Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1644

“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.

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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 variety of individual styles entails a rejection of all values except that of the world transmuted into the private universe of the artist. The modern viewer is prepared to accept the art of mankind as a succession of efforts to change forms into style, to defy and re-create the world.

Part Two, entitled “The Metamorphoses of Apollo,” is a demonstration of Malraux’s thesis that style, far from being the totality of characteristics which reflect a common school or period, is the language of an artist bent upon transmitting both the raw material of living forms and the styles which he inherits. Malraux traces the Greek style as it moved into the Far East, then into Byzantium, and finally into Europe. In each new surrounding it is conquered by some other style; each time it encounters a culture which reflects a different meaning of man, the Greek style is metamorphosed. Thus, for example, the posture of immobile meditation cultivated by the Buddhist governs the creation of the Buddhist sculptor when he confronts the Apollian nude; he retains the head of the nude but all movement of the body is eliminated. There is an element of stimulation and an element of destruction present in each stage of a style’s progress through history; progress implies conquest of previous styles by new ones and art is envisaged as the continous quest for a style.

Malroux expands the idea that the artist is a conqueror in “The Creative Process,” the third part of his work. Here the matter of the artist’s vocation and his relation to other creators and to the world around him is treated. For Malroux, genius is not to be explained by reference to exceptional vision, to unique instincts, to heightened sensitivity; it breaks to the surface as the result of a tension created within a budding artist who has been throughly exposed to specific works of his predecessors. A painter opts for his vocation because of a painting he once saw. His quest for a personal style is born of an admiration for a previous style and evolves to the need to vanquish the earlier mode of expression which influenced him. Every great artist begins with the pastiche—imitation of contemporary masters—and advances to a point where he feels compelled to dominate this inherited world of forms through his own selection and invention. In forging his own style he may rely upon styles of a much earlier period, or the direction he takes may well be guided by his study of living forms in the world around him. In the latter case he selects and annexes certain elements in reality which allow him to rival and surpass the artists who have influenced him. Segments of the outer world thus become re-created and conquered as the artist pursues his search for a style. Once he has mastered the technical aspects of his medium and experienced the urge to challenge existing pictures, he begins to offer glimpses of his individuality on canvas; he isolates and amplifies these individual elements (e.g., Rembrandt’s ray of sun illuminating a room, Van Gogh’s swirling movements, Cezanne’s architectural composition) until a true personal style emerges. With the appearance of a fresh plastic interpretation of the world, the artist feels liberated from his masters and victorious over that portion of reality upon which he has imposed his talent.

Art is regarded as the conquest of one world of forms, by another, and the unflagging pace of its movement through time attests to the human power of creation and, more importantly, to man’s eternal revenge over his destiny. It is this elevating aspect of art which Malroux elaborates upon in the last section of his book, “Aftermath of the Absolute.” If art in the twentieth century appears as a substitute for an absolute, the chief reason is that contemporary culture is agnostic and anxiety-ridden. Tormented by absurdities which crush us—old age, death, and the violent fatalities of history—we no longer have the comforting resource of a living religion which would ease the burden of our fate by bringing us into an immense communion with all men who suffer. We struggle with demons who have made their reappearance in the modern world and the artist’s acceptance of this situation explains his interest in primitive art, in the art of children, and in the art of the insane. These domains reflect often a combat with demons and a total expression of freedom—an effort to subdue destiny by annexing it.

Every great artistic expression is a response to the threat of the blind forces of fate and this is the reason why Malroux is particularly disdainful of the arts of delectation which cater to gratification of the senses and the desire for illusion. These arts eschew the problem of man’s significance. In Greece and in Renaissance Europe men were in harmony with their gods, and the sculpture and painting of these civilizations transmit a meaning of man which has as strong an appeal for our present generation as the art of the so-called “savages.” Both reveal a communion more vast than a living religion, a communion of men belonging to varied and distant cultures who are linked by their noble attempts to resist destiny. These responses to man’s fate which proliferate in our “museums without walls” and which can now be judged in the light of values introduced by modern art, instill in us an awareness of the first universal humanism in history. We find ourselves united with the efforts of the past to reduce the universe to a human scale. In a world dominated by the inhuman—chaos, atrocities, and death—the language of the artist is the language of a conqueror who reflects the noblest part of man in his revolt against destiny.

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