After resigning from the service of Sotheby's Auction House, Bruce
Chatwin changed his views on art, the art world, and art history. He developed an approach that differed from
established art-historical writing; he began to contextualize differently. He also sought to have things considered as
art that had not previously or traditionally been considered as art. He saw and understood the use of artistic
means more widely than in traditional art-historical writing.
From Chatwin's viewpoint, one possibility for artification was to “smuggle”
new material into the existing system. In
this study, I take as my material Bruce Chatwin's enthusiasm and loyalty to
André Malraux and his ideas about Le
Musée Imaginaire. I also make use of
Chatwin's interest in Heinrich Wölfflin’s idea of Kunstgeschichte ohne Namen, art history without names, wherein
artworks and their contexts are emphasised at the expense of the proper names
of their authors. In this area,
Chatwin's most enduring achievement is the illustrated series One Million Years of Art.
art history, artification,
Bruce Chatwin, Ludwig Goldscheider, Google Images, André Malraux,
recontextualization, Frank J. Roos Jr.,
1. When art ruins your eyes
When I was in my twenties, I said I had a job as an ‘expert’ on modern painting with a well-known firm
of art auctioneers. We had sale-rooms in
London and New York. I was one of the bright boys. People said I had a great career, if only I
would play my cards right. One morning,
I woke up blind.
During the course of the day, sight returned to
the left eye, but the right one stayed sluggish and clouded. The eye specialist who examined me said there
was nothing wrong organically, and diagnosed the nature of the trouble.
“You’ve been looking too closely at pictures,’ he said. ‘Why don’t
you swap them for some long horizons?”
“Why not?” I said.
“Where would you like to go?”
This is how Bruce Chatwin describes one of the turning points of his
life in Songlines.
At that time, in 1965, Chatwin was working at Sotheby's. He told his manager about his visit to the
The chairman of the company said he was sure
there was something the matter with my eyes, yet couldn’t think why I had to go
I went to Africa, to the Sudan. My eyes had recovered by the time I reached
For the purposes of this article, it is not relevant whether the eye
specialist's diagnosis was correct or not.
What is relevant is that Chatwin took his advice seriously and swapped
paintings for longer horizons. That
marked the beginning of a long, scattered yet tenacious search for new things
and a process of reflecting upon the value and contexts of art.
But what had it meant to Chatwin, the looking at pictures that had
ruined his eyesight, and what would gazing at long horizons mean for him? How
was art replaced and by what new things? And what have long horizons to do with
2. Sotheby’s ”golden boy” Bruce Chatwin in the art
Bruce Chatwin’s career in the art world was meteoric. He began at Sotheby's Auction House in 1958
as a numbering porter of European and Oriental antiquities. He then worked for a short time in the
furniture and ceramics departments, ending up in fine art, particularly
Impressionist and Modern art. He left
Sotheby’s in the mid-1960s, although he had been identified as and groomed for
a potential position as director of the house: "One morning, I woke blind.”
Chatwin has recalled his time at Sotheby’s in many articles and essays. While there, he learned a great deal and very
broadly, and he established numerous important contacts, but did not like the
place. His cynicism towards the job, and
art, came across very early and very intensely: "Before long, I was an
instant expert, flying here and there to pronounce, with unbelievable
arrogance, on the value or authenticity of works of art. I particularly enjoyed telling people that
their paintings were fake."
Biographies of Chatwin abound with quotations and stories about his keen
eye and his ability to see, to tell the fake from the real, the gem from the
stones. Nor did he lack certainty or
Interviewer: How long did it take you to become an expert on
BC: I should think about two days.
In his recollections of and stories about his time at Sotheby’s, Chatwin
discussed or analyzed his experiences of art and artworks very little. He did not enjoy the artworks themselves as
much as the ancillaries: interesting
people, intrigues, settings. There is no
doubt that Chatwin was very skilful at promoting himself and curiosities, but
it is revealing that when he was involved in the "discovery," in a
Scottish castle, of a painting by Paul Gauguin, which had been thought lost for
40 years, he had nothing to say about the work itself but more about the
process of "discovering" the painting’s owner and the owner’s
contacts with Gauguin many years before.
Chatwin’s interest in art and culture was broad but not very systematic
from an academic perspective. The years
at Sotheby’s may well have encouraged and taught him to see and appreciate
details, fragments, and interesting objects and things in general without their
necessarily having any art-historical significance. According to Ted Lucie-Smith, "He
flourished best where aspects of Brancusi, say, intersected with aspects of
ancient and ethnographic art." Lucie-Smith,
who often accompanied Chatwin on his tours of the antique shops and flea
markets of London, also remarked that Chatwin's lack of a solid basic education
was reflected in his interests. Chatwin
was a collector; he was interested in and obtained objects for the sole purpose
that they pleased him for some reason or other.
Nicholas Shakespeare traced Chatwin’s passion for objects to the concept
of seeing. He noted, too, that this objectifying
retinality was also reflected in Chatwin’s attitude towards people. This is corroborated by Gregor von Rezzori,
who remarked that it made no difference to Chatwin whether he was engaged with
an object, a person, or even a text. What
was crucial for him was the physical appearance, form, and perhaps even the
material and tactile and multi-sensory experiences that these engendered.
