Monday, July 09, 2007

Gombrich on Malraux

"One can hardly avoid the suspicion that the voices he has lent to the art of the past are meant to drown a deep fear of the silence which would fall if Spengler were right:
Though the Wei Bodhisattvas and those of Nara, Khmer and Javanese sculpture and Sung painting do not express the same communion with the cosmos as does a Romanesque tympanum, a Dance of Shiva or the horsemen of the Parthenon, all alike express a communion of one kind or another, and so does even Rubens in The Kermesse. We need but glance at any Greek masterpiece to see at once that its triumph over the mystery-laden East does not stem from any process of the reasoning mind, but from the 'innumerable laughter of the waves'. Like a muted orchestra the surge and thunder, already so remote, of ancient tragedy accompanies but does not drown Antigone's immortal cry: 'I was not born to share in hatred but to share in love' (pp. 635-6).
Who would not prefer the driest philological gloss on the exact meaning of Antigone's 'immortal cry' (which is not a cry but a reasoned statement in a momentous argument) to this 'surge and thunder'? For if we trouble to analyse the content of the paragraph we discover, as only too often with Malraux, that it dissolves into a truism. Buddhist art (the names of the schools which produced Buddhas are mere ornament) differs in spirit from Hindoo, Greek, and Christian art but they all (including Rubens' genre) are religious. Even Greek tragedy is (and who ever doubted that?). Perhaps the rhetoric serves no other purpose than to hypnotize and bulldoze the reader. But it is surely more charitable to assume that strings of names and rows of images function like the names of divinities in ancient incantations to reassure the writer rather than the reader. They may be an expression of that authentic Angst which is the true root of the expressionist hysteria--the anxiety of that utter loneliness that would reign if art were to fail and each man remained immured in himself.

To return to sanity does not mean to ignore these problems but to face them. Perhaps they are not quite as formidable as they look. They become formidable only through the adolescent 'all-or-nothing' attitude that colours so much of the writing of Malraux's generation. To the question whether we can understand the art of mentality of other periods or civilizations, or whether all is 'myth', the answer of common-sense is surely that we can understand some better, some worse, and some only after a lot of work. That we can improve our understanding by trying to restore the context, cultural, artistic, and psychological, in which any given work sprang to life but that we must resign ourselves to a certain residue of ignorance. In art, as in life, on certain elemental levels men of different civilizations have understood each other even though they were ignorant of each other's language. On others only an acute awareness of the context in which an action stands may prevent our misunderstanding. This commonplace philosophy would hardly bear stating if it had not some relevance to the 'Museum without Walls'. For it is remarkable that this Museum only contains sculptures and paintings. Where the medium of art is words we can still distinguish between degrees of understanding. True, once in a while we have witnessed a metamorphosis of works of literature which parallels the examples adduced by Malraux. The tragic Shylock or the neurotic Hamlet may be a case in point. But by and large we know it needs a greater imaginative effort to understand the Roman de la Rose than to enjoy Pride and Prejudice, and we can say why. Nor are we frequently in serious doubt whether a piece of music is intelligible to us or not. We realize that in Oriental music we cannot distinguish a dirge from a ditty because we lack familiarity with the framework of harmonic conventions on which musical meaning so largely depends. Perhaps the way out of the expressionist impass must lead through an analysis of similar relationships in the visual arts. It was the optimistic faith in the efficacy of colours and shapes as a universal language that landed us in this dizzy philosophy of myth and metamorphosis. Even shapes and colours acquire their meaning only in cultural contexts. The less we know of this context the more we are forced to dream it up. We may enjoy this challenge to our imagination and relish the sense of mystery that is aroused in us by what looks remote, exotic, and inscrutable. This is one of the reasons why our age is so ready, as Malraux says, 'to admire all it does not understand' (p. 598). But we may come to see that our fathers and grandfathers were not quite wrong, after all, when they thought that we understand certain styles better than others. That a Rembrandt self-portrait or a Watteau drawing 'means more' to us than an Aztec idol or a Negro mask. Not that we need forego the pleasure of looking at stimulating forms even where we do not understand. We also look at rocks or driftwood. Only we must try to relearn the difference between stimulation through self-projection, which, when applied to art, so often passes for 'appreciation' and that enrichment that comes from an understanding, however dim and imperfect, of what a great work of art is intended to convey.* We need not worry about these distinctions every time we look at a work of art. What matters is only that we should not surrender our sanity by losing our faith in the very possibility of finding out what a fellow human being means or meant. Critical reason may be fallible but it can still advance towards the truth by testing interpretations, by sifting the evidence, and thus widen the area of our sympathies while narrowing the scope of myths. It will need a good deal of clearing up, after the expressionist earthquake, to reconstruct the Museum on these more modest but more secure foundations. Meanwhile we owe a debt to André Malraux for having recorded with such verve and intensity the impact of this traumatic experience on a rich and sensitive mind."

* I'm including the footnote Gombrich put here: "Intention in art is not everything. Neither is expression. But where the intention is missed our response to the rest will also go wrong." The passive voice in that sentence in the main text is crucial.

--from E. H. Gombrich, "André Malraux and the Crisis of Expressionism" (a review of The Voices of Silence), The Burlington Magazine, vol. 96, no. 621 (Dec 1954), pp. 374-378.


Anonymous said...

Gombrich's mistakes in his interpretations of Malraux are too numerous to mention. But just a little one as a sample: With a kind of snooty academic superiority Gombrich writes: 'Who would not prefer the driest philological gloss on the exact meaning of Antigone's 'immortal cry' (which is not a cry but a reasoned statement in a momentous argument) etc ...'

Unfortunately, Gombrich was not quite academic enough. He apparently relied in Stewart Gilbert's translation of 'The Voices of Silence.' In the original French, Malraux does not write 'immortal cry' at all. His phrase is ‘l’immortelle ėvidence d’Antigone’.

Gombrich's glib and superficial essays on Malraux are quite useless for anyone seriously interested in coming to grips with Malraux's theory of art. He never even manages to get to first base. Probably vaguely conscious of this, he resorted to silly sniping instead.

ZC said...

Derek, thanks for commenting--I followed the link back to your page and see there's a treasure trove.

(For the record, I should state at this point that I esteem both Gombrich & Malraux; that my basically unadorned quotation was intended as a conversation starter and not words I've put in my own mouth...)

Gombrich's 'immortal cry' error--yikes! Though inexcusable under the context, the fact that the piece is a review of Gilbert's translation clarifies just why he's working with the English text and not the original French. Though one does wish he (Gombrich) would have bothered to look it up if he's making errors like the one you're pointing out. (I don't read French well enough to have anything other than the Gilbert translations of VoS and MotG, myself.)

What I valued in this Gombrich excerpt, anyway, is a reaction against what I think of as a dangerous assumption of a certain through-line of certain modernist assumptions (transhistorical at best, ahistorical at worst), that may not in fact afflict Malraux, but certainly insinuates itself into writing that might take Malraux as kindred spirit, namely, the idea that all these ages and places of art are there before us equally in one big field, to be picked over for their formalist beauties, as though try trying to smooth out the space in order to get at an easy-access museum of one's own before all other considerations. Material history may get lost in the shuffle because it's no longer prickly or capable of obscurity: the shining fluorescent light of this insitution, the Museum, in our consciousness--maybe this historical development Malraux is writing about is open to some critique?

In cinephilia, an analogue to this would be emphases on 'film language' to the detriment of things like language and regionalized cultural customs, such as what sometimes happened with early (silent) film theory or with the Cahiers crowd in parts. (It's a pendulum: the Cahiers critics themselves have been derided for liking Hollywood films only because they couldn't understand the language...) Yet on what terms can I really place a Rembrandt self-portrait and a Sasanian sculpture side-by-side? Two objects of beauty; but I can say much more about one than another ...

I'm rambling. Thanks for commenting and for pointing out some shortcomings on Gombrich's part.

Unknown said...

Zach, thank you for your response. Yes, I was aware you were not necessarily agreeing with Gombrich. I hope you don’t mind if I add one or two more comments on the subject.

What is most distressing about Gombrich in my view is the influence he has had on the reception of Malraux’s works in English-speaking countries. Gombrich’s 1954 review of ‘The Voices of Silence’ was reprinted in his widely read ‘Meditations on a Hobby Horse’ and he wrote similar things about Malraux in other books which had a wide readership. I quite often encounter writers in art history or the philosophy of art – even recent ones – who seem to think Gombrich is a reliable commentator where Malraux is concerned. He most certainly isn’t.

