art changes and evolves. Works of art " speak together ", and " speak with us " and the dialogue is the foundation of the " Musée Imaginaire ". But, for Malraux, works of art interact not only at an historical level , but also at a geographical one. Works of art access also constantly to a new life by this foreign contribution. Thus the museum is a place of constant metamorphosis of the works of art, created by the newcomers. The discoveries of various works of art in the world shifts the notion of style and interacticity between works of art leads us to reorganize constantly the museum. This explains why the " Musée Imaginaire " of Malraux that the Foundation Maeght attempted to recreate was made up of very different kind of works of art. Malraux summoned in his speeches and brought together in his books unexpected works like children drawings, art of people with mental illness, fetiches, eskimo masks, etc.. This selection recalls the great Crystal Palace exhibition in Londres, in 1851, which brought together a set of Indian, African and Native American objects. But, in opposite to this exhibition, the " Musée Imaginaire " of Malraux did not gather these objects for the purpose of presenting them as curious or peculiar. The aim of the " Musée Imaginaire " was to bring them in dialog with what we call " fine art " and are in fact the most famous and noble pieces of european art.
Malraux conceived the most part of his theory of the Musée Imaginaire after the second World War, where it appeared has something revolutionary. But there were in this attempt some famous forerunners. Russian art collectors like Shchukin presented Picasso's cubist paintings in a separate room containing examples of African sculpture from the Congo and Madagascar. This way of presentation was directly influenced by Picasso's very attitude to african art. The painter owned a wonderful collection of african masks and statues. He was faced the first time to primitive art in 1907 in the Musée de l'Homme in Paris. He was upset by the magical power of theses objects and tryed to render in his next works that immediatness of the sensations. It is after this experience of the Musée de l'Homme that he painted the famous " Demoiselles d'Avignon ". For Picasso, african art was a " reasonnable art ", as the african artist does not represent what he sees, but what he thinks. So, it recalls us to the painting as cosa mentale of Leonardo da Vinci. The Almanach of the Blaue Reiter published by Kandinsky and Franz Marc in 1912 opened the door to daring comparisons. The whole visual material was presented on the same level, and a children's drawing was equivalent to a Picasso just as the naïve painter Henri Rousseau and the barock master El Greco were the companions of same spiritual trip. In one sense, the Blaue Reiter went further than Malraux in its dialog between views and images as it extended the analogies outside of the domain of art and painting to nature and technology, prefigurating the collage and the surrealism. In 1913, the russian painter Mikhail Larionov organized in Moscow an exhibition called " The Target ", were one could see gathered modern paintings, children drawings, icones and folk art like the signs of the Georgian self-taught painter Niko Pirosmanishvili.

For Malraux, the collection was the anteroom of the Museum because the raison d'être of the Museum was to put an order in the chaos of the discoverings. Whereas the actual museum is a fix place in which collections can vary during the time, the " Musée Imaginaire " is a determined collection which has no specific place. It is rather a symbolic place which questions the actual museum and acts as a model of a structure with specific associations of works of art. The components of this virtual collection are determined thanks to photography and print. Books and magazines are these very places where the free association of works of art can occur. With these new means of reproduction, distant works of art can be virtually gathered, and works that cannot be moved, like sculpture or achitecture, may be compared with more mobile or smaller works of art like painting. And this virtuality of the " Musée Imaginaire " is likely to save actual works of art. Why did Malraux say, some decades later, that the limitation of the museum is that it can only gather transportable things ? In fact, when he undertook in 1921an expedition in the Far-East, the purpose of his expedition was to cut out some bas-reliefs from a khmer temple in Banteau-Srey for the aim to sell them to some collectors. This act brought Malraux in 1924 a three-years suspended sentence. It is perhaps thanks to this painful experience that Malraux was seeking all his life for an ideal museum, where all the works of art of the whole world could be brought together without any kind of damage. With his Musée Imaginaire, Malraux enabled the preservation of ancient art by gathering distant works in a virtual process without moving them from their original place and put into dialog works worthy of being called art.