In his essay from 1983, "I Always Wanted to Go to Patagonia,"
Chatwin described the high point of his life in art:
The high points of my
fine arts career were:
1) A conversation with André Breton
fruit machines in Reno.
2) The discovery of a wonderful
in a crumbling Scottish castle.
3) An afternoon with Georges Braque
who, in a
white leather jacket, a white tweed
a lilac chiffon scarf, allowed me to sit in his
studio while he painted a flying bird.
And he adds:
The atmosphere of the Art World reminded me of the
morgue. “All those lovely things passing
through your hands,” they’d say — and I’d look at my hands and think of Lady
The art world as
a morgue! Blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands! How did Chatwin think he might cleanse
himself and wash his hands? How to atone or compensate for the bad deeds done
in the art world? From the perspective of artification, Chatwin’s answer was to
try to understand and reconstruct the history of art.
Million Years of Art
If the editor of One Million Years
of Art, a series of articles that ran in The Sunday Times Magazine in summer 1973, had not been Bruce
Chatwin, the newly hired talent with a background at Sotheby's, the series
would probably have sunk even deeper into the depths of the archives than it
Prior to One Million Years of Art,
The Sunday Times Magazine had
published another series, 1,000 Makers of
the Twentieth Century, a hugely popular series on the luminaries of the
century that had brought quite a lot of new subscribers to the paper. The series now needed a sequel and the
magazine greater circulation. The
editors were doubtful as to whether or not it would be possible to use art to
draw in a new, eager audience, when the young and ambitious Chatwin succeeded
in talking the editor-in-chief around to his own viewpoint. The
Sunday Times Magazine apparently had greater expectations for the series
than it ultimately delivered, as even a collecting folder was produced for the
series, with brightly colored plastic covers and the title of the series in
yellow typeface and pages that could be taken from the supplement and inserted
into the folder, as in a picture book.
It is difficult, especially afterwards, to document the impact of One Million Years of Art on the sales of
the magazine, but we may infer something from the facts that no reprints of
Chatwin’s creation have been made, it is mentioned almost nowhere, and it is
very difficult to get hold of anywhere. On
the rare occasions when the entire series is put on sale these days, this tends
to happen on eBay and the folder is sold at a ridiculously low price.
The series, compiled by Chatwin and his assistants, is not entirely devoid of interest, however, and may
even be more relevant now than it was in its own day. With respect to artification, in particular,
it may be considered rewarding and even important. The idea and execution of the series were
simple enough. It was basically a flood
of images, with captions giving only the barest of data: title if any, place,
time. The subheading of the series,
“From pre-history to the late 20th century – a survey of man’s creative
genius,” would still make such an undertaking a demanding task for anyone with
an interest in art. Sifting through
material to find the thousand images was in itself a major undertaking in a
time before modern databanks, search engines, and image manipulation
In addition to collecting and cataloging the pictures, Bruce Chatwin
had an idea and an aim: to present
pictures of the most varied range of subjects and sites; to demonstrate the
interdependence and dialogue between images; and to present to the public
cultural achievements over a period of a million years without any of the
established valuations or traditional historical or cultural contexts attached
to them. The result was a spread of high
and low art, East and West, old and new.
It was a new and radical way of contextualizing images among other
images, not just a way of presenting one thousand important works of art. Each of the objects in the thousand pictures
has, of course, its own cultural background, meaning, and context, but these
are never put on display. Therefore, the
collection is not particularly well-suited for browsing picture by picture; it
is primarily a totality, a patchwork. It
is like Noah’s Ark,
a way of saving threatened pictures and artworks for later generations and for
Figure 1. A spread from Bruce Chatwin: One Million Years of Art. From pre-history to the late 20th century — a
survey of man's creative genius.
For Chatwin, the “art” in One
Million Years of Art was primarily visual art augmented with utility
objects and religious art and objects from earlier ages and non-European
cultures. It included such objects as a door knocker from Durham Cathedral in England, a ceremonial
seat from Haiti, an Aztec feather fan from Mexico, an Iroquois wooden club, and
a picture of a Mauretanian shop front painted by the owner. The one thousand images in the series are spread out side by side on a
total of 70 approximately A4-size sheets, 14 to 15 images a page. The pictures are color photos and the layout is
dense, with just a few millimeters between the pictures. The close proximity of the images turns the
spreads into pictorial expanses, fields, or mosaics, where individual images
are unable to set themselves apart or rise above the others. Many artworks and objects are cropped
selectively, some are presented through detail, and others are shown whole. The compilation is chronological, and the
works are dated, but geographically it is free and eclectic. This, too, is a manifestation of Chatwin's
main goal, which was to detach the objects and their pictures from their
contexts and to give them a new life and a new opportunity free from
conventional ways of appreciation and evaluation.
The essential thing in the collection of images is that everything
happens and is thinkable in the context of other images, works, and creations. The series begins with a picture of stone
tools from Tanzania. In the tagline,
they are dated with a wide margin to between 2–3 million and 500,000 B.C.E., thus
establishing the title phrase, One
Million, which was probably intended as a selling title. Indeed, the next works or objects are
considerably younger, about 20,000 B.C.E.
