André Malraux, a man of Paris and the world

André Malraux, a man of Paris and the world.

Paris-born André Malraux was a novelist, art theorist, and France’s first Minister of Cultural Affairs in the 1960s. He was also described as France’s ‘man of the world’ and ‘ambassador of the world.’ It was said that he was a man of action and a man of literature. 

Georges André Malraux (1901-1976) travelled extensively. He tried to find what was once lost. He wrote of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat ‘lost-city’ ruins and tourist site when Cambodia was a French Protectorate, criticizing the colonial authorities there. He also searched Yemen and Saudi Arabia for the lost city of the Queen of Sheba, and he wrote of the Silk Route across Central Asia.

He had wide interactions with public figures during his time as French Minister of Cultural Affairs. He conversed with the Chinese communist revolutionary Chairman Mao Zedong, and the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, as well as other leaders such as French statesman Charles de Gaulle, the first Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru, the first female Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi, and American President John F. Kennedy. And writers and artists too, from Ernest Hemingway to Leon Trotsky, Marc Chagall, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Satre, Albert Camus, Bertolt Brecht, and Pablo Picasso.

What is often forgotten, is that, at home in Paris, he championed a campaign to clean the blackened, polluted building facades to reinvigorate and refresh the capital. 

In 1959 in France, home-owners were required, by law, to clean their sandstone buildings regularly to revive the facades and to spare them from demolition. Vehicle exhaust fumes and other pollutants had formed black crusts on the buildings. Even the British government adopted the idea in the 1960s to clean-up London buildings. Unfortunately, in both Paris and London, the cheaper efforts to clean the buildings often damaged them. As individual home-owners cleaned their buildings at different times using different methods, the previous uniformity of the Parisian buildings was beginning to look patchy and an eyesore on the landscape. 

Nevertheless, the campaign led to an awareness of air pollution and heritage preservation. Now, as in many cities, restoration and cleaning requires government permission for heritage-listed buildings. 

André Malraux established the Malraux Law to safeguard sectors of Paris, initially for Marais in the 3rd and 4th arrondissements. The law prohibited the demolition of buildings and promoted the provision of incentives to home-owners to renovate the buildings to their original form. The law was important because it was not the intention to protect individual buildings, but to protect whole sectors and districts in order to retain the ambience of urban communities. 

Malraux had his share of tragedy too. His father suicided; his brothers died in the Second World War; his second wife Josette died while slipping as she boarded a train in 1944 at the age of 34; and his two sons died in a car accident in 1961. Malraux though, lived to be 75 years of age. In 1996, on the twentieth anniversary of his death, his ashes were entombed in the Paris Panthéon. 

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