Here are three of the more prominent myths Gombrich propagates:

Myth 1: ‘Malraux’s theory of art is “expressionist”’ (meaning, in this context, that art is the ‘expression’ of the culture from which it comes). In fact, Malraux’s theory of art is not remotely expressionist and he quite explicitly rejects expressionist thinking on numerous occasions – including in ‘The Voices of Silence’ which Gombrich is purportedly reviewing when he makes this claim.

Myth 2: ‘Malraux despised art history and art historians.’ Gombrich gets quite defensive on this point – but quite unnecessarily. Malraux certainly believed that the account of art provided by art history was not sufficient by itself, but he was not at all opposed to art history as such. In fact, was very widely read on the subject and always took a great interest in the latest discoveries, theories etc. In any case, one has only to read ‘The Voices of Silence’, for example, to realise that the book could hardly have been written by someone who took no interest in art history.

Myth 3: ‘Malraux was not a “responsible scholar”, and simply made things up when it suited him.’ This has become a well-entrenched myth and Gombrich was one of the first to set it going. But, again, if one examines the evidence, there is no foundation for it whatsoever. Malraux was always very careful about his facts and often went to great lengths to verify them. (I am not suggesting he was infallible, of course, but who is in the field of art history, where, in any case, the state of knowledge is always slowly changing?) Gombrich, I might add, is hardly bullet-proof himself when it comes to being a ‘responsible scholar’. As I pointed out, for example, he was happy to criticise Malraux on a specific textual point without taking the elementary scholarly precaution of checking back to the French original – which would have told him his comment was misplaced.

There is lots more to say on this topic, but I will leave it at that. In general, I regard Gombrich’s account of Malraux as little short of a travesty. His influence on the reception of Malraux in English-speaking countries has been most unfortunate.

Thanks for bearing with me.

PS. In my hastily written first post, ‘Stewart’ should have been ‘Stuart.’ And ‘relied in’ should of course have been ‘relied on.’

chris miller said...

I can see where Gombrich has stumbled by relying on a poor translation -- but his overall argument seems to apply rather well to the fragment quoted from Malraux.

Just what is Malraux telling us in that quotation other than "Greek art is better than Asian art"

What does "innumerable laughter of the waves" tell us specifically about that judgment -- other than to say that it's not rational ?

Was there any need to name those specific periods -- other than, as G. suggests, as a kind of magical incantation -- or an attempt to "hypnotize and bulldoze the reader"?

And is "triumph" accurately used in the translation of that phrase ? If so, why would Malraux suggest that Greek art and Asian art are in some kind of conflict, and the one has defeated the other ?

Is there anything, Derek, that you learned about Greek or Asian art from this quotation (plus whatever accompanying text elucidated its assertions) ?

chris miller said...

On the other hand -- I hardly agree with Gombrich that "we can improve our understanding (of world art) by trying to restore the context, cultural, artistic, and psychological, in which any given work sprang to life"

-- because these restorations -- and the language with which they're built -- even the very words "cultural","artistic" and "psychological" belong to our period and not to theirs.

Which is to say I question the usefulness of the entire modern academic project of writing art history (other than for the sleuth work of finding and translating original texts)

The visual past can speak for itself (or if it can't - no contemporary explanation is going to help it) -- not as "formalist beauties" (which would be reductive) but as complete
visions -- with all the peculiarities of spirit and feeling that can be associated with things seen in the world.

Could there ever be an explanation of the cultural, artistic,and psychological context of Heian Japan that might produce anything near the understanding one might get from reading ladies Murasaki and Shonagon and looking at 10th C. sculpture ?

As the modern academics, like Gombrich, abjure their own taste on behalf of objectivity, their work becomes worthless (as well as unreadably dull) - while at least Malraux, for all his overblown prose, at least is taking a stand -- telling us, in the selected quotation, that among the things coming from Asia have been best have been the sculpture from Nara and the Wei Dynasty, and the painting from the Sung -- and yet even still he prefers the classic period of Greek sculpture.

I certainly don't share that judgment --- but it's a memorable fact that he made it -- because he is a man of wide experience and taste.

Unknown said...

Hi Chris

You and I have talked about Malraux on the Aesthetics-L list and I have not managed to convert you so I guess I won’t do so here either. But with Zach’s indulgence I will respond quickly to the points you raise.

I think you are a little charitable to Gombrich describing his ‘cry’ thing as a ‘stumble.’ More like being hoist on one’s own petard. Remember, he was taking Malraux to task for not being a ‘responsible scholar’.