There are, of course, many obvious choices. Seen against the general context of art history,
there are quite a lot of pictures of people, faces in particular. The first shape that can be considered as abstract is number 417, a Peruvian wall-hanging
made of papagayo feathers. It belonged
to Chatwin himself and was evidently quite important to him. On the other hand, there are certain
strategic principles at work here, although they are not explicit. The almost total lack of ornamentation and of
decorative forms is striking, nor are
there any buildings, architectural details, or modern design. One obvious choice seems to have been that
any art must be man-made. There are no
natural formations, sunrises or sunsets, landscapes or plants.
In “Postscript to A Thousand Pictures,” Chatwin gives a sweeping
account, complete with examples, of the surprising choices that cut across
periods and cultural boundaries. The
approach is not that of an art historian or a philosopher of art, or of a
cultural anthropologist. The style is
very much subjective, although Chatwin does employ the journalistic plural ”we”
when referring to the writer. The ”Postscript”
can be considered an apology for subversive thinking in the field of art and
We have frequently bypassed the obvious masterpieces
in favor of curiosities — and even the obviously bad. Even if we have adhered to a rough
chronology, we have ignored considerations of place and ridden roughshod
through barriers of culture. There has
been no effort to trace art movements. We
have ignored the concept of the avant-garde.
The fashionable game of “Who did what first?” has not been emphasised. Instead we have tried to show in pictures
that art does not “progress.” It does
not evolve in the way that scientific understanding evolves from hypothesis to
hypothesis. In no way is a Magdalenian carving
of a bison (6) inferior to a painting of a horse by Gericault (721).
Chatwin was quite aware of the fact that his desire to shuffle the
picture cards of art history in a new way and to play an entirely new game
would probably raise some eyebrows. At
the beginning of the “Postscript” he
remarks, "To many this has been a slightly bewildering performance,”
repeating the idea at the end: “Our aim
has been to break down the compartments of period and place into which art
history is too often divided, and if this series has encouraged even a few
people to widen their visual horizons, then it will have achieved its
4. Bruce Chatwin meets André Malraux
One Million Years Of Art has a long and diverse bibliography. To judge by the credits, Chatwin had
outsourced the drafting of the bibliography to a few London-based art book
dealers, and had primarily sought to select works that were either published or
available in England. In other words,
even the bibliography tells us very little about the formation or foundations
of Chatwin's own thinking and views. This
method of relying heavily on written sources widely used in academic art
history is, in fact, not very fruitful in his case. Chatwin’s ideas or views on art were formed
and evolved primarily through private conversations and contacts.
Chatwin makes no mention of André Malraux in the “Postscript,” and in
retrospect it is difficult or impossible to ascertain to what extent André
Malraux’s Le Musée Imaginaire had
influenced Chatwin’s ideas on art and artworks and their contexts, or his ideas
on how the achievements of man could be examined and contextualized in a new
way. Malraux’s first sketches for Le Musée Imaginaire are dated in the
late 1940s, and he subsequently rewrote his ideas on several occasions.
The parallel between Chatwin's picture gallery and Malraux’s museum is
obvious, however. When Bruce Chatwin met
André Malraux for the first time in the early 1970s, the latter was around 70
years old, a nationally and internationally revered French institution, frail
and passionate. His second
meeting with Malraux in 1973 resulted in an enthusiastic and meandering essay. The two men clearly enjoyed each other’s company, two
impatient adventurers who had both been around.
One cannot help noting the temporal proximity of Chatwin’s first meeting
with Malraux and the creation of One
Million Years of Art. Giving some
leeway to thought and imagination, the documentary photographs where Malraux is
working on the pictures of Le Musée
Imaginaire spread out on the floor are very similar to the spreads in
Chatwin's opus: lots of pictures without any art-historical hierarchy under
Malraux’s critical and innovatively contextualising eyes. In the book itself, the pictures are inserted
into the text.
Figure 2. André Malraux selecting images for Le Musée Imaginaire at
Boulogne-sur-Seine in 1947.
Malraux’s Le Musée Imaginaire
is a rich achievement in terms of art history, museology, and image research. The approach to the artistic efforts of
humanity it represents is very different from the habitual one in Chatwin’s
time, either in art history or image research, and it has been controversial
also in later times. No wonder that
Chatwin, who sought and appreciated difference from convention, was excited by
Common features in Malraux’s and Chatwin’s approaches include the notion
that the concept of a work of art is a relative latecomer in Western culture,
as is the fact that works of art (or craft) each have their own distinct
starting points in their status as art. A
work of art has often been a quite functional object in its own time, and
disassociating works from their original contexts and transferring them into an
art museum or into the world of art at large gives them a new, ”different” life,
often dominated by stylistic or formal aspects.
Museums and galleries are the primary creators and arenas of this ”different”
life. The thing highlighted by this
process is the new context that the works acquire, the fact that, detached from
their own original context, they end up or get into dialogue with other works. They do not lose their history, their past,
or their background, but a new layer begins to accumulate in their observation,
a new context constituted by all the other works brought into the same context.