Art is served by photography and art history is what can be photographied. The Musée Imaginaire is an album, a long sequence of works, and it is to art what printing was to writing, id est, the printing of plastique art. Malraux had been reading Walter Benjamin's famous essay about the consequences of photographic reproduction for art. He disccussed the topic with Benjamin in 1936. Of course, the aura and the authenticity of the work of art are deperishing. But Malraux had a quite positive idea about the new possibilities offered by the photography. For hime, the Musée Imaginaire was a gathering of works which directs the transformation of the actual museums by a process of intellectualisation of the works by destroying their membership. Thus, the reproduction of art is not the cause of the intellectualisation of art, but its mean, and it is the confrontation of the paintings amongst them which is an intellectual process, the questioning about what gathers art together. Of course the process of printing changes our relationship to art. By the mean of reproduction of images, the scattered works gather in new formal groups and the Musée Imaginaire becomes the " world of art ". But the works are freed from matter by reproduction, and it is by this that they become modern. Thanks to lightnening and framing, some new aspects of the works of art are revealed. As well, the whole art of the world, from the prehistory to the modern art is now available to anyone.

The Musée Imaginaire, which exists actualu only in our memory, was not for Malraux a kind of developed Louvre. Whereas the " museum " of Baudelaire welcomes four centuries of art, the " Musée Imaginaire " of Malraux houses five milleniums. This mass of works of art all the civilizations does not only enrich the Louvre, it rather questions it. In the actual museum, the gods and the saints became statues, because, to come into the world of art, the figures have to leave the concrete world in which they have been created. For Malraux, the museum is the place where the object becomes a work of art in separating itself from the ideology which gave birth to it. The world of art, represented by the museum, removes this link which united the work to its contemporary life, in which it was born. The object of art looses its primary function, be it religious or practical, and the work of art is the only sort of object in the world which can be released from this slavery of the functionalism. The lay models from which the work of art has been created vanishes. This lost life of the work is then compensated by a kind of immortality acquired thanks to art. This immortality is in fact the life of the community of the works of art that interact in the museum, where they are placed together, far form their original place of birth. The museum imposes to the object a new status. The original divinity that inhabited it is definitely quitting it, and the work will now ressurect in the form of a work of art. This process, called by Malraux the " metamorphosis ", is at the heart of the Musée Imaginaire. The fate of the object, in the museum, is to quit its original geographical, historical and ideological community, to enter the new community of the objects of art.

