My Imaginary Friend

PHOTO by Vladimir Vyatkin / RIA Novosti
André Malraux returns to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts

The recently-opened exhibit “Voices of Andre Malraux's Imaginary Museum” at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts is being held under the auspices of the 36th International Music Festival “December Nights of Svyatoslav Richter (Traditions, Dialogue, Metamorphoses)”. Initiated by the President of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Irina Antonova, the exhibition celebrates French writer André Malraux, whom Antonova knew personally.

The 200 pieces of art on display present Malraux’s understanding of art history from antiquity to modernism, with some unexpected parallels between artworks, such as the one between the 12th century statue of Madonna and Child and a statue of Buddha dating from the 4th-5th century. The exhibits were contributed by several Russian museums, including the Pushkin Museum itself as well as a number of international museums, most notably the Louvre, the Prado, the Musée d’Orsay, the Berlin State Museums, the Musée National du Moyen Âge in Paris and the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts.

The exhibition revisits the concept of musée imaginaire, which was developed by André Malraux, a famed French writer and art theorist, a hero of the French Resistance and eventual Minister of Culture. A similarly named art show was held in Moscow in 2012 to mark the Pushkin Museum’s 100th anniversary; the show featured works loaned by foreign museums which were displayed amongst objects from the Museum of Fine Arts' permanent exhibition.

Malraux’s essay “The Imaginary Museum of World Sculpture” was first published in 1947; four years later, it was incorporated into his book “The Voices of Silence”; the third revised edition of this work was released in 1965. The essay describes musée imaginaire as a collection of artworks represented in an individual imagination and spreading beyond the bounds of any physical museum. The artworks are often scattered around the globe, but we may nevertheless familiarise ourselves with them via photographic reproductions and include them in our musée imaginaire, or “museum without walls”. This imaginary museum encourages dialogues between artworks originating from different cultures and civilisations – dialogues which are difficult or impossible to achieve in physical museum space.

The exhibit “Voices of Andre Malraux's Imaginary Museum” has brought together art from different periods and styles, notably “Portrait of a Young Man” by Antonello da Messina, on loan from Berlin; Georges de La Tour’s “St. Thomas” from Paris as well as Goya’s “Portrait of Luis María de Cistué y Martínez” and “The Colossus (The Panic)” from Madrid. Other highlights of the exhibition include Velasquez’s “Peasants at the Table” from Budapest; Honoré Daumier’s “Family on the Barricades in 1848” from Prague; Daumier’s “Scene from Play Known As Scapin” with intimidating mask-like faces, as well as Édouard Manet’s portrait of Georges Clemenceau and “Still Life with Peony Flowers and Pruner” from France.

The exhibition comprises several sections (“Multi-faceted Antiquity”, “From Sacred to Ideal”, “From Ideal to Real” and “Towards Modernism”) juxtaposing the sacred and the earthly, the sensual and the abstract.

The shared museum space facilitates an absorbing conversation between the Byzantine Madonna, the ancient Russian Virgin Hodegetria and the male portrait by Antonello da Messina, while a copy of the Aphrodite of Knidos is placed on the same footing as the Buddha statue and the Madonna with the Child. One exhibition room recounts Malraux’s life story, illustrated with some excellent photos recording Malraux’s visits to the USSR; there is also a section with “livres d'artiste”, containing Malraux’s books illustrated by Chagall and André Masson.

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Visitors at the opening of the exhibition “Voices of André Malraux's Imaginary Museum”. Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

“Voices of Andre Malraux's Imaginary Museum” is preoccupied with the evolution of forms and dialogue of epochs – two motifs crucial to Malraux as a 20th century thinker, who insisted on the “openness” of any art work. Following this logic, the oldest exhibits, from ancient Greek sculptures to Aztec art and African masks, are placed next to works by Picasso and other 20th century artists, who were the first to introduce the European public to African sculpture.

Art history, like the history of forms and ideas, is similar to a great cultural melting pot or a set of building blocks: you never know what the next historical era will pull out of nothingness. The readily understandable principle of cultural dialogue (associated with “uninterrupted meditation”, as Malraux described his work) has been central to numerous art exhibitions. In this context, Jean Dubuffet’s “Jazz Band”, donated by the Pompidou Centre and previously owned by Malraux, acquires special symbolic significance thanks to two factors: the improvisatory nature of jazz and the figure of Jean Dubuffet as the founder of Art Brut, who rejected traditional art schools and cliches in favour of primitives, graffiti and art created by psychiatric patients or children.

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Malraux visited the USSR several times. In 1934, he attended the First Congress of Soviet Writers and even made a trip to Siberia. Two years later, he returned to the Soviet Union with his brother Roland to present a project as part of the World Encyclopaedia of Literature and Art. In 1967, in the run-up to his Matisse exhibition in France, André Malraux visited the Pushkin Museum and the Hermitage. The photo shows Malraux with Irina Antonova, showing the eminent visitor the Pushkin Museum’s collection. Today, Antonova is bringing Malraux back to Moscow.

Author: Darya Kurdyukova for