Original artworks themselves, as well as photographs of works and
objects, are all instruments of the formation of Le Musée Imaginaire. They
are specifically instruments, not an end in themselves or an aim. Images of artworks are not artworks, and even
at their technical best they are mostly just information about the existence of
the originals. They are not substitutes
for the original but images that have their own life and contribute to the
formation of Le Musée Imaginaire.
Le Musée Imaginaire and One Million
Years of Art both spread out widely across cultures, geographically as well
as temporally. Another common
denominator between Malraux and Chatwin is that, for them, an original work may
not be necessarily rewarding or significant in itself, but they may re-frame it
to make it interesting, or pick out just a single gesture, expression, or detail. The image collections of both men contain
numerous images of artworks that cannot be moved, such as those integrated with
architecture. The only possibility of bringing
such work or detail into one’s collection is pictorial memory, imagination, the
mind, and its tool the image, the photograph.
In the process of reproduction, the size, dimensions, colors, and so on,
of the work are obviously changed. A
collection of images is not Le Musée
Imaginaire; rather it is constituted by them.
Another idea linking Malraux and Chatwin is that Le Musée Imaginaire is both immaterial and subjective. Being a subjective museum, it has no physical
location. We all have our own museums or collections. Although they contain many classics – things
generally regarded as essential within a culture – they all find their place in
the same context of one’s subjective imagery.
Bruce Chatwin’s collection in One
Million Years of Art can arguably be considered a platform for his personal
Le Musée Imaginaire, for the
presentation of which The Sunday Times
Magazine offered a unique opportunity, that is, a Malrauxian platform
without any mention of André Malraux.
In view of the parallel between Malraux’s and Chatwin’s ideas, it is
logical that where Chatwin’s One Million
Years of Art with its “Postscript” has quickly been forgotten, Malraux’s
concept of Le Musée Imaginaire has
met with a great deal of negative and unjustifiable criticism, perhaps because
of its megalomania and desire to find a Great Solution. On the other hand, the opportunity for
collage thinking and subjective construction offered by both men is very much
in line with contemporary ideas, perspectives from which Jean-François Lyotard,
in particular, has discussed Malraux’s Le
5. Ludwig Goldscheider and Art Without Epoch
André Malraux should not be considered the sole reference for Bruce
Chatwin’s One Million Years of Art. Other cultural and art historians can also be
cited as influences and supporters. Ted
Lucie-Smith, art historian and Chatwin’s friend, once noted that Chatwin’s
thinking on the history of art and objects was influenced not only by Malraux,
but also by Ludwig Goldscheider’s Art
Without Epoch. As an art historian,
Ludwig Goldscheider's interests and publications were exceptional in their
range, and this breadth, coupled with a distaste for any attempts to impose
hierarchies on art and related phenomena, is very much akin to the views of
Chatwin and partly to those of Malraux, as well. They also share the view that the
achievements of so-called folk art and so-called high culture are of equal
value, and that cultural and art history should be thought of and written anew
without drawing any such distinctions. Today,
however, the only reprints of Ludwig Goldscheider’s voluminous production are
of his biography of Michelangelo and his study of Roman portraits. Both books, just as most other writings by
Goldscheider, are published by Phaidon Press, which seems natural, considering
that Goldscheider was one of the founders of the publishing house.
From the viewpoint of artification, Goldscheider is interesting on
account of his distaste for hierarchies and also on account of the attention he
lavished on the reproductions of artworks in his books. To be more precise, he developed his ideas
and views on art by using images, and gave images an opportunity to contribute
to the text. In many of his works,
images are not merely documentary pictures or illustrations but are also one
side of a dialogue. Goldscheider has
just one tense for art and artworks: the
present. Art does not “develop” or ”age.“ It will not go out of its time or fashion, so
to speak. The pinnacle and compilation
of such thinking, in all its humorless, ascetic, and monochrome old-fashionedness,
is his Art Without Epoch. Small wonder that it, too, has disappeared into the
vaults of libraries and the shelves of antiquaries.
Art Without Epoch contains very little text: one-and-one-half pages of a Foreword, five
maxims by Goethe, and scant and matter-of-fact captions. In the Foreword, Goldscheider wrote, "In
reality, the past changes as rapidly as the present, and it is the past as it
appears to us to-day that I have tried to reproduce in this volume." The idea of a rapidly changing past and of art
without epoch was also fascinating to both Malraux and Chatwin. They both shared an interest in impermanence
and continuous movement, an obsession for nomadism, a restless journeying in
both space and time, from Afghanistan to Patagonia, in sojourns among the
paintings of Australian Aborigines, or working as the specialist on
Impressionism at Sotheby's.
Although the images in Goldsheider’s Art
Without Epoch were taken from the ambit of high art or applied art, Bruce
Chatwin saw the Goldscheiderian approach in still broader terms. On one of his trips to Afghanistan, he took a photograph
of an Afghan lorry, later remarking to Ted Lucie-Smith: "The Afghan lorry
is pure Goldscheider." Unlike most
art books of the time, the images in Goldscheider’s Art Without Epoch contain radical cropping and heavy underlining of
detail, almost visual dissection. The
artwork or, perhaps more specifically, the work without the prefix ‘art,’ is
not shown whole and unbroken. Goldscheider
made a case for this in the very first sentence of his Foreword: "The
history of religion has nothing to do with religious experience, and in the
same way the history of art has no connection with artistic experience." The monochromaticism of the images also contributes
to their dissociation from the original and can be seen as a criticism of the
use of color photographs, images where the colors make a mockery of rather than
do justice to the colors of the original.
