Picasso's Mask: Discussion Questions

Exploratory Questions

  • What is art's purpose?
  • What makes something art?
  • What are creativity, imagination, and artistic creation? Are they the same thing?
  • What distinguished the modern world and its view of art?
  • Can art have a sacred component? Are artists "divine" in any sense?
  • Can art give meaning in and of itself?
  • Why would some see art as a substitute for religion?
  • What do you think Malraux would make of the Internet?

First Day's Reading (Chapters I - II)

  1. How does Malraux describe Picasso's war with nature, the unknown, indeed, with "everything"? (11, 31, 61, 65) What does Picasso mean by the "rape of nature"? (17, 55)
  2. Likewise, how does he describe Picasso's antagonism, irony, and mockery? (68)
  3. What is Picasso trying to accomplish with his imitations/dialogue/mockery of other painting and other forms? (28, 45-47)
  4. Why does Malraux include the scene of the young "hippie" ideologues at the exhibit? (80ff.)
  5. Describe Picasso's studio. How would you characterize it? (chap. 1, 102)
  6. Why does Malraux argue that Picasso's personal collection should not be divided?
  7. How does he describe the nature of Picasso's sculpture? (e.g. 26) How do you respond to the photographs of them?
  8. Why does Picasso have a problem with a continuity of style? (18-19)
  9. Harold Bloom calls the phenomena of an author who needs to deny his or her connections to past authors "the anxiety of influence." How is this present in art? (35)
  10. Why does Malraux compare Rembrandt to Picasso? (86-88) Is it a convincing comparison?
  11. What is the search for the mask? (68-70, 96ff.) Why is it important?
  12. What is the relation between death and Picasso's questioning? (28, 41, 63, 78)
  13. Why does Picasso represent a spiritually void time period? (33, 98-100) Do you agree?
  14. What is the power of artistic creation? (60, 62, 75) Do you agree?

Second Day's Reading (Chapters IV, VI, VIII)

Chapter 4

  1. Contrast Picasso's work on page 105 with that on pages 108-109.
  2. Why does he believe that works should force us to not trust the world? (110-111)
  3. How does Malraux develop the concept of the Museum Without Walls with Picasso? (113ff, 133-135, 161, 175ff.)
  4. How does Picasso respond to art he encounters? (112-113, 126)
  5. Why describe his work and ability as that of sorcery? (75, 126-128)
  6. What is the significance of the story of Bernedette? (130-132)
  7. How is Picasso's self-reflection present in his painting?
  8. Explain the theory of the Little Man (141-144). Do you agree?

Chapter 5 Summary

In chapter 5, Malraux begins describing his visit to an actual Museum Without Walls exhibit. He compares and contrasts the art of Marc Chagall and Picasso, as well as that of Picasso and Goya. He argues that horror in art is not the same thing as ugliness. He then details his responses to stained glass, which he laments its loss of popularity because of the use of light; Romanesque which he sees as the most Christian of art in its form and faces; pre-Columbian art with its deep mystery and obsession with death; Hopi Kaachins, which he reflects on in an almost sentimental way, African art and how it forced the West to recognize a different set of standards and forms; and Oceanic art, which he insists on separating in color and texture from African art. He ends the chapter by reflecting that each art culture reflects the worldview of its culture, yet he sees these as all illusions or myths that seek to cover over the ontological nothingness, and he again observes that modern Western art has no spiritual vision to offer.

Chapter 6

  1. Why does Malraux dream of an imageless world? (185)
  2. How does he compare and contrast Christian and Buddhist sculpture? (188ff.)
  3. What does he see as the potential negatives of metamorphosis? (192-196)
  4. How does he conceive of Takanobu's Portrait of Taira no Shigemori as a challenge to Western art? (197ff.)
  5. What are other ways that he contrasts Western and Eastern art?

Chapter 7 Summary

Chapter 7 is primarily Malraux's speech that he made that night after the exhibition. He makes the Museum Without Walls problematic, though he ultimately values it for its time. He points out that Western art is concerned with painting as composition and not as subject matter. The nature of modern technology has made the art world all-inclusive in its study and absorption of other times and cultures, and this factor has replaced God and the religious. Yet, he contends, that this has not jettisoned beauty, vision, nature, expression, and artistic distinction, though it has altered them greatly. All styles are part of metamorphosis and struggle with death. The Byzantine period supernaturalized art; the Renaissance divinized beauty; Romanticism in Goya showed that the world still had mystery at its core, while the late 19th century moved from the question of whether the art object is beautiful to whether it is good. Realism and primitivism both prepared the way for the modern art world in which the sacred was lost since with the loss of beauty comes a loss of immortality. Instead the modern art world looks to the power to create as the power for survival, for metamorphosis releases it from time and eternity. The Museum Without Walls is "not a tradition; it is an adventure" (234). Still, artists always acknowledge the mystery of their creativity, even if the current art world follows the waning of the "superworlds" of religion. It has replaced the sacred with plurality, though even the Museum Without Walls is not eternal.


Chapter 8
  1. Why does Malraux see Don Quixote as emblematic of the modern era? (241)
  2. How does he begin to tie Picasso back into the book's narrative? Is he successful?
  3. What does the theme of tombs invoke? (245ff.)
  4. How has the definition of masterpieces changed?
  5. Why do many artworks die? (250)
  6. Why does Malraux toy with the idea of people bringing flowers to the modern museum as they have to temples?
  7. Why is metamorphosis more with the gods than with death?
  8. Why is Picasso the anti-Takanobu? (257-259)
  9. Why do painters follow their angels or their demons?
  10. Why does Malraux want to suggest that modern art, despite its obsession with power, is like the mysticism of the prophetic? (260-261)
  11. How does art act heroically in the face of death?
  12. Why does he invoke Van Gogh, Braque, and Picasso at the end?



"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding