André Malraux and Art

An Intellectual Revolution

by Derek Allan (Author)
Monographs X, 190 Pages


This study provides a step by step explanation of André Malraux's theory of art. Drawing on his major works, such as The Voices of Silence and The Metamorphosis of the Gods, it examines key topics such as the nature of artistic creation, the psychology of our response to art, the birth of the notion of "art" itself and its transformation after Manet, the birth and death of the idea of beauty, the seriously neglected question of the relationship between art and the passage of time, the emergence of our "first universal world of art," the contemporary role of the art museum and the musée imaginaire, and the contentious question of the relationship between art and history.

Rejecting negative criticisms from writers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and E. H. Gombrich, the study argues that Malraux offers us a theory of art that is fully coherent and highly illuminating. In addition, the analysis shows that he presents a radical challenge to the traditional explanations of art inherited from the Enlightenment that have dominated Western thinking for some three hundred years. In short, the study unveils a way of understanding art that is nothing short of an intellectual revolution.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword
  • Introduction
  • 1 The Fundamental Emotion
  • 2 Art – A Rival World
  • 3 Art and Creation
  • 4 Art and the West
  • 5 Art and Time
  • 6 The First Universal World of Art
  • 7 The Art Museum and the Musée Imaginaire
  • 8 Art and History
  • Conclusion: An Intellectual Revolution
  • Appendix: Titles of Malraux’s Works
  • References
  • Index

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This book is the English version of a study entitled André Malraux et l’Art: Une Révolution Intellectuelle published in French by Peter Lang in April 2021. It is intended for those with a special interest in art theory or Malraux, as well as for the general reader. With occasional minor exceptions, the text of the English and French versions is the same.

There are very few books in English that discuss Malraux’s theory of art in any depth, and it is hoped that the present study will help fill that gap. To assist readers with little or no French, all quotations from French sources, including Malraux, have been translated into English.

The Appendix provides a list of Malraux’s works mentioned in the text. It gives the English titles of those that have been translated, with suggested English titles for the others. Where translations exist, the text of the present study generally uses the English title.

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In 1973, three years before his death, André Malraux confided to a friend: “Of all my books, those I’ve written about art are certainly the ones that have been most seriously misunderstood.”1 Malraux was doubtless disappointed by this state of affairs but it seems not to have discouraged him. He wrote prolifically about art, with two of his major works appearing as late as 1974 and 1976, and his final contribution – L’Homme précaire et la littérature – published posthumously in 1977.2 In all, Malraux’s works in this field span nearly three decades of his life, beginning in 1949 with the first volume of The Psychology of Art (later revised as The Voices of Silence).3 Together with numerous occasional pieces such as prefaces, interviews, television programs, and speeches (often connected with his responsibilities as France’s Minister for Cultural Affairs), Malraux’s books on art constitute a literary output at least as extensive as his six novels.

Why have these works been so frequently misunderstood? Answering that question is one of the objectives of the present study, which presents a step-by-step explanation of Malraux’s theory of art, examines a range of critical responses, and identifies a series of erroneous and misleading readings, often by major figures such as E.H. Gombrich, Maurice Blanchot, Maurice ←1 | 2→Merleau-Ponty, Jean-François Lyotard, Pierre Bourdieu, Hans Belting, and Georges Didi-Huberman. The errors seem to have two principal causes. First, there has been a widespread tendency to read Malraux quickly and superficially – an approach almost guaranteed to fail because his thinking is highly original and often quite challenging; and second, many critics have attempted to interpret his works through the lens of traditional aesthetics, apparently not realizing that Malraux presents us with a radically new way of thinking about art. Both factors have led to major, demonstrable errors, such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s claim that Malraux is an historical determinist (in thrall to “Hegelian monstrosities,” no less), and the widespread tendency to confuse Malraux’s ground-breaking proposition that art endures via a process of metamorphosis with the traditional view, inherited from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, that it is exempt from time – eternal, immortal or timeless.

Some commentators have even miscategorized Malraux’s books on art. As early as the 1950s, a number of critics, principally art historians, seem to have concluded that they were histories of art, a mistake that still lingers on in some quarters today. Malraux stated explicitly on more than one occasion that he was not writing as an art historian and, indeed, it is quite obvious that his central aim is not to trace the history of art, or of particular artistic periods, but to explain the basic nature and purpose of art – its role and importance in human life. Malraux, in other words, is an art theorist, not an art historian. The revolutionary nature of his theory of art, which, for reasons we shall examine, makes greater use of the history of art than traditional explanations, perhaps explains why this mistake has been made, but it is nevertheless a basic error that has caused misconceptions about the very nature of his thought. Malraux was always a keen reader of art history, but his own ambitions were quite different.