Figure 3. A spread from Ludwig Goldscheider: Art without epoch. Works of distant times which still appeal to
The layout of Goldscheider’s book has its high points. Perhaps the most unexpected, yet also most
rewarding comment is the presentation of the same sculpture, the Gero-Kreuz from Cologne, in two pictures
from two different angles. In one image,
the photographer has captured the subject frontally, emphasizing the expressive,
emotionally evocative nature of the tenth-century picture of a suffering Christ. In the other picture, on the same spread, the
image is shown in profile: the expression is calm, placid, ascetic, and restful. A picture is always a tool, an instrument. Every individual work has many faces, not to
mention the entire history of art and object culture.
6. Frank J.
Roos, Jr. and An Illustrated Handbook of Art History
The third writer who contributed to the formation of One Million Years of Art was Frank J. Roos, Jr., who is currently in the margins of
art history. In this age of Google
Images, Roos’s An Illustrated Handbook of
Art History may seem completely outmoded: just over 300 pages, with six to
eight pictures on every page, and more than 2000 works of drawings, paintings,
architecture, sculptures, and object culture.
The book is arranged chronologically and geographically, beginning with
Stonehenge; the latest works are from around the time when the book was
published. The flood of images is
irresistible: spread after spread of landmarks of world art in small, more or
less severely framed black-and-white images.
Works are presented without explanation, interpretation, or contemporary
contextualization. The pictures only
have themselves and, as a nod to education, minimal information on period,
title, and year, in approximately the same way as in Chatwin’s later One Million Years. The first edition was published in 1937; the
second, augmented edition some fifteen years later.
Figure 4. A spread from Frank J. Roos, Jr.: An illustrated
handbook of art history.
In his short Preface, Roos wrote that the book was intended to respond
to practical demand and need, and for everyday use in the classroom. "The aim of this Handbook is to put in
the hands of students useful illustrations of as many works of art, together
with reference charts, as can be encompassed in the covers of a book selling
for a comparatively low price."
In his biography of Chatwin, Nicholas Shakespeare wrote that the art
director of The Sunday Times Magazine
had Roos’s book on his bookshelf, and that the art director, together with the
editor-in-chief, developed an idea for a kind of clear visual series or
guidebook that would allow readers to learn about the masterpieces of art from
the Renaissance onwards. But when Bruce
Chatwin was appointed editor of the series, "This is not what he
got." Chatwin wanted to do more, and as Shakespeare notes: "In the
event, Bruce seized the project as an opportunity to make a manifesto. 'One Million Years of Art' was a display case
for his own taste, uniting the collector of curiosities, the Sotheby’s expert,
Shakespeare put Chatwin’s identities of that time in a nutshell: admirer and collector of curiosities, an art
dealer expert educated at Sotheby’s, and a journalist in search of exceptional
perspective and new narratives. It is
easy to concur with Shakespeare’s notion that the series was "a display
case for his own taste." But it was
also more than that; it was a manifesto.
And calling it a completely new kind of pictorial art-philosophical manifesto
would not be an exaggeration, either. Chatwin
took up where Roos had left off.
7. Google Images contextualizes images for you
A few years ago, one of the questions in the Finnish high school
matriculation examination’s life-stance education section was: "Can or should art increase happiness? Can we imagine good art that would make people
less happy? Make use of your studies in
artistic subjects." As background
material, the question included three images of artworks, one of which was
Pablo Picasso’s Guernica from 1937, or
that at least had been the intention. The
estimable writers of the matriculation examination had browsed Google Images
and made a mistake. Instead of Picasso's
original painting they selected for Guernica
an image where a couple of the figures are wearing American basketball team
jerseys: one is wearing a cap, and the
hand on the ground is not gripping a broken sword, as in the original, but an
Figure 5. Aubernica (http://www.flickr.com/photos/ideateller/1849597/) (1 May
Strictly speaking this was a mistake, but can the Matriculation
Examination Board really be blamed? The unwitting mistake of the Board only
reproduced the manner in which any Google user searches for and selects images,
on the basis of visual memory, ideas, or notions of the work.
Figure 6. One page of hits for the search term “Guernica” at
Google Images (13 April 2011).
The number of copies, new creations, reproductions, and photoshopped or
otherwise manipulated images in Google Images outstrips any art or picture
books or image repositories in Malraux's or Chatwin's day. Along with this mass of images that vary in
color and size or are otherwise manipulated, the Benjaminian auraticity of the
original work of art has, in Google Images, dimmed into uselessness. The idea
or awareness of the nature or even existence of the original work has become
distant and been overwhelmed by pictures cloned in all sorts of ways. The endlessly generative Google Images
trivializes the notion of the work of art, which loses the factual coordinates
of its historical place and time. The primary
information provided by Google Images concerning the works does not comprise
artist, year of completion, medium, and so on, but the name of the file, its
URL, resolution, and file size. Unlike
in Malraux’s and Chatwin’s day, contemporary users of images conduct their
explorations, museum visits, or archaeological excavations mainly in the depths
of the Internet.