In his essays about the psychology or art, Malraux tried to elucidate the enigma of the sacred art in a serie called " The metamorphosis of the Gods (7)" . How could works of art from a missing religion, initially created outside all idea of art, have nowadays a presence and be for us more than simple archeological vestiges ? This is due to the metamorphosis of the museum, which transforms in art the plastical expression of the sacred and permits to a civilization to inherit from the former one. Therefore, art is not an imitation of reality, but the substitute from one reality by another. There is a progression in time from the relationship of art to the reality and the symbolic. To the world of the Gods of the Supernatural of ancient art, succeeded the world of the fable, the Unreal, the fiction of the Renaissance. If all great figurative works refer to the represented, they become only works of art by separating them from the imagined. What is separing them from the imagined is the transfiguration by which the artist reappropriates himself the visible when he recreates this visible instead of copying it. At this point, the human being is released by art from his human condition, by entering in an universe from which he is the sole creator. The modern times begin with Manet in the Unworldly, art focuses on the pictural fact. The supreme value of the modern artists is no more faith or fiction, but painting itself. Thus, painting becomes a language. The painter become now aware that pictural facts are " sentences of the undeciphered language which brings to the painting an existence independent from the real, the imaginary or the sacred they express. (8) "
The russian painter Kazimir Malevich (9) would have shared with Malraux the same idea that painting was a language if he only had the chance to meet him. But, when Malraux went in Russia in 1934,it was to the meeting of the Union of the sovietic writers, wher Gorki established officially the esthetical doctrine of the Socialist Realism.The meaning of the word " language " was totaly different of the " undeciphered language of art " , as the word was here a weapon in the hand of the " soul engineers " of Staline's power.
However, from this epoch we have a contrasting testimony. Malraux said that the Musée Imaginaire was that of the choice of the artist. The rare, and perhaps the first example of a selection of works of art presented by an artist, is provided by Malevich in some articles published at the end of the twenties, published in an ukrainian art magazine, Nova Generatsyia and presented in english at the end of the sixties by a dannish art historian, Troëls Andersen:
" New art consists of 11 chapters or lectures covering the development of modern art from Cézanne to the architecture of Le Corbusier and Gropius and the Russian post-revolutionary movements. () In New Art, he uses a formal analysis developed from observations mainly within the works of Cézanne and the Cubists. (10) "
In these articles, Malevich comments more than hundred works of modern art from Cézanne, Braque, Picasso, Tatline, Gauguin, Monet, Léger, Boccioni, etc but also ancient art like Holbein, Rembrandt and Lysippe. The link we can establish between Malevich's selection and comments of modern paintings and Malraux's Musée Imaginaire is totally virtual, as, in reality, they didn't meet or share their ideas, as Malraux could do it with Picasso. But, when we compare Malraux's " Psychology of art " with Malevich's " New Art ", we see that, Malevich's work brings us the part which misses in the masterly fresco of world art drawn by Malraux in the " Metamorphosis of the Gods ". Even if he was a privilegiate person who spoke with Picasso, Malraux's conception of modern art ended with the problem of picturality. The message of Malevich's in his theoretical writings tells us that the " painterly " evolves in a closed orbit beginning with Rembrandt and ending with Cézanne. After Cézanne, painting, as well as the represented object litterally disintegrates with Cubism. A new orbit begins with the non-objectivity, where the problem of pure form and pure colour arises.
Similarly, the observations by Malevich of the surface of the paintings led him to establish the fact that the pictural mass is organized by the painters by some forming elements, independant of the figuration. These forming elements, that Malevich called the " additional elements ", are foreign elements that come into a still structured whole, disturbing and rearranging the former construction. At a macroscopic level, this effect of interaction can be compared to the phenomenon of interactivity of the works of art described by Malraux in his Musée Imaginaire. A contact of a constituted sequence with a foreign element provokes a metamorphosis of the works of art and changes our view.
If someone nowadays tryed to reconstitute concretely this forgotten " Musée Imaginaire " of Malevich, would Malevich, if he could come back amongst us, be as upset as Malraux before the exhibition of the Foundation Maeght ?
We do not know, but, as Malraux asserted that the " Musée Imaginaire " only existed in the mind of the artists, there is a chance that the attempt of recreating the " New Art " of Malevich would be more convincing that the " Musée Imaginaire " of Malraux.




(1). Artistical Centre created by Aimé Maeght (art dealer, 1906 - 1981) and built in 1964 by J.-L. Sert on the heighth of Saint-Paul-de-Vence, in Provence. It houses works of modern art from Braque, Miró, Kandinsky, Chagall , Giacometti, etc..
(2). Published in 1947 (Skira), " Le Musée Imaginaire " is the first part of a trilogy named " The Psychology of art ". The second part is The voices of Silence (1951) and the third part " The Metamorphosis of the Gods ", in 3 parts : " I. The supernatural " (1957, greek and christian art), " II. The Irreal (1974, The italian Renaissance and Rembrandt), " III. The Unworldly" (1976, Manet and the pictural fact).
(3). 1901-1976. Writer, activist, politician. (The Conquerors (1928), Man's Fate (1933), The hope (1937), The Walnut Trees of Altenburg (1943), the Antimemories (1967)etc). Minister of Général de Gaulle for the first time in 1945, Malraux created in 1959 the ministry of Cultural affairs that he headed until 1969. See details about the life of Malraux on: See a photography of Malraux amongst his Musée Imaginaire:
(4). This text is now in : André Malraux, " Le Miroir des Limbes, II, La corde et les souris " Gallimard, Paris,1976, (coll. Folio), pp 291-418.
(5). Idem, p. 357.
(6). André Malraux, Le Musée Imaginaire, (1947), Gallimard, Paris,1965, (coll. Folio), p. 245.










































(7). See note 2.
(8). André Malraux, L'Intemporel, Gallimard, Paris,1976,p. 110.
(9). (Kiev 1878 ­Leningrad 1935). Founder of suprematism, a trend in modern art characterized by geometric monochromatic shapes (" Black square on white background ", 1915). But in his life, Malevich practiced many styles (realism, impressionism, symbolism, fauvism, etc..).
(10). K. MALEVICH, Essays on art 1915-1933, Troëls ANDERSEN, Transl. Xenia Glowacki-Prus, Arnold McMillin, David Miller, Borgen Forlag, Copenhague, Vol I ,1968, p. 10.