André Malraux (1901-1976) was a French art historian, philosopher and cultural politician. In his work, Malraux describes how the art museum – despite being a modern invention – has obtained the status of being the proper home of art today. It is within the museum that artworks of different styles can be compared, and it is through this comparison that the nature and quality of individual work of art presents itself.
In the modern world, art is thus approached through a dialogue between works and styles brought together from across the history of art. According to Malraux, the 20th century conception of art is much more inclusive than ever before, which means that the dialogue has a very wide scope allowing us to compare African art to French Renaissance painting and Chinese Ming vases.
This inclusive notion of art, however, also comes with its practical issues. Since the world of art is ever so wide and consists of a huge array of individual works and styles, it is now impossible to fit even a fraction of the works of art into a single museum space. Therefore, the ideal dialogue of art history must take place within the musée imaginaire – ‘the imaginary museum’ or ‘the museum without walls’ (as it is often translated) – which is a collection of all major works of art represented in our imagination (a collection that may vary between individuals, but nonetheless will far outreach the capacities of any physical museum).
This ideal collection of the imagination can be supported by (but never be identical to) photographic representations of works of art. Geographical scattering of the major artworks (in museums and galleries around the globe) presents the issue of any one individual accessing all the works – but photography presents a solution to this, as the geographical reach of an individual through books (in Malraux’ time) and now also through the Internet has become significantly increased.
In summary, the concept of the musée imaginaire rests on a philosophical view of art and art history as essentially arising out of dialogue between works. This dialogue is possible only if artworks can be compared, whether in the museum space or in the mind of any individual. The musée imaginaire is the ideal compilation of all significant works, a compilation that is practically impossible in the physical world, but through photographic representation it has become a possibility of our time.
What opportunity for the musée imaginaire – a ‘museum without walls’ – does the digital age of today present? And how will this come to shape our conception of art and the course of art history? Is the virtual world the ideal space for an extra-mental museum without walls?
And finally – what are the significance of walls and a physical space for our understanding of art? Is limitless comparison perhaps not ideal after all?
(The basis for this summary of Malraux’ thoughts is primarily a short paper presented by Derek Allan. The paper is accessible on http://home.netspeed.com.au/derek.allan/musee%20imaginaire.htm)