Even as a mistake, the choice of the Matriculation Examination Board,
facilitated by Google Images, is an example of the redefinition and contextualization
of images and works of art, whose earlier practitioners were André Malraux and
Bruce Chatwin. Yet the process is not
quite the same. One difference is that,
as a supplier of images, Google Images is anonymous and aleatoric, whereas the
compilations of Malraux and Chatwin, as well as those of Goldscheider and Roos
Jr., had authors and thereby a certain status, ideology, vision, and ”credibility.”
It is difficult to imagine that a
basketball Guernica would have made
its way to their compilations, even as a mistake.
Google Images is just one example, albeit the most prominent, of how,
facilitated by new technology, our awareness of original works of art and our
relationship to their contexts and to art in general is changing rapidly and
deeply. Of course, neither Malraux nor
Chatwin could have foreseen what future forms the recontextualization and
rethinking of the art world undertaken and facilitated by them would take. Depending on one’s values and perspective,
one can point the accusing finger at them or, alternatively, regard them as
pioneers of the current,free use of images and pictorial association.
8. The (new) contexts of artification
Artification is still a fairly new tool. Consequently, attempts to define and describe
it usually take the form of outlining its boundaries and overlap with existing
concepts and their cultural contexts. For
The neologism artification refers to situations and
processes in which something that is not regarded as art in the traditional
sense of the word is changed into art or into something art-like. This process may result in changes on the
conceptual-linguistic, institutional, and art-practice level within a society. The primary goal of the project is to
identify how artification affects art on each of these three levels.
The above passage seeks to define artification by contrasting it with
art and existing artspeak. Therefore, it
is unavoidable that the term ‘artification,’ although a neologism, carries a
great deal of baggage from old thinking and values. Artification is defined through negation; it
is a process “in which something that is not
regarded as art in the traditional sense of the word is changed into art or into something art-like.” The thing to do with such an approach is to
deconstruct, once again, what art really is in the traditional sense of the
Any account of artification that confines itself exclusively to finding
and analyzing individual examples of artification cannot penetrate very far. Investigation and deconstruction must be
extended to include also those structures, systems, conventions, and contexts
whereby art and artworks are most obviously defined. One key question here is whether artification
is primarily an active or passive process.
An active account of artification sees it as deliberately seeking to
employ art-like means, as a result of which artification-speak will
characterize artification as proactive. This,
in turn, smuggles in traditional artspeak and conventions, and thereby also
such ideas as the creative individual, the active agent, the author and
authorship, and maybe even the Artificator.
Artification is perceived as a conscious act, an adoption of art-like
means and their application in another context.
Passive artification, on the other hand, has no specific goal or agenda;
it is something which merely happens, is observed, discovered, or found. It is something one stumbles upon by accident
and, of course, it can exist without having been named ‘artification.’ Naming calls for knowledge of art and a
familiarity with art-like methods.
Among the art historians discussed above, Frank J. Roos, Jr. offered traditional material but in
a new visual form. Ludwig Goldscheider
wanted to avoid the concept of time by addressing the past and present
simultaneously and in superimposition. André
Malraux’s Le Musée Imaginaire was
constructed of all the works and images of our experience on a meta-level,
unlike any previous art history before him.
The difference between Bruce Chatwin’s One Million Years of Art and traditional art history boils down to
one crucial factor. It is a factor that makes
any comparison between conventional art writing and Chatwin’s series, if not
futile, at least an endeavor requiring a great deal of new visual research. One Million Years of Art is written in
images. Images are the predominant
material in the series; the textual facts provide mere coordinates, not unlike
the lines of latitude and longitude on a map.
In traditional art-historical discourse, the text speaks and the images
and the works of art remain in the background, while constituting the starting
points and the topic of the text. In One Million Years of Art, Chatwin gave
visual thinking, exploration, and pictorial traveling an opportunity to become
a noteworthy mode of appreciation. If we
also wish to consider him an artificator, the spreads in One Million Years can be seen as mood boards for a new art history,
visual design concepts with which to mold the pictorial material at will to
create personal compositions, stories, and associations. Authorities and classics remain, but they are
no longer on a pedestal. They are just
works or actions among other works or actions.
The essential characteristic of One
Million Years of Art is collage, which is also its weakness. Without the support of a gloss of words,
analyses, and explanations, can a series of pictures become a mosaic and source
of associations that are interesting and rewarding to the reader? Do images always require a verbal set of
instructions? Is value leadership still needed in art? If one wants to be rid
of conventions, what can one do?
Perhaps Chatwin’s eye specialist, mentioned in the
beginning of the essay, was wiser and more far-sighted than one might think
‘You’ve been looking too closely at pictures,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you swap them for some long horizons?’
‘Why not?’ I said.
‘Where would you like to go?'
The doctor did not prescribe spectacles, eye washes, or resting the eyes
in the dark. He told Chatwin to travel:
“‘Where would you like to go?’" He prescribed a change of scenery, new
vistas, new experiences. And so Chatwin
traveled, first to Sudan, and later to many other countries and cultures. Traveling gave him surprises, a sense of
freedom, experiences, spontaneity, a sense of living in the here and now. Art-like things were experienced without the
presence of art as such.