Given this situation, critical reactions to Malraux’s books on art have, not surprisingly, varied greatly. Initially, there were many favorable comments, one French critic in 1949 even declaring that The Psychology of Art was “one of Malraux’s greatest books, and one of the greatest books in all modern literature.”4 But the honeymoon was short-lived and voices of a less friendly nature soon began to be heard. In a lengthy attack in 1956, the French art historian Georges Duthuit accused Malraux of nothing less than “ignorance, negligence, and fraud,”5 while his English counterpart, E. H. Gombrich, wrote ←2 | 3→of The Voices of Silence that “there is no evidence that Malraux has done a day’s consecutive reading in a library.”6 Disparaging comments such as these inevitably influenced a wider audience, including philosophers of art who, with rare exceptions, decided that Malraux could be safely ignored. By1987, Gombrich felt confident enough about Malraux’s fall from grace to suggest that his views on art were little more than “sophisticated double talk.”7

To some extent, attitudes of this kind still persist today. It is true, of course, that Malraux’s books on art have many admirers, and that within the field of French literature especially, there have been enthusiastic and perceptive studies by specialists who have read them with care. It is also true that recent years have seen a significant resurgence of interest, prompting one French critic to write that “Today, Malraux’s books on art are the subject of intense editorial activity. Their time in purgatory, it seems, has come to an end.”8 The comment may, however, be a little premature. Despite encouraging signs, it remains true that within the broad field of art theory, and especially within the academic disciplines of aesthetics and the philosophy of art,9 Malraux’s books on art are still relegated to the margins and often ignored. His name is mentioned occasionally – usually in connection with the musée imaginaire, the idea with which his books on art are most frequently associated10 – but analysis of his ideas is typically brief and superficial. Outside France, needless to say, the situation is even worse. In anglophone countries and especially among philosophers of art, Malraux’s books on art are seldom read, and it is not difficult to find studies in aesthetics or the philosophy of art in which his name is not mentioned. One leading exponent of the Anglo-American school of “analytic” aesthetics even informed the present writer that he was “proud” that he had never read any of Malraux’s books on art.

The present study presents a direct challenge to this situation. In essence, the chapters that follow argue that Malraux offers us a carefully considered, thoroughly coherent, and highly enlightening theory of art which, contrary to the views of Gombrich, Duthuit, and certain more recent critics such as Pierre Bourdieu and Georges Didi-Huberman, is extremely well-informed and reliable. More than that, and despite occasional claims that Malraux’s thinking is derivative, this study will contend that the theory of art presented in works such as The Voices of Silence, The Metamorphosis of the Gods, L’Irréel and L’Intemporel is highly original and constitutes a radical challenge to the traditional explanations of art stemming from the Enlightenment that have ←3 | 4→dominated Western philosophical aesthetics for some three hundred years. The present study, in short, seeks to remedy the highly regrettable neglect of Malraux’s books on art and present them in a light that does justice to their true value. In doing so, it reveals a way of understanding the nature and purpose of art that amounts to nothing less than an intellectual revolution.


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The Fundamental Emotion

Although Malraux began writing about aspects of literature and art from the earliest years of his literary career in the 1920s, it was not until 1934, following a decisive event in his life, that he began to develop a comprehensive theory of art – a theory explaining art’s general nature and purpose. The event in question is examined in some detail later in this chapter, but to see it in context and grasp its full import, one needs to look first at certain key elements of his thinking in the preceding years. We begin therefore with a rapid survey of certain aspects of Malraux’s intellectual outlook in the period prior to 1934.

From the outset, Malraux accepted that as a deeply held value, as distinct from a pious convention, Christian faith had run its course and that, for the West at least, God was dead. Early signs of the decline had emerged in the 1600s but philosophers in the eighteenth century, with their passion for science and reason, had administered the coup de grâce, precipitating what Malraux described in a later essay as “the radical abandonment of Christianity.”1 The vacuum left by the death of God was, however, quickly filled by a new absolute – a passionate faith in man himself. In the eighteenth century, this faith centered on the ideal of an enlightened, rational humanity ←5 | 6→of refined sensibilities, liberated from the harmful “prejudices” of previous eras. The nineteenth century embraced a similar faith but transferred its hopes to the future, looking forward to a renewed humanity yet to be born (“l’Homme à naître,” to borrow the phrase Malraux used later in The Voices of Silence2) for whom science would solve all essential problems and who would live in peace, prosperity, and dignity. This faith took many forms (Marxism is an obvious example) and in each case, Malraux wrote in 1927, it

can only be compared, in power and importance, to a religion. It manifests itself above all in a powerful attraction, a kind of passion, for Man, which takes the place previously occupied by God.3

The twentieth century, however, had seen the collapse of all these hopes. Mass warfare and the invention of weapons of unprecedented power had revealed that alongside its power to benefit mankind, science possessed a formidable capacity to destroy.4 In addition, the decades around the turn of the century had witnessed a series of intellectual developments that cast doubts on the cherished ideals of the Enlightenment and the nineteenth century. Psychological theories of the subconscious weakened beliefs in a human nature ruled by reason,5 while anthropology and archaeology fostered a radically revised understanding of the significance of European civilization and its view of history. “Our predecessors had lived in a privileged civilization, the Mediterranean civilization,” Malraux commented in a 1973 interview, “and they looked upon the rest as more or less barbaric. For Hegel, and even for a Marxist […] there is one History – History with a capital H – just as there is only one civilization.” But all that had changed fundamentally:


X, 190
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (October)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. X, 190 pp.

Biographical notes

Derek Allan (Author)

Derek Allan has written extensively on Malraux's theory of art and his novels. He has also published on Dostoyevsky, Laclos, Goya, the philosophy of art, and literary theory. Dr. Allan holds a PhD from the Australian National University where he is currently a Visiting Scholar.


Title: André Malraux and Art