The Voices of Silence Critical Essays

Andre Malraux

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

“Museum Without Walls,” the first of the four principal sections of THE VOICES OF SILENCE, defines the two crucial developments of the past one hundred years which have given rise to a new concept of art. These two factors, which permit twentieth century man to inherit the cultures of the past and to assess the art of these cultures with a new vision, are the advent of photography, which made world art accessible to everyone, and the eclipse by modern art of an aesthetic ideal which prevailed from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth.

Thanks to photographic reproductions, the student, connoisseur, or critic is no longer limited in his exploration of the artistic world by the confines of an art gallery; he can now open an art book and examine Greek vase paintings, pre-Columbian sculpture, Romanesque frescoes, Byzantine folk art, Mayan bas-reliefs, as well as a profusion of paintings and statues by the accepted masters. This exposure to world art entails a revision of values: miniatures, decorative reliefs on pillars, tapestries, stained glass, and coins are isolated and enlarged in reproduction and thus invite comparison with canvases and sculpture. Moreover, in separating works from their original context, the “museum without walls” forces them to undergo a metamorphosis; a piece of Gothic statuary found in a book is no longer an integral part of a cathedral; it offers itself as a single entity divorced from the limitations of time and place and stands as a possible rival to a work as radically different in origin as a Japanese twelfth century portrait. By placing together in the same art book hundreds of works representative of the same style, the “museum without walls” alters in another way our scale of values: the assembling of such an anthology brings about a re-evaluation of the masterpieces of a given period or culture and leads to a clearer perception of the significance of man implicit in that particular style. Because of these changes in the hierarchy of values brought about by the proliferation of reproductions of art, the approach to art in this century has become more and more intellectual, more and more oriented by the desire to explain man and his destiny through examination of the artistic expressions of diverse cultures.

In addition, a new perspective has been gained in viewing the multitudinous and multifarious art productions of the past as a result of the demise of an aesthetic ideal which held sway over artists for the time of Leonardo Da Vinci to the nineteenth century. Da Vinci modified the realm of painting by discovering and disseminating the secret of rendering perspective on canvas. The new canon enthusiastically embraced by painters who followed him was to create an illusion of reality, to depict an idealized world of harmonious beauty. The supreme value of art was placed in the quest for rational beauty, an objective consecrated as the attainment of an eternal style. Painters ceased groping for new modes of expression and conformed to a preconceived idea of painting; consequently, interest became more and more centered on the subject of the work rather than on problems of creation. If Vermeer, El Greco, Piero della Francesa, and certain others are singled out of this period and resurrected today, it is principally due to the influence of modern art. Foreshadowed by Goya and announced by Manet, the revolution of modern art forced the viewer’s attention, not upon the subject portrayed, but upon the presence of the painter; it destroyed the notion of an eternal style pressed into the service of an imagined scene containing a religious, historical, or sentimental narrative. Painters like Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin asserted the primacy of the painter over the subject, and the primordial aim of painting was no longer one of representing and embellishing reality, but one of annexing and dominating the outer world through a personal style. This rupture with descriptive and imaginary art permits a fresh look at the art of all ages because the enormous...

(The entire section is 1644 words.)