Malraux is certainly not telling us that Greek art is better than Asian art – and such an idea is quite foreign to his thinking. He is attempting to describe the nature of Greek art. The reference to ‘triumph over the mystery-laden East’ (and I don’t have time to check the original French to see how accurate this is) does not mean that Greek art was better; it means that it aimed at something quite different and that the discovery of this something different was a triumph (this is linked to Malraux’s view of artistic creation where every change of style is seen as a discovery – an invention – not a mere deflection of something already existing. I don’t have time to go into this.). The reference to the ‘innumerable waves’ is part of Malraux’s attempt to explain that Greek culture was not – as philosophy so often tells us - simply a culture of Reason (rather like a bunch of 18th philosophes!) but fundamentally religious – very different from Eastern religions like that of Persia etc, but religious nonetheless.

Malraux’s so called ‘rhetoric’ is never without purpose. Gombrich’s problem is that he is not interested in finding out what it is. Briefly put, the names are there to stress that across a wide spectrum of art – of the kind Malraux lists – there is the sense of the communion he is speaking of and that Greek art possesses it also – i.e. that Greek art, like these, and despite large differences in cultural outlook, does not simply tell us about ‘a process of the reasoning mind.’

Malraux is not suggesting that Greek and Asian art are in some kind of conflict; but as I say he does see every shift in style as kind of triumph – not in a teleological sense but as a discovery. So, for example, Byzantine art was equally a triumph (victory is probably a better word – Malraux was not into triumphalism) over Greek and Roman art; Renaissance was over Byzantine, and so on.

I should stress that it would be quite, quite wrong to think that Malraux thinks that Greek sculpture – classic or not – is superior to Asian. Nothing in what he writes supports that view. A key feature of Malraux’s thinking is that he places all art on the same footing whether it be Asian, Greek, Pre-Columbian or whatever. What matters to him is the quality of the art not its provenance. Gombrich himself is much more likely to think that Greek art is superior in some way – though in his later writings he does his best to conceal that view, thinking it unfashionable.

Just a final word. Gombrich, along with two or three other art historians, rounded on Malraux after the publication of ‘The Voices of Silence’ and accused him of all kinds of historical ‘errors’ (as if history were just made up of pure ‘facts’ anyway!). Gombrich himself produced no evidence at all for this serious charge, apart from the ‘cry’ thing, and we see what that was worth … The others produced bits of alleged evidence and I have had occasion recently to examine it. In each case, the ‘error’ is in the reading of what Malraux is actually saying – revealing an unfortunate tendency on the part of these critics to skim him rather than read him with due care. In one or two cases the mistakes are egregious – one wonders how anyone could seriously read Malraux to be saying the things he is alleged to be saying. Nonetheless, the view, assiduously propagated by Gombrich, that Malraux is an ‘irresponsible scholar’ has become part of the mythology which is parroted to this very day.

Cheers - and thanks for your reply in any case.


chris miller said...

What do you think Zach ?

When you "glance at any Greek masterpiece" do you "see at once that its triumph over the mystery-laden East does not stem from any process of the reasoning mind, but from the 'innumerable laughter of the waves'"

And if so --

would this mean that
"Greek art was better" ... or could it just mean that "it's aimed at something quite different and that the discovery of this something different was a triumph"

I'm thinking that it's one thing to say "x's art is a triumph" --- and quite another to say "x's art is a triumph over Y"

Anonymous said...


His point, as the whole sentence shows, is that it is a victory via x RATHER THAN y. His target is the widespread idea he rejects that Greece was all about "processes of the reasioning mind" and that Greek art is an art of Reason.

To fully undertand what he means by "victory" in this context one needs to read the section in "The Voices of Silence" on Art and Creation because his thinking here relates back to that. As I said, each new creation - each new style - for Malraux is a victory (but in a specific sense).

Gombrich doesn't mention Malraux's thinking on creation (a much negected topic in aesthetics where Malraux has some fascinating things to say). I doubt if he paid it much attention. One French critic has rightly said that Malraux is 'skimmed a lot but very little read.' He might have added that he is also often quoted out of context. Malraux writes with great care and needs to be read carefully and the context is always important. Unfortunately too, Gilbert's translation often makes him sound more 'rhetorical' than he is in the original. The mistranslated Antigone's 'cry' which Gombrich wrongly gloated over is a case in point.

I fear we may be overtaxing Zach's hospitality ...