Chatwin is known better for his travel books than for his art writings. It is therefore tempting, from an
artification perspective, to consider his art-related activities and writings
as a form of traveling, a trajectory through places and times, surrounded by
art, objects, and visual culture. In his
travel books and articles, Chatwin appears as an educated tourist, a vagabond
who, armed with a Moleskine notebook, is ready to let himself be carried away
by events. If the reporting of these
experiences demanded invented dialogues or fictitious characters, that was the
price for storytelling and vivid journalism.
Chatwin’s travel books have, in fact, attracted much criticism precisely
because of the way he invented things, serving up a blend of fact and fiction
as documentary. Chatwin did not want to
write a certain category of travel literature, however; he was primarily just
writing literature. He wanted to write
differently, to break the genre. His travel
books and stories are, like One Million
Years of Art, compilations and collages.
Chatwin did not have any formal education in art or object culture
except for a couple of years of archaeology at the University of Edinburgh. He was an eager amateur. Nicholas Shakespeare puts Chatwin’s attitude
towards archaeology in a nutshell: “Bruce had an Indiana Jones notion of
archaeology,” and goes on to quote Chatwin’s own characterization: “I saw
myself as an archaeological explorer.” Chatwin’s ideals in archaeology were not
the classics and academics of the discipline but the likes of André Malraux and
Alexander Dumas, nor was his identity as a writer or author that of a
learned art historian, researcher, or critic.
But that did not stop him from addressing art and culture in his work,
no more than it has stopped anyone else.
Perhaps the power and future of artification lies with amateurs and
Yrjänä Levanto received his PhD from Helsinki
University. He is currently Professor of
Art history at Aalto University School of Art and Design (formerly University of Art
and Design, Helsinki),
where he has held various positions since 1977.
Published on April 5, 2012.
 Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines (London: Jonathan
Cape, 1987), pp. 16-17.
 Most of the general biographic and similar facts about
Bruce Chatwin for this article were taken from two biographies: Susannah Clapp,
With Chatwin. Portrait of a Writer (London: Vintage, 1997) and Nicholas
Shakespeare, Bruce Chatwin. A Biography (New York: The Harvill Press,
1999). I have also made use of a third biography: Nicholas Murray, Bruce Chatwin (Bridgend:
Bruce Chatwin, "I always
wanted to go to Patagonia. The making of a
writer,” in Bruce Chatwin, Anatomy of
Restlessness. Selected Writings 1969-1989 (London: Penguin Books, 1996),
Chatwin, 1996, p. 11.
The complete title of the series
on the opening page is One Million Years Of Art. From pre-history to the
late 20th century — a survey of man's creative genius. The illustrated
supplements were published between 24 June and 26 August 1973. Chatwin wrote a postscript to the last issue
on 26 August. See Bruce Chatwin, "Postscript
to A Thousand Pictures,” The Sunday
Times Magazine (26 Aug. 1973), 48-51.
A new edition of
Chatwin’s One Million Years of Art still awaits its publisher. The task
should not be too difficult, for the technical quality of the images was not a
primary concern in the original, and Chatwin's own Postscript would still give
sufficient background to the series.
The colophon on the opening page
states: “Edited by Bruce Chatwin.
Research: Celestine Dars. Consultant: Edward Lucie-Smith.”
Chatwin, 1973, pp. 48-51. On the
basis of One Million Years of Art alone, Chatwin could be considered a
representative of the British school of art history and art philosophy, with
its strict adherence to formalism. In
Chatwin’s case, however, it is advisable not to draw hasty conclusions or to
oversimplify matters. In her biography of Chatwin, Susannah Clapp notes:
Chatwin liked clear outlines, plain
surfaces and unexpected bursts of color.” But she adds: “A clutch of the
postcards he sent [...] shows a taste for surprises, for stories, and for a
graceful line. (Clapp, p. 91.)
The fascination with formal clarity noted by
Clapp, on the one hand, and the predilection for surprises and emotion, on the
other, recurs in Chatwin’s case over and over again. See especially Clapp (pp.
91–138) for Clapp’s discussion of Chatwin’s way of appraising and selecting
objects. The same duality is apparent also in the photographs taken by Chatwin
on his journeys. The pictures are usually quite tightly framed, their subjects
either ascetic in their simplicity, or dramatic with a hint of decadence and
romanticism. See Winding Paths.
Photographs by Bruce Chatwin. Introduction by Roberto Calasso (London:
Jonathan Cape, 1999).
André Malraux, Le Musée
Imaginaire (Paris: Gallimard, 1965).
Shakespeare, pp. 293-296.
The article was published in June
1974. Nicholas Shakespeare notes that at this point Chatwin’s interest in
journalism was already waning. Yet the article published in What Am I Doing Here is quintessentially
Chatwin: enthusiastic, rich, almost flamboyant. Bruce Chatwin, "André Malraux," in Bruce
Chatwin, What Am I Doing Here (London: Vintage Books, 1998), pp.
Chatwin’s biographers do not seem
to get much from these encounters. This is a typical situation in Chatwin's
case; he is apparently quite difficult to fathom. Hence the clear difference
between the biographies.
