One day in 1954, André Malraux, the dazzling all-rounder who had won the Prix Goncourt for fiction and served as a minister in de Gaulle’s first government, was photographed at home for Paris Match. The occasion was the publication of The Bas-Reliefs of Sacred Caves, the second instalment of the novelist and art theorist’s three-volume Imaginary Museum of World Sculpture, and the photographer, Maurice Jarnoux, had the idea of surrounding Malraux with pages from the book — dozens of paired images sprawled across the carpet and the wooden floor of his large, well-lit salon. Malraux himself appears near the top of the frame, leaning back against a piano, smoking a cigarette and holding a piece of paper, indifferent to the curated chaos all about him.
Jarnoux’s image has endured. The German art critic Walter Grasskamp, in his new study The Book on the Floor (Getty Research Institute), calls it ‘an icon of cultural history’. But the composition was eloquent as well as striking. Malraux was not so much the author of the book as its enabler. He had shared his opinions in a previous trilogy, The Psychology of Art. Now it was the turn of images to do the talking, and Jarnoux’s photograph reflected that hierarchy: it is a portrait in which the human subject plays a supporting role.
These days we are accustomed to portable objects that assemble paintings or sculptures from far afield. We call them art books. They are familiar from museum shops and coffee tables, and there are publishers who deal in nothing else. But at the time, the so-called ‘imaginary museum’ was a novel project, with deep roots and wide implications.
As a government minister, Malraux had promoted the idea of creating full-size colour photographs of 100 French paintings, for display in provincial museums. Unfortunately, the prototype (Renoir’s Moulin de la Galette) was an obvious failure: you could only make a large enough print by putting smaller prints together, and the joins were all too visible. But Malraux kept faith with the use of the camera as a tool of dissemination, and he eventually produced a book that brought together sculptures from all over — a museum untroubled by logistics and contingencies, shipping charges and insurance premiums.
Grasskamp quotes George Steiner’s view that, in Malraux’s books, the text is ‘no more than a rhapsodic caption for well-chosen illustrations’. That was the point. The Imaginary Museum contained more than 1,500 illustrations; if they were well chosen, Malraux had done his job.
But Malraux didn’t just want to change who could see art, he wanted to change how art was seen. The availability offered by photographic reproductions coincided with an expansion of traditional categories. It was a democratic project in every way. If ‘imaginary’ seems the obvious keyword in Imaginary Museum of World Sculpture, ‘world’ was just as significant. Suddenly art included work from Sumer or Tibet, and not just work in stone or clay, but masks and carvings and so-called ‘amateur’ efforts.
The imaginary museum contributed to this effort because, unlike conventional art history with its emphasis on traditions and coteries, the juxtaposition of photographs was able to establish an affinity (shared symbols, similar techniques) between art from different continents and millennia. As Malraux explained, during the previous century the history of art had slipped ‘out of the hands of the experts’ and become simply ‘a history of things that can be photographed’. The camera had created a level playing field.
Grasskamp defends Malraux against the charge of simply stealing ideas and concepts — in particular, from the philosopher Walter Benjamin — but he stresses that his work was collaborative and at times heavily reliant on the efforts of others. If the Imaginary Museum was a book of photographs, then surely the credit should be shared with the photographers. Yet that wasn’t quite what happened.
Although there was hardly any writing in the book, the copyright was shared by Malraux and Gallimard, the publisher with which he had close ties, being at various times an editor, adviser and shareholder. But what about Gallimard’s photographer, Roger Parry? He brought his distinctive dramatic style to the images, shooting the objects in front of a dark backdrop with a circular pool of light to produce an effect close to silhouette.
And then there is André Vigneau, an all-rounder in his own right — photographer, historian, curator, film-maker, decorator, inventor, designer of mannequins, consultant to electricity companies. One aim of The Book on the Floor is to champion Vigneau as the unsung hero of the illustrated art book. His serial (though unfinished) Photographic Encyclopedia of Art was an influence on the Imaginary Museum — to the extent that Malraux borrowed the layout and 150 of Vigneau’s images, some of which he dared to crop and even reverse.
Vigneau’s photographs were far more sober than Parry’s, far more concerned with giving an impression of the object, and he promoted a more conventional sense of art history: he put detailed information about the images in the main body of the book, while Malraux tucked it away at the back.
The overlap between the two projects, however, was unmissable, and Grasskamp thinks that Malraux was too quiet about confessing the debt. Vigneau is not totally forgotten: he is recognised for introducing photography to advertising, among other achievements. Still, Grasskamp suggests it is indicative that he has no equivalent of the Paris Match portrait, which reveals Malraux’s greater gift for publicity.
But The Book on the Floor is less insistent on what Malraux did wrong than on what he and Vigneau did right. Grasskamp doesn’t want to sully Malraux’s reputation, only to increase Vigneau’s — and, in so doing, to expand the reader’s understanding of the imaginary museum, a wonderful, groundbreaking tradition that Malraux, though not its sole inventor, did so much to develop and enrich.
The Book on the Floor: André Malraux and the Imaginary Museum by Walter Grasskamp, translated by Fiona Elliott (Getty Research Institute), is out now