André Malraux has received a lot
of attention from art historians. For instance, Ernst Gombrich wrote an
extensive review of his Les Voix du
silence in The Burlington Magazine
in 1954. Republished in E. H. Gombrich, Meditations on a Hobby Horse and
other Essays on the Theory of Art (Oxford: Phaidon,1963), pp. 78-85.
The relationship between
Malraux’s Le Musée Imaginaire and
museum collections and museum architecture in general has most notably been
discussed by Rosalind E. Krauss in her essay "Postmodernism’s museum without wall." First published in Cahiers du Musée Nationale d’Art Moderne,
17/18 (1986), 152-158.
See Jean-François Lyotard, Signé
Malraux (Paris: Grasset, 1996) and Jean-François Lyotard, Soundproof
Room. Malraux's anti-aesthetics (Stanford: Stanford University Press,
2001). And also Jean-Pierre Zarader, Malraux ou la pensée de l'art
(Paris: Ellipses, 1998).
Ludwig Goldscheider, Michelangelo.
Paintings, Sculpture, Architecture (London: Phaidon Press, 1996), Roman
Phaidon Press, 2004).
Ludwig Goldscheider, Art without Epoch. Works of Distant Times
Which Still Appeal to Modern Taste (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd,
Goldscheider, 1937, Foreword.
Shakespeare, p. 283.
Goldscheider, 1937, Foreword.
Goldscheider, 1937, pp. 49-50.
Frank J. Roos, Jr., An
Illustrated Handbook of Art History (New
York: The Macmillan Company, 1937, 2nd ed. 1954), p.
Shakespeare, p. 283.
In terms of the big lines of the
historiography of art history, Malraux’s Le
Musée Imaginaire and therefore also Chatwin’s One Million Years of Art along with the works of Goldscheider and Roos
Jr., can all be placed within a tradition and an endeavour that has been called
Kunstgeschichte ohne Namen. Although
the concept is often attributed to Heinrich Wölfflin, even he acknowledged that
it was already “in the air” at the beginning of the 1900s. Auguste Comte had earlier toyed with the idea
of an art history that did not draw attention to the artists, an art history
without proper names, even without the names of nations. Friedrich Schlegel,
too, had remarked in the early nineteenth century that the contribution of
individuals to art history is contingent; what is essential is style, which
will always find its actualizers. See Heinrich Wölfflin, Kunstgeschichtliche
Grundbegriffe. Das Problem der Stilentwicklung in der neueren Kunst (München: F. Bruckmann, 1915), p. vii.
On the concept of Kunstgeschichte ohne Namen, see Germain Bazin, Histoire de
l’Histoire de l’Art (Paris: Albin Michel, 1986), pp. 176-179. For an interesting account from the
perspective of artification, see Arnold Hauser’s discussion of the problem of Kunstgeschichte ohne Namen, in Arnold
Hauser, "The Philosophical
Implications of Art History: 'Art History without Names,'"
in Arnold Hauser, The Philosophy of Art History (United States,
Evanston: Northwestern University Press Evanston, 1985), pp. 117-276.
This version of the painting goes
by the name of Aubernica. It depicts
a brawl that developed into a riot in a basketball match between the Indiana
Pacers and Detroit Pistons in 2004.
Here, artification has links to
the camp attitude and to the appreciation of kitsch. See above all Susan Sontag, "Notes
on Camp," Partisan Review,
31:4, Fall 1964, 515-30, and Thomas Kulka, Kitsch and Art
(University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania University Press, 1996). Kulka had
already published his ideas on kitsch in the British Journal of Aesthetics 28 (Winter 1988), 18-27.
In the early 1970s there was a
growing interest towards presenting visual culture in new ways, and towards the
contextualisation and reading of images. One particularly prominent example was
Ways of Seeing, a BBC television
series and eponymous book by John Berger. See John Berger, Ways of Seeing (Great Britain: BBC and Penguin Books Ltd., 1972).
The structure of the book was unusual. The
seven essays could be read in any order; four of them contained both text and
pictures; three contained only pictures. Like Chatwin’s One Million Years, it offered, besides traditional classics of art,
examples of popular culture, both contemporary and historical.
Shakespeare, p. 202.
From the perspective of
artification, Chatwin offers the possibility of using other approaches than the
one based on One Million Years of Art. For example, the way he stopped
to describe interiors and objects, especially in the novels On the Black
Hill and Utz, and references the descriptive conventions of art
history and the minutely detailed classification of objects at Sotheby’s.
Chatwin’s dandyism would offer a prime opportunity, for example, to try
to replace Constantin Guys, the protagonist of Charles Baudelaire's essay Le
Peintre de la Vie Moderne, with Bruce Chatwin and see whether Chatwin might
be a Baudelairean twentieth-century dandy of modern life and a nomad: artification as lifestyle. Everyone writing about Chatwin remembers to
mention at least the following: Moleskine as the only possible notebook; the
Mont Blanc fountain pen; the handmade brown leather rucksack, the same kind as
that of the French actor Jean-Louis Barrault; boots from the Russell Moccasin
Company; and, if anecdotes are to be trusted, always a tin of sardines and half
a bottle of Krug, should the